Military power is meant to avoid war and not to perpetuate it. A military strategist would want to win a war without firing a single shot. Military capability is built to deter the adversary from any misadventure, and simultaneously impose your political will on your adversary. It is significant to note that after the Parliament attack in December 2001, the decision to line up large number of forces along the border (Operation Parakram) to demonstrate political will, resulted in over 700 casualties and huge losses of equipment. The bold decision of the present political leadership to strike Balakot terrorist camp in Pakistan was indeed a paradigm shift from the previous policy of restraint. Through the use of air power, in 30 minutes, the leadership achieved what could not be achieved in seven months after the Parliament attack with Operation Parakram and that too without any loss of man or machine. Such is the effect of air power.

In any future conflict, it must be air power that would play a leading role. The effectiveness, long reach, precision weapon delivery at stand off ranges, in a dense air defence environment gives air power credible deterrence capability. More importantly, the considered political objective of any country could be achieved through the optimal use of air power. The air strikes at the Balakot terrorist training camp last February is a classic example of air power being utilized to achieve a political objective.

The importance of air power cannot be understated given the fact that 70% of capital defence expenditure in the last fiscal was earmarked for air assets for all three services. This trend is likely to continue in the future.

Considering the above, a strong case can be made to have a robust IAF to achieve credible deterrence capability for India.

However, it must be noted that the force level of 42 fighter squadrons needed to meet a two-front threat would dwindle down to half by 2030. This would imply that your operational capability would drastically reduce as also your deterrence assets.

It is therefore necessary that we urgently replace the retiring fighter squadrons in a very short period of time. Aircraft cannot be purchased off-the-shelf . The procurement process is time consuming and is difficult to compress. The manufacturing process involves integrating numerous parts and expensive raw material which is not held in bulk. As a consequence, the decision making time at the political level has to be reduced, to maintain the required combat potential of the air force.

The decision of the government to go for direct purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft, in a period of 36 months, is indeed path breaking. The first aircraft will be accepted soon by the IAF in France.

The induction of the Rafale will not only arrest the slide in the operational capability of the air force but will significantly enhance it. The decision to procure the aircraft was required as an urgent operational necessity.

Rafale is a French-designed twin-engine, delta wing, omnirole fighter aircraft. The technology is state-of-the-art technology 4+ generation. The aircraft can be used for numerous roles including Air dominance, interdiction, aerial recce, precision long-range strikes including in the maritime environment. 4+ generation technology would imply the aircraft would possess the latest sensors, weapons, avionics, high survivability, electronic counter measures, among other capabilities. For instance, it boasts of an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, which has long- range detection capability of multiple targets. Combined with the Meteor beyond visual range (150 km) air-to-air missile, it can engage targets at very long ranges.

The Scalp cruise missile with a range of more than 300 km with sub-meter accuracy ensures considerable tactical/ operational advantage. Combined with an airborne early warning system, the aircraft can shoot hostile targets deep into enemy territory without being detected. Importantly, the system is capable of superior network centric operations.

The bottom line is that the induction of the Rafale along with its array of weapons would enhance the operational capability of the air force manifold. It will also offset the reduction of fighter squadrons. It is necessary to understand that the Rafale with its 9 ton load carrying capacity and range of 2,500 km will carry nine times more load than a MiG-21 and an operational range which is ten times more.

However, the vital issue that needs to be addressed is would 36 aircraft be sufficient? The answer is negative. The original requirement projected by the air force was for 126 aircraft. This would at best be a stop-gap arrangement. Perhaps another 36 Rafale jets could be inducted.

A fleet of 72 aircraft would be a substantial capability. The maintenance support equipment is being procured for 36 aircraft (2 Sqns), to operate from two bases. Having participated in the induction of the Mirage 2000, I can state with a high level of assurance that four squadrons can operate from two bases. This would reduce the quantities of expensive maintenance equipment and make the total cost more competitive. This would also reduce the multiplicity of different types of systems, increasing the overall operational efficiency. It is also for consideration that an RFI (Request For Information) has been issued by the IAF recently for 112 aircraft. This proposal would probably fructify, by conservative estimates, beyond 6 to 8 years. The same lends credence for going for an additional 36 Rafale aircraft, in the interim. Perhaps another 4 to 5 Sqns of the F-35 with 4 squadrons of Rafale and 14 squadrons of SU-30 and sufficient LCA MK II would ensure the requisite capability of the air force over the next twenty years.

The induction of the Rafale would meet the urgent operational requirements of the IAF. In addition, it would also give a substantial boost to its combat potential and value add to overall military deterrence to avoid any future conflict.

The author is an Air Marshal (Retd) and former chief of western and southern Air Commands

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