The Rafale smacks of the intangible “newness” of being a truly contemporary airplane built for today’s missions. Conversely, it suffers none of the reputational hazards of being an old souped up platform with tinkering under the bonnet. Pitched as an “omnirole” fighter, the IAF has incrementally been convinced of what this term really means. Pitched as a logical next-step to the Mirage — which the IAF loves with a passion — the people at Dassault have managed to pitch well the idea that operating the Rafale will be a progression of the same ownership/operation experience. The pitch that IAF pilots will take to the Rafale more easily than any of the other fighters is something that has managed to be persuasive to an extent. While the Thales RBE2 AESA radar is still its final developmental phase, the IAF has been provided with regular and detailed updates on the radar’s capabilities and performance parameters, and one officer, who has been part of the teams that receive these updates on a regular basis, says the IAF had no reason to doubt the laid down capabilities, and was in fact deeply impressed with what the French had managed to achieve in what is a science simply dominated by two American firms. Not just that, Dassault says the Rafale is the only aircraft in its class to be equipped with active arrays for both its radar and electronic warfare suite (EWS). IAF officers have in fact regularly been invited to witness RBE2 prototypes being tested on the Hack — a Mirage-2000 test bed for the radar since 2003. In April 2008, the Rafale opened its operational account by being deployed to Afghanistan and being flown on 220 active combat missions, involving 730 flight hours. This may be peanuts compared to the operational logs of the Rafale’s competition in the MMRCA, but the IAF recognises that this is a new aircraft in a transitory phase of tranche-level modernisation. At Red Flag 2008, IAF pilots got up close with the Rafale. A report on the Rafale was in fact informally submitted to Vayu Bhawan by the team when it returned. TheIAF has been given detailed presentations on the Rafale’s multi-sensor data fusion system — the RBE2 radar, Link 16 data bus, Front Sector Optronic (FSO) and SPECTRA self-defense suite and has been impressed by the ensemble. The Rafale is also considered by the IAF to be possibly the only plane in the sweepstakes with a focused use of composites for stealth and reduced RCS. The Rafale will also come with new, high-capability variants of MBDA missiles that the IAF has operated for decades, and places a lot of value on. Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, as FOC-in-C Western Naval Command, flew the Rafale during an official visit to Paris. A few other senior officers of the IAF have also had a chance to spin up in the otherwise reclusive Rafale. The sense that Dassault isn’t displaying its wares like the other five contenders are, is something that has somehow been looked at as “proper” by some in the Defence Ministry. This is, after all, a serious defence procurement, some say — “there’s no need for so much song and dance at Aero India every year”. The Rafale is the only aircraft in the sweepstakes that comes with an explicitly stated nuclear delivery capability. None of the others mentioned it. And the reason I mention this is that some very senior officers in the air force, are wondering why. The Rafale is also among the least familiar of the six jets, at least in the Indian media, simply because Dassault has stayed well away from courting publicity — this is also looked upon by the IAF/MoD as being representative of a deeper, more valuable quality during a procurement process: discretion. Finally, defence deals with France have always been expensive, but always been excellent professional and operational experiences for the Indian forces. From the Mirages to Alouettes to the Mysteres. No spares problems. No nonsense. The French could also leverage significant political power to push India as the prestigious launch customer of the Rafale, though not quite like the Jaguar’s initial years were. A maximum 11 Gs in critical manoeuvers doesn’t hurt either.
The albatross around the Rafale remains its relatively unproven stature, and of course, the fact that it hasn’t ever been exported. As one of the most expensive (flyaway cost) aircraft in the sweepstakes, it also comes with possibly the largest price-tag in terms of total contract cost, though Dassault has made strenuous efforts to convey to the IAF that its use of Dassault aircraft over time, particularly the Mirage, will significantly erode the total commitment necessary in terms of new infrastructure. Obviously, the IAF isn’t buying this — they’re treating the Rafale as any new aircraft type. There are almost no articulated weaknesses in specifications, though the IAF is anxious about an aircraft that has been fielded for a lot of competitions unsuccessfully. Finally, the government has recently awarded France with the huge Scorpene deal. Awarding the MMRCA to France would be politically too much for too little. The leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t half do what Jacques Chirac’s did in its time.
Top Photo Copyright US Navy
Other Photos Copyright Dassault Aviation
Last Photo by Shiv Aroor
Tomorrow: Part 5 – The American Turbo Bug