India’s 2016 deal for 36 Rafale jets has been a hot political football in the run-up to the country’s 2019 national election, an unsparing campaign led by opposition Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi. A near uninterrupted media spotlight on the political slugfest got a two week breather after a Jaish-e-Muhammad terror strike on February 14 in south Jammu & Kashmir’s Pulwama area, in which over 40 security personnel were killed, sparking a fresh cycle of action that has spiralled in perhaps the biggest security story in the world today. On February 26, Indian Mirage 2000 fighter jets conducted the country’s first ever peacetime strikes on terror targets on Pakistani territory (Balakot), an action that was followed by an also unprecedented aerial combat confrontation between jets from both sides. The clash in the air resulted in an Indian Air Force MiG-21 being shot down, a claimed Pakistan Air Force F-16 being shot down, and the pilot of the MiG-21 being captured in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, only to be released two days later under diplomatic and international pressure.
On Saturday, however, that breather came quickly to an end.
At the Indian Today Conclave 2019 a prestigious annual event that was held this year under the theme ‘Hard Choices’, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the Rafale jet — one of the rare occasions he has mentioned the aircraft — to suggest that if the the Indian Air Force had Rafale jets today, the outcome of the February 27 air confrontation may have been different.
Now, it must be said that very little has been officially revealed about the contours and complexion of the February 26 air strikes and February 27 aerial clash, with both actions buffeted relentlessly by claims, counter-claims and leaks from both sides. But with both — the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and PM Narendra Modi — making specific claims yesterday, it’s a good time to put both suggestions to the test.
Following Modi’s suggestion that the ‘outcome’ of the February 27 aerial face-off would have been different if IAF were flying Rafales instead of MiG-21s, Gandhi said:
Have you no shame at all?
YOU stole 30,000 Cr and gave it to your friend Anil.
YOU are solely responsible for the delay in the arrival of the RAFALE jets.
YOU are WHY brave IAF pilots like Wing Cdr. Abhinandan, are risking their lives flying outdated jets. https://t.co/BrzAuFTlFu
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 2, 2019
Gandhi’s contradictory claim springs from a false earlier allegation that the politics over the Rafale deal has likely compelled him to stick with. Livefist did this detailed piece that contains a fact-check on that count and applies to the claims made by Gandhi yesterday too.
And now to Modi’s suggestion that the outcome of the February 27 action would have been different if IAF pilots were flying Rafales insteady of MiG-21s.
First off, let’s be clear that the Rafale isn’t a replacement for the MiG-21 by any stretch of imagination. It has been procured in small numbers for the moment for far more advanced roles, including nuclear delivery, so the idea that it could be on frontline combat air patrol is a difficult proposition. The scenarios below detail the various possibilities. It must be said however that it can be nobody’s case that the flexibility of deploying advanced fighters like the Rafale wouldn’t be exercised in a highly hostile air environment like the one that followed the Balakot strikes.
Overall, it seems obvious that a far more advanced jet would have ensured a better outcome. But given the unprecedented nature of the February 27 engagement, it is useful to look deeper. To be clear, the ‘outcome’ could have been different in a number of ways, so we’ll put each one of them to the test. For the purpose, we spoke to 3 Indian Air Force pilots — 2 MiG-21 pilots and a Su-30 pilot.
OUTCOME POSSIBILITY #1: If Abhinandan was flying a Rafale, he wouldn’t have been shot down, and therefore captured
Not necessarily true if the precise contours of the final engagement are under scrutiny. If it is, however, true that Wing Commander Abhinandan pursued the aggressing PAF fighters despite warnings from fighter controllers to turn away before crossing the Line of Control (a decision that ended with a PAF jet being shot down, the IAF says it has proof it was an F-16), then could a Rafale have stopped him from being shot down in the actual engagement? No, say the three pilots we spoke to. They told Livefist, “Any aircraft has largely the same countermeasures — chaff to defeat radar locks and hence prevent launch of radar guided guided missiles (like the AMRAAM), and flares to defeat heat seeking missiles. Only the quantity of these differ from aircraft type to type. If a pilot has decided to engage and pursue a course of action, then a Rafale or Su-30 or any other aircraft for that matter couldn’t be more safe from an enemy missile in that sense.” To be clear, this is assuming that all contours of the engagement are the same, and that the Rafale’s other advantages (read on) didn’t come into play to preclude the visual range combat.
Again, given the very tenuous details available so far about the engagement, suggestions have also come that there was radio telephony jamming at play, completely cutting the IAF pilots off from controllers. In such a situation, could the Rafales have been less resistant to such jamming? Pilots say it is reasonable to assume so. It can be nobody’s case that the Rafale’s electronic warfare and jamming/counter-jamming capabilities are generations ahead of anything the IAF currently operates.
OUTCOME POSSIBILITY #2: If Abhinandan was flying a Rafale, he would have had better situational awareness to turn around
This is definitely true. In a Rafale or Su-30, Abhinandan would have known his exact ground position with the aid of a tactical situation display, instead of physical maps (which were recovered from him after his capture). But if his intent was to pursue and shoot down an aggressing aircraft disregarding the risk of flying into hostile airspace, then such situational awareness may or may not have been a compelling reason for him to break engagement. The IAF pilots Livefist spoke to said, “The only place where the advanced aircraft are more at an advantage is in terms of situational awareness where in the pilot exactly knows his ground position due to the aid of say a tactical situation display in the cockpit where in you know the exact outline of say the LOC as it is demarcated in the display so that you can turn back accurately in order to avoid crossing. But that comes handy when you are doing the targeting on your own without a fighter controller. In this case Abhinandan was on a vectored intercept and if the controller was telling him to turn back and he chose to pursue, it wouldn’t matter if he was in a Rafale. He did not become vulnerable because he was in a MiG-21 Bison. He became vulnerable because he did not break off when told to. The controller was telling him to break off knowing the threat building upon him. Even a Rafale might have been shot in such a scenario.”
OUTCOME POSSIBILITY #3: In a Rafale, Abhinandan would have had better stand-off ranges to engage PAF fighters
This is definitely true, though in the absence of authentic contours of the engagement, it is unclear how this advantage would have actually played out. What is certain is that Meteor-armed Rafales would have allowed the IAF a game-changing advantage to the air battle. For instance, with such a missile system, it is reasonable to assume that such a close within visual range (WVR) engagement would have been precluded, giving IAF pilots the full advantage.
OUTCOME POSSIBILITY #4: If Rafales had been on combat air patrol or scramble alert, Pakistan wouldn’t have even considered an air aggression
Possibly. The suggestion here is deterrence — that the Pakistan Air Force wouldn’t have even mounted a strike mission of the kind they did if they knew they were up against Rafales. Possibly, but this is still a difficult one to answer. Pakistan, in the past, has made it a point to demonstrably downplay the Indian military’s conventional strength advantages, including in the realm of air power. And considering the PAF knew that IAF Su-30 MKI air superiority jets would be on combat air patrol or operational readiness in the area, it’s difficult to specifically say that putting Rafales (even armed with the Meteor) in the mix would be the deterrent differentiator. The pilots were spoke to agreed, saying, “The PAF fighter package seems to have been a big one, so it is quite likely that they had come expecting an aggressive interception. If they had managed to bring down a Su-30, it would have been a huge international embarrassment for India. Satisfying a domestic audience following the Balakot strike was a priority for them, so it is unlikely that fighter jet types on hand with the IAF would have dissuaded them from mounting the mission. They would maybe just have factored in a higher loss probability.” One cannot ignite the notion, however, that with Meteor-armed Rafales in the mix, the PAF jets would have thought twice about coming so close.
ALSO: With Rafales, the strike on Balakot could have been from well within Indian airspace
Definitely true. It has been reported that the Indian Air Force used a package of Mirage 2000 jets deploying Israeli Spice 2000 precision guided munitions to strike at terror targets in Balakot. If the Rafales had been in service, the jets could conceivably have been used to deploy their SCALP air-launched cruise missiles from well within Indian airspace at the targets, if targeting intelligence held good. The complexion and contours of the actual strike would have been dramatically different with military planners not needing to conduct the strike from either hostile airspace or close to the actual frontier.
The game of scenarios is at best just that — a game. In the absence of a multitude of variables in a dynamic fighting environment, it is near impossible to fully assess scenarios and the impact of technology configurations on them. Such assessments, it should be remembered, also come at a time when the Indian Air Force has a terrible case on its hands — the Feb 27 crash of a Mi-17 helicopter in Budgam, J&K, where even prima facie indicators point to a case of friendly fire by air-defence units. If it is indeed proved that an IAF missile battery brought down an IAF helicopter, it could torture-test everything that the force trains and stands for.