Modi Says ‘Outcome’ Different If Abhinandan Was In A Rafale. Is This True? We Find Out.

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:

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.

UPDATE ON MAY 21: Culpable homicide case likely against IAF officer for the Mi-17 shoot down

19 thoughts on “Modi Says ‘Outcome’ Different If Abhinandan Was In A Rafale. Is This True? We Find Out.”

  1. It is very much necessary to hear Abhinandan version because, it will clear doubts whether AMRAAM was first launched or R-73, because disengaging after being locked on by AMRAAM without hitting back with R-73 would not have taken down F-16 and just by disengaging Abhi could not have broken AMRAAM lock as he will be in no escape zone of highly capable AMRAAM missile.

  2. Well why Meteor is being factored here? Wont that give Abhinandan a better chance at detecting and shooting at Intruder at much longer ranges?

  3. Modi is now the brand ambassador for Rafale. So Dassault has found a customer and brand ambassador at no additional cost!

  4. Modi is right, the Rafale has an automated self defense suite with a MAWS triggering both ECM and Chaff and Flares, this alone would have given a much better fighting chance. Secondly, Rafale has sensor fusion,its not just maps but the overall aircraft threat picture is available on the central MFD allowing the pilot to make critical decisions on whether to engage or disengage. I guess the pilots you spoke to are unaware of both these aspects.

    1. I believe that the CDR made a fatal judgement. He allowed the heat of the battle to make his decision. His aircraft is LOCKED ON by the enemy. Ground control tells him to break off his engagement ,and that he is now in Pakistani airspace with all it’s air defence network on the ready. That he is alive and back is a miracle (a chain of miracles actually). Fighter pilots are aggressive by nature – they have to be. But he could have led his squadron or wing into disaster.

  5. Sir why not surface to surface cruise missiles can’t be used in such Operation? They are also precision guided right

  6. You are fundamentally wrong. Mig-21 was indeed not hit by the Amraam, as far as the info available it was the technical snag that took the Mig to the other side of the border after hitting the adversary with R73. I dont know whether a running away aircraft can engage a chasing aircraft with air to air missile. So in that sense any plane other than Mig21 would have survived.

  7. Rafale definitely would have helped us fight from well within our borders, but 36 Rafale aircrafts can’t be placed all along the stretch of border, we had 8 aircrafts composing of various aircrafts as per availability. We are far away from having All Rafales or equivalents

  8. Nikhil Makhijani

    I feel that when Modi claimed that Rafale would make a difference was referring to the fact that due to the delay by the then UPA government not singing and finishing the purchase. We have had to wait till further delay and then under NDA managing to finally get just 36.

    If we had got much bigger number then PAF would not even dare to think of doing what they tried

  9. Any news about other two targets ?

    Total 12 Mirages took off to drop payloads with Su30 & MIGs for air support.

    Each Mirage was carrying 1000kg bomb to be dropped. There is no news saying Balakot was hit by 12 bombs. Each were saying 4-5 bombs were dropped.

    So other Mirages dropped their payload some where else. On the day of Balakot news channels were talking about 3-4 targets so what did happen to at least other two targets ?

  10. The next thing is big data churning on aircraft. Once fused data sensors are fed to an AI, it will automate and aid the pilot in a lot of things. Big data should be on each aircraft of tomorrow including LCA because it can now be packed in a square ft of space and is not that power hungry as it used to be.

  11. Rafael has one of the best if not the best fighter mounted self protection suite called SPECTRA. With active jamming in 2Ghz frequency in which AMRAAM operates, it can automatically reduce effectiveness of active radar homing of AMRAAM. The EW capabilities of the SPECTRA system proved itself in Libya and in multiple NATO exercises and being capable of protecting the Rafale from fairly high-end threats which normally would require complex suppression packages or stealth aircraft to bypass.

  12. I believe that the CDR made a fatal judgement. He allowed the heat of the battle to make his decision. His aircraft is LOCKED ON by the enemy. Ground control tells him to break off his engagement ,and that he is now in Pakistani airspace with all it’s air defence network on the ready. That he is alive and back is a miracle (a chain of miracles actually). Fighter pilots are aggressive by nature – they have to be. But he could have led his squadron or wing into disaster.

  13. I believe that it was the CDR’s lucky day. His decision to pursue an enemy aircraft across the LOC in spite of being locked on by a BVRAAM was perhaps a brave gesture made in the heat of the air battle. That he bought down an F-16 is remarkable. However, fact remains that he chose to ignore ground radar warnings. He entered into perhaps the top 3 most volatile air defence sectors on the planet. He was lucky on every count : from ejection, capture, captivity up to return to India. He could have clearly jeopardised any and all of his wing and led them into disaster. His gamble gives him a thumbs up in the news, but professionally speaks poorly of him. Hope he learns from this and leads his men better.

  14. Looks like the pilots in the interview are not fully briefed about Rafale’s capability? Otherwise why would SPECTRA not even be discussed/mentioned for point#1? Would SPECTRA have made a difference?

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