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Time IAF Upgraded its Largest Combat Fleet

Gp. Capt. Anurag Sharma, VSM (Retd.) was Director Operations (Air Defence) SU-30 at Air HQ (VB), New Delhi.
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  • September 30, 2020

    On September 10, 2020, the Indian Air Force (IAF) formally inducted the Rafale into operational service in a befitting ceremony and the Defence Minister rightly termed it a “game changer”.1 The Rafale is an excellent choice and it is almost a decade after the IAF finalised the aircraft through a long and tedious evaluation process that it is finally here. Given the controversy that overshadowed its induction and the existing threat scenario in India’s neighbourhood, the Rafale is making headlines, not just in India but across the border as well.  

    The Rafale brings with it proven enhanced combat capabilities and ease of maintainability that multiplies the offensive airpower tremendously. Some airpower strategists have argued that the results of aerial engagements with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on February 27, 2019 would have been very different had the IAF possessed Rafale then; and now that the aircraft has been inducted, it will play a pivotal role in the outcome of any future skirmish.

    Irrefutably, Rafale is a force multiplier. However, to infer that the results of February 27, 2019 aerial engagements would have been different is not a consequence of the aircraft per se, but the enhanced combat capabilities that are packaged with the Rafale.  There are capabilities that the IAF possesses and these could have been enhanced further through smartly planned timely upgradation of existing fighter fleets such as Su-30MKI, Mirage 2000 and MiG-29.

    The aerial combat that took place over Kashmir skies on February 27, 2019 was no ordinary event. For the first time, since the Kosovo Campaign in Europe in 1999, were two countries engaged in an aerial combat with Beyond Visual Range Air-Air Missiles (BVRAAM).2 Since Kosovo, all subsequent air campaigns, be it in Kargil, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali or Syria, have been devoid of any aerial combat.3 The one that precipitated on February 27 was the first Large Force Engagement (LFE) with BVRAAMs of the 21st century!

    Miffed by India’s airstrikes against terror camps inside its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province’s Balakot region on February 26, 2019,4 Pakistan launched a face-saving “Operation Swift Retort” in the early hours of February 27, 2019. The PAF offensive was well packaged with embedded elements of electronic and communication jammers, BVRAAM armed F-16 and JF-17 aircraft and stand-off strike aircraft.5 However, despite the numerical superiority of the attacking forces, better air-air missiles and, most importantly, the advantage of surprise, the PAF offensive was not only successfully neutralised by a few IAF Su-30MKI, M-2000 and MiG-21 BISON aircraft, but an F-16 was also downed while losing only a MiG-21 in the dogfights that ensued. This is an excellent exchange ratio by any standards of aerial combat.

    On that historic day, of all the capabilities of Rafale that the IAF missed the most were its long-range BVRAAM, Meteor and, more importantly, its electronic warfare (EW)capability. When engaged in aerial combat against a numerically superior force, better weapons and EW capabilities can make up for skewed numbers in the sky. Electronic jamming degrades communication and radar detection, creating a fog of war and confusion that can be exploited to neutralise numerical superiority. Rafale’s EW suite and its Meteor BVRAAM are among the best in the world today and gives the aircraft that critical ability to perform optimally even while operating in a dense electronic jamming environment.

    Had the Su-30MKIs that engaged in combat with the PAF’s American made F-16s and the Chinese made JF-17s been equipped with a superior BVRAAM and an upgraded EW suite, the kill ratios may have been even more favourable. In such a case, the IAF could have caused higher attrition on the raiders. Furthermore, instead of seeing a courageous pilot paraded as a prisoner of war (PoW), India may have held the bargaining chips at the negotiating table. It was not so much because of delayed induction of the Rafale, but perhaps a consequence of delayed upgradation of the existing fighter fleets, principally the Su-30MKI.

    The responsibility for this skewed BVRAAM imbalance and lack of upgraded EW capability has to be shouldered as much by agencies such as the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) as the IAF itself. Upgradation programmes for EW equipment comprising of Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) and Aircraft Self Protection Jammers (ASPJ) have run into delays primarily to foster indigenous production/development.6 Sometimes the specifications given by users may have been over-ambitious but mostly the technology sought was just beyond indigenous capability.

    The Su-30MKI is a case in point. With a fleet of more than 260 aircraft and more in the offing, it is the mainstay of IAF and will remain so at least for the next two decades. It is a unique product housing components and weaponry from many countries fitted on a Russian platform. India, France, Israel, South Africa and the Russian Federation have all contributed to the development of this aircraft. While the intent has been to equip the aircraft with the best products from various manufacturers, integrating those systems to function harmoniously has been a challenge for the HAL. Post induction into the IAF in 2002, the first indigenously assembled Su-30MKI was rolled out by the HAL’s Nasik division in 2004. Since its induction into operational service, the Su-30MKI fleet has been trapped in a constant cycle of evolution with many mission-critical equipment that require upgrades awaiting indigenous production or a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Russia. The fleet is now almost two decades old and upgrades are required to retain edge over the enemy.

    The upgrade programme for the Sukhoi fleet was initiated about a decade ago and it was to be timed with the first overhaul stage of the aircraft. However, many aircraft have already been overhauled but there has been little progress on the upgrade programme thus far. The responsibility can perhaps be deflected between Russian original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for demanding exorbitant prices and withholding technology, the HAL (Indian manufacturer) and the DRDO for delayed projects,7 the ministry concerned for inordinate delays in clearing projects, and the IAF itself for not aggressively pursuing these issues. The bottom line is that the equipment/capability that directly dictates operational readiness cannot be compromised and it is the IAF that has to draw the line.

    Indigenous capability development cannot continue for decades without the desired results and diminutive accountability. Military technology is constantly evolving and it so often happens that technology becomes redundant even before it is operationalised. Staying ahead of the curve is both imperative and a challenge. It thus raises the question: Is national security a suitable opportunity cost for developing indigenous capability? 

    By no means is it being suggested that indigenous research and development (R&D) must be shelved and only foreign equipment purchased; however, it must be a parallel process. In our quest for regional dominance, the substitution of expensive foreign equipment by locally developed systems is not just desirable but necessary in the long run. However, this must happen without any compromise in operational capability. The armed forces can no longer bank on drawing board promises to fight the next war. Continuous capability enhancement of combat assets to stay ahead of the adversaries needs strong impetus and that too indigenously. The government's drive for Atmanirbharta or ‘Self Reliance’ in defence production is a step in the right direction. Indisputably, Atmanirbharta in defence production is the key to India’s rise as a great power. However, the opportunity cost must be fixed realistically.

    The Rafale has definitely added a punch to the IAF’s firepower and India’s adversaries will surely be taking notes. However, the induction of just 36 Rafale is not the panacea to all our woes. The Su-30MKI, IAF’s largest fighter fleet, will continue to have a vital role to play, at least for the next two decades, in any future conflict. The upgradation programme for the Sukhoi that has been under consideration for many years, and perhaps already delayed a little too long, needs to be expedited. Any further delays come only at the cost of the IAF’s war-waging capabilities, and the developing threat scenario in India’s sphere of interest and influence no longer allows the liberty of time.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.