Rafale : The Indian Air Force’s best choice

In making public its choice of the Dassault Aviation Rafale in the MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft) competition, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has brought quite a lot of fresh air to the French defence industry as a whole. This is especially so for the much maligned combat aircraft, previously ousted from other major international competitions in Asia, in particular by dint of feisty U.S. lobbying. Dassault Aviation’s previous bad experience in the South Korea and Singapore’s fighter bids indeed remains a sore wound even today, as does the Rafale’s failure to win a firm contract from the UAE at the last Dubai Air Show.

16th Mar 2012


Rafale : The Indian Air Force’s best choice

Byline : Jean-Michel Guhl / Paris


In making public its choice of the Dassault Aviation Rafale in the MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft) competition, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has brought quite a lot of fresh air to the French defence industry as a whole. This is especially so for the much maligned combat aircraft, previously ousted from other major international competitions in Asia, in particular by dint of feisty U.S. lobbying. Dassault Aviation’s previous bad experience in the South Korea and Singapore’s fighter bids indeed remains a sore wound even today, as does the Rafale’s failure to win a firm contract from the UAE at the last Dubai Air Show.

60 decades of aeronautical ties
As the lowest bidder in a hotly contested deal for procuring 126 modern combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force, the Rafale has clearly edged out its fiercest European rival, the Eurofighter Typhoon . Contrary to BAE and Cassidian’s last hope, the Indian governement has now made it clear that the selection of the Rafale for the multi-billion dollar deal was final, adding it does not expect contract negotiations to go wrong. “The decision is final as far as selection is concerned,” said Indian Minister of State for Defence, MM Pallam Raju, to the Economic Times of India when asked about Britain’s statement that it would try to persuade India to look again at Eurofighter Typhoon. Raju said contract negotiations are now on with Dassault Aviation, adding, “after all negotiations are complete, can we say that it’s final”. Aked if that meant that the deal is open, Raju said: “No, as of now, Rafale has been finalised. That’s the final thing”.

As the winner of the MMRCA competition, the multirole Rafale — or omnirole, like Dassault likes to put it to add more versatility to its image — is earmarked to replace the Indian Air Force’s large and obsolete MiG-21 fleet. This will start a phase out process from 2014, thus setting the stage for giving the IAF a real “new look” with the induction during this decade of several modern next generation aircraft.

“The MiG-21 constitutes today around 40 % of the IAF fleet,” said Indian Defence Minister A K Antony at a recent meeting of the Parliament’s Defence Consultative Committee on the state-owned aerospace complex Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). HAL will have the responsibility to produce the Rafale in Bangalore through a wide scale technology transfert agreement now being finalised. “With the induction of modern next generation aircraft such as the FGFA [Sukhoi T-50] and MMRCA [Dassault Rafale], the IAF will be a new look force,” insisted Anthony. The IAF is now on course to introduce into service more Su-30MKIs and within three years the first of 126 Rafales.

What finally, besides the price tag, made the Rafale win ? In the eye of the military experts many consider in New Delhi that the French offer was clearly the best - both on technical and political grounds. Details on these two points will be cleared for the press once the official contract between Dassault and the Indian government is signed later in the year. For many in the Indian Air Force, either veterans or current, the fighterplanes built by Dassault Aviation have always represented a valuable combat tool in the hands of Indian pilots. Being one of the rare air forces to fly, side by side, fighters produced in England (Jaguar and Hawk), France (Mirage 2000) or Russia (MiG and Sukhoi types), the IAF has drawn over the years huge experience in running comparative evaluations of foreign hardware through their use in actual combat.

The Rafale’s selection comes almost 60 years after India’s Air Force purchased its first French fighter plane, the MD 450 Ouragan (or Toofani), in 1953. In June of that year, India ordered 71 Ouragans with uprated RR Nene 105 engine, with deliveries starting that same year and completed in March 1954. This was then the first export contract ever booked by Dassault Aviation ! An additional order for 33 second-hand Ouragans in March 1957 brought the total of Toofanis in Indian hands to 104. Selection of the Dassault Ouragan fighter from France at this time reflected the decision to initiate diversification of supply sources, Delhi’s trust in the former colonial power being on the low side. The Indian Toofanis faced combat in 1961, when they performed air strikes against the Portuguese colony of Diu on the western coast of the continent. They were also used in ground attack missions with their four HP 20mm cannons and rocket pods against anti-government rebels in Assam and Nagaland, and in 1962 for reconnaissance missions in the Sino-Indian War.

As was the case in France, the Ouragan started to be relieved in IAF front-line service by the Mystère IVA in 1957 — the first fighter on which the Indian pilots broke the sound barrier. A total of five IAF squadrons flew this type — Nos 1, 8, 3, 31 and 32 Squadrons. Although withdrawn fully from front line service in 1965, some Mystères continued for some years as advanced trainer and target tug. The next Dassault slablemate to join the Indian Air Force was the Mirage 2000, some two decades later. Now being modernized by Thales, the Mirage is still in active operational use, providing sterling service to the IAF with Nos. 1, 7 and 9 Squadrons at Gwalior air base, Madhya Pradesh.

As the Team Rafale consortium puts it : the MMRCA programme is regarded as much more than a simple acquisition process for India. It is the opportunity to develop a large scale strategic partnership and industrial cooperation between India & France covering in-depth technological and production cooperation.
Needless to say that the coming deal with New Delhi is also supported by the strong political commitment of France.
This was clearly demonstrated by the full clearance given by the French authorities to the export of the Rafale to India and to the transfer of the production license to Hindustan Aircraft Ltd. as well as all related technologies.

The MMRCA Rafale H for India (H stands for Hindi) will be tailored after the current Rafale Standard F3 Tranche 4 for the French Air Force. This model can use the complete weaponry developed for the French fighter aircraft, 60 of which are to be delivered under Tranche 4, to the French Air Force and French Navy shortly ; this time fitted with series production Thales RBE2/AA advanced active electronically scanned array radar (AESA) in place of the prevailing passive model. The first Rafale so equipped – aircraft C-137/118-GP – has recently arrived at the Mont-de-Marsan CEAM test centre for an extended validation campaign and to begin in parallel the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM’s integration on the Rafale later this year. It is this very model, the most potent of any Rafales, which the IAF technical team is due to fly once a formal deal is concluded with Dassault and the production of a first batch of 18 Rafale Hs is launched at Bordeaux-Mérignac. The remaining 108 Rafales for the IAF will be assembled by HAL in Bangalore, Karnataka, using jig tools imported from France. At this time, it is not known which systems and equipments come under the wide transfer of technology scheme which New Delhi insists upon.

Improving the breed
Meanwhile in French service, the Rafale has been under constant review since it was first commissioned with the Navy, a decade ago as the Rafale Standard F1. Recently, building on current NATO close air support (CAS) operations in Afghanistan, 30 Rafale F3s (20 for the Armée de l’Air and 10 for the Aéronavale) have been retrofitted with new Thales V/UHF TRA 6034NextW@ve secure airborne software-programmable radios and the L3 Communications Rover tactical video system. The new multichannel radio has a frequency range of 30 to 600 MHz and supports NATO or national encryption systems (embedded COMSEC). It is also compatible with current NATO and national standards (PR4G, F@stnet, Have-Quick I/II, Saturn, national EPM, Link 11, Link 22), and claims to meet the dual challenges of enhanced interoperability across the VHF/UHF spectrum and the new requirements of Network Centric Warfare in high jamming conditions.

Now for the first time, an extended set of highly sensitive passive systems give the Rafale 
precious fighting capacity and high survivability. The 
Rafale is the first European combat aircraft to use an AESA (Active 
Electronically Scanned Array) radar. In operational terms, the AESA
RBE2/AA (antenne active) radar can track many targets. In addition, it allows a significant 
increase in detection range of enemy aircraft and a significant 
increase in reliability over previous-generation radars. 
In air-to-air mode, a much greater sensitivity makes it possible to 
detect smaller targets and detect them earlier. Since the antenna comprises a very large number of active modules, the failure of some of these has no noticeable effect on the overall performance
and reliability of the system. Consequently, the active front end
only requires maintenance every ten years or more, thereby 
contributing to increased aircraft availability and reducing 
replacement part costs. The RBE2 (radar à 
balayage électronique – 2 plans) is a track while scan monopulse-
doppler X-band multimode fire control radar system built around a 
modular concept. It features 4 LRIs including: a 60cm PESA antenna; a 
four-channel receiver and transmitter; and a programmable signal
processor with 2-billion operations per second flow point. Lastly, the use of active antennas opens new 
horizons in terms of future radar functionality — particularly in 
the areas of jam resistance, detection of land vehicles and slow-
moving aircraft and enhanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery.

Uniformisation of French military aviation along with the multirole Rafale is now well under way. Differences between the land-version and the navalised Rafale are minimal and relate mainly to the sturdier landing gear arrangement (with a T-bar launching mechanism) and carrier arresting hook system. With the sole exception of the Sagem Telemir IR INS alignment system for the two SIGMA 95 gyrolaser navigation computers all other systems are 100% the same on the C and M variants of the Rafale. That applies to the entire weaponry package, including the new AM39 Exocet Block II which can be launched by all Rafale variants.

Designed from the onset as a multirole combat aircraft with low observable characteristics, the Rafale, by virtue of the total electronic data fusion process from sensors which characterises the unique innards of the French jetplane, added to its outstanding weapons array, has proven versatile and better in everything than the Mirage 2000 interceptors and fighter-bombers it is to supplant during this decade.

Now well combat proven with the French Air force, the Rafale is a very mature combat platform. Current variants of the Rafale are the single seat Rafale M for the Aéronavale, the single seat Rafale C and the two-seat Rafale B for the Armée de l’air. In French, M stands for “Marine” (navy), C for Chasse (fighter) and B for Biplace (two-seater). All operational Rafales are now of the F3 “omnirole” variant with Thales Modular Data Processing Unit (MDPU) – the Rafale’s spinal chord. Through its modular architecture, the system is highly adaptable, and new avionics or new ordnance can thus easily be integrated without hassle. Actually, enough growth potential has been built into the Rafale to ensure that the design maintains a potent warfighting relevance beyond 2030 or later. In early 2012, all existing Rafales – out of 106 built so far – have been produced or retrofitted to full F3 standard.

By 2015-2020 the Dassault fighter jet should become the lynchpin of French military aviation, with an operational career certainly to last through 2050 at least, thus well outliving all aircraft of the Mirage family. A self-supported hi-tech combat aircraft 100 percent made in France by Dassault Aviation for the airframe, with Thales, Sagem, Snecma and MBDA for the main sub-systems, this stocky “fly-by-wire” canard delta machine features one of the most advanced combat systems ever designed to date, both in terms of avionics and weapons with an outstanding stores carriage capability, which is equivalent to over twice its empty weight !

Types of mission assigned to the Rafale in France currently cover combat air-interdiction missions, from quick reaction alert to round the clock 
air-defence, to ground attack, sea strikes, reconnaissance, as well as deep nuclear strike missions (with the nuclear-tipped ASMP-A cruise missile which is part of France’s nuclear deterrence), all that with a high level of survivability, owing to its twin-engine architecture and a sophisticated self-protection concept, including not immediately obvious stealth characteristics.

As IGA Stéphane Reb of DGA, the Rafale programme manager at the French procurement agency, sums it all: “Our aim is to keep the Rafale at top level of performance and interoperability. As arranged today, the aircraft’s architecture and platform show that the Rafale will not need any further hardware changes before its mid-life update which should take place somewhere around 2025. However a detailed roadmap (or feuille de route, in French) for the aircraft still has to be built”. Further equipments are being developed to increase the Rafale’s lethality.
• in the navigation field – the development by Thales of a new and more powerful wider-field laser designation pod derived from the current Damocles.
• in the systems field – altogether with improvement in the aircraft man-machine interface, the adoption of additional modes for the Thales RBE2/AA AESA radar; tactical date link 16 upgrades; and electronic warfare suite improvements on the Spectra system – which is certainly one of the most complex and efficient ECM/ECCM ensemble ever conceived to this day.
• in the armement field – the integration of the MBDA Meteor supersonic BVR air-to-air missile in 2018 (200 missiles have yet been ordered by France) and of the laser-guided version of the very successful Sagem AASM, plus the development of low collateral damage kinetic bombs. The future “network-enabled” Meteor is an active radar guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) being developed by MBDA.

Other important issues are also considered, but specifically for the export market, among which:

• on the avionics side – an advanced helmet-mounted sight systems (HMSS).

• on the powerplant side – a more powerful model (in the 9-ton class) of the in service 7-ton Snecma M88-2 twin-shaft turbofan is envisioned.



















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