Rafale option: A strategic blunder


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

The Rafale fighters deal is yet another inherited UPA legacy and the IAF obduracy for foreign weapons. Mercifully, from 126 fighters, it is restricted to 36 fighters. Induction is spread over 2 years, that is, by 2018. Small mercy; yet a blunder that could have been avoided by BJP led NDA government.

Rapid obsolescence of Rafale fighters is real. It is 30 years old design with its demonstration flight in 1980s.

The cost of 36 Rafale fighters is Eu$8 billion (over Rs. 52,000 crores) – over Rs. 1440 crores per fighter (includes of an initial scale of weaponry and spare parts, as well as hangar facilities).

Is there a necessity to opt for such a super cost option? Why not wait for Gen 5 fighter aircraft becoming a reality by 2020? Why not opt for the indigenous production of advanced F-16s production with a more advanced weapons and avionics pack by entering into a deal with the USA?

Inventory is also frightening – mix of over 30 types of aircraft of Russian, British, French, Israeli, U.S. and Indian origins. Seven in the fighters category; and, over 17 in the transport and training fleet, besides a variety of helicopters and SAM units and UAVs. Interoperability and technical, training and logistical challenges and complexity are real. Standardization, at the most to 3-4 types of fighters. is also an imperative.

59 upgraded Mirage 2000 fighters to last until 2030 and 272 SU 30 MKI multi role fighters (from the present 224) by 2018-2019 nearly 17+ squadrons of Generation 4 fighters. Also, 4 squadrons of MIG 29 air superiority fighters. Add to them, Tejas, Jaguars, MIG-27s, and MIG-21 BIS.

Pakistan reportedly has 14+ squadrons (233 ) of multi role fighters:    F-!6 A & B  –   50 (Sqns 3); JF 17 –  60 (Sqns 3+); Mirage IIIO –  50 (Sqns 3); Mirage 5F –  73 (Sqns 4+). It has one squadron air superiority fighters (18) F 16 C & D.

IAF has definite edge over PAF both quantitatively and qualitatively what with all SU-30 MKIs upgraded to ‘Super Cruise” capability upgraded with state-of-the-art avionics and Beyond Visual Range Missiles (ASTRA & BRAHMOS).

Let none suffer from any illusion that accretion of 36 Rafale’s could counter Chinese capability:  556 multi role fighters (J-16 – 3 (In service  2014); J-10 (4.5 Gen) – 240+; Su-30 MKK – 73; Xian JH-7 FBs – 120;  Q-5 – 120); air superiority fighters  280 (J-11 (4.5 Gen)  – 205+;  and Su-27– 75); and interceptors  J-8 all types – 144 and J-7 all types  – 528.

Considering that China has already demonstrated prototype of Gen-5 system, the choice of ‘Rafale” for 13-15 years is patently absurd. At best, ‘Rafale’ may be a short term substitute and mothballed sooner than later after induction of T-50 commencing by 2022 or indigenous AMCA by 2025.

Next, the cost comparison of Rafale fighters with in-service fighters in the IAF: for one Rafale, 4-8 indigenously produced fighters can be acquired.  After all, the cost of Sukhoi-30MKI is only Rs. 358 crores per fighter.  Even the cost of Tejas Mk 2 would considerably lower. Add to it, operational cost of Rs.11 lakhs per hour. The costs of maintenance and replacement of engines after every 1500 flying hours also needs to be taken into consideration – life cycle costs.

When viewed holistically, from all operational, technical, maintenance and financial dimensions, the ‘Rafale” deal is a fraud inherited from the UPA regime choice.

The Tejas fighter Mk1 final operational clearance (FOC) has been reportedly given. Its assembly line established at a cost of Rs 1,556 crore to build: four Tejas Mark I by March 2016; another eight by March 2017; and crank up production to 16 fighters annually by March 2018.

HAL sees a four-year gap between the last Tejas Mark I and the first Tejas Mark II as seriously disruptive. Building 80 Tejas Mark I-A, which is under development, is a way of bridging that gap. After 2019, the production line would be idle till the Tejas Mark II enters production. Keeping the line running is essential, so that skilled manpower does not have to be redistributed; and a steady flow of orders can be placed on sub-vendors.

HAL argues that the Mark I’s GE F-404IN engine, which generates 84 kiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust, would meet the IAF’s performance requirements, if one tonne is shaved off the Tejas Mark I’s empty weight of 6,500 kg. In that case, the GE F-414INS6 engine’s 98 kN of thrust would be needed only for the naval Tejas, which must take off from the short runway of an aircraft carrier deck.

Under development is also Tejas Mark II featuring more powerful GE F414-GE-INS6 engine with 98 KN of thrust and refined aerodynamics to meet the latest IAF Requirements. ADA is procuring 99 GE-F414-INS6 engines to power the Tejas Mk-2 and LCA Navy.  Under the contract, the first lot of the engines with 95-100 KN power will be supplied by the GE Aero Engines and the rest would be manufactured in India under transfer of technology.

The Ministry of Defense has sanctioned US$542.44 million (Rs 2,431.55-crore) for ADA to develop the IAF’s Tejas Mk II variant. The IAF is committed to procuring an initial 83 Tejas Mk 2s. he Mk II will have some 25-30 percent commonality in parts with the Mk I and these parts are already in production.

In August 2015, the Indian defense minister stated the first flight of Tejas Mk II is likely to be 2019 with an entry into service in 2022.

The Mark II will feature an indigenous developed active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar named Uttam. The Mk II will also see the incorporation of a new electronic warfare suite which is being jointly developed with Israel. This is to have a new glass cockpit with larger 8 x 12 inch displays. The aircraft also features Digital fly by wire system, fuel dump system, Tailless compound delta wing and composite structure which improve performance, maintainability and survivability and make it supersonic at all altitudes.

Most critical is that Tejas Mk II will incorporate 5th GEN fighters elements which are to make way to the Sukhoi/HAL 5th GEN Fighter (FGFA) and HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

India’s first Beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) Astra missile developed by the DRDO will be integrated with the first batch of production variant of Tejas Mk II. IAF is keen on getting Astra missile integrated with Tejas MK I and MK II aircrafts. DRDO plans to start production of a missile by 2018-19.

To overcome HAL’s difficulties with building and assembling the Tejas Mark I, ADA proposes to adopt a new production model for the Mark II. The DRDO has chosen private sector companies to manufacture the fighter’s modules (systems and sub-systems). HAL will be responsible for integrating them and testing and delivering them to the IAF.

What is therefore needed is to fast pace the induction of Tejas Mk I and I-A and Tejas Mk II.  Indigenous production of 36 Tejas Mk 1 should be possible along with the induction of Tejas Mk I-A and Mk II also by 2020.  If so, why the sudden haste to purchase outright 36 Rafale fighters at a huge cost to the nation with deliveries spread over 2 years and against the spirit of “Make in India”.

Also, the Sukhoi T-50 – Gen-5 air superiority fighter – joint collaboration between Russia and India – is costing an estimated $ 6 bn to develop with India shouldering about 35% of the cost. The fighter made its first appearance at the MAKS 2011 air show outside Moscow, and is expected to be mass produced by 2015. Having waited so long, IAF could surely wait for induction of T-50s by 2017.


Furthermore, under design and development is also the AMCA, a Gen-5 Fighter Aircraft being developed by HAL and designed by ADA.  It is a single-seat, twin-engine (414-EPE (Enhanced Performance Engine) engines with 120 kN), stealth super maneuverable all weather multirole fighter aircraft. The AMCA’s twin F-414 Enhanced Engine will thus deliver an awesome 220 KM of peak power.  The first flight is scheduled for 2018 and it is expected to be in service by 2024.


Since the US has agreed for transfer of technology in aero engines, it could be a commercial windfall for GE Aero Engines providing it an assured market for all India’s indigenous fighters. This would include 100 F-404 engines for the Tejas Mark I, another 100 F-414 engines for the Tejas Mark II; and 400 F-414 Enhanced Engines for a planned 200 AMCAs.

Since an aero engine’s life is about 1,500 hours, each fighter – with a service life of 5,000-6,000 hours – consumes 3.5 engines. That means GE could be supplying 700 engines for the Tejas Marks 1 and 2, and 1,400 engines for the AMCA over their service lives. This is a sizeable share of the Indian aero engine market, which the DRDO estimates to be worth Rs 3,50,000 crore over coming decades.

When viewed holistically in the above backdrop, both the UPAs choice in the first instance of 126 Rafael fighter was a “BAD” choice or strategic blunder.  Now, the BJP led NDAs choice is a continuation of the strategic blunder. And, the IAF is surely to be blamed for its obdurate insistence. The IAF knows very well that it cannot match the Chinese capability in a short term context.