French Rafale fighter jet
French Rafale fighter jet
French Rafale fighter jet


Indian media, in recent years, has begun to believe in an irrational sense of entitlement. It is manifested in an odd conviction that it is owed an advance warning. There seems a rage over the Rafale purchase deal fuelled more by indignation that its mandarins were not told about it and were caught on the back-foot. They are actually teed off.

In French the word Rafale means a rapid firing of artillery. So, most of the editorial salvos we shall read or hear are going to be politically motivated and there will be a sedulous search for scandal. We are now accustomed to pulling out the fluff from our navels and holding them to the murky light of suspicion. With TV adding to the clamour it should be a noise fest of no great worth. But enough dust will be raised (it has already just begun) as questions are manufactured, stored in a quiver of half-baked malice and let off in any direction that makes for some sensation. And there are is a slew of angles to choose from.

But let’s talk business.Don’t forget you don’t just buy the plane. You have to also buy the spares, invest in training, logistics, simulators, maintenance manuals (and the politicians). So much for the priorities of the arms industry.

Traditionally, fighters have a functional window that calculates their capability.

  1. Surprise the opponent without being surprised
  2. Outnumber the enemy in the air
  3. Outmanoeuvre the enemy to gain firing position
  4. Outlast the enemy while outmanoeuvring him
  5. Achieve reliable kills

The Rafale’s ‘surprise’ ability cannot match the stealth F-22. 

The manoeuvrability is worthwhile only in the maritime version.If we stop at 36 aircraft we do not outnumber the enemy.

Outlasting the enemy depends on range and training and armament as does achieving reliable kills which are now relevant in more of a ‘Top Gun’ scenario than bed-rocked in reality.

Let us see this deal for what it is. Much like the curate’s egg, good and bad in parts.

No one has ever said the Rafale is a bad aircraft. Nobody makes bad aircraft. But then no one ever said the Bofors shoot and scoot 155mm gun was a lemon either but the ripple effect of that mess still haunts the corridors of power.

So, why the Rafale? Because we have a fresh ‘amour’ with Paris? Perhaps EADS will sweeten the deal for India’s aviation sector with a better package for the Airbus family of aircraft. There is an offset element they haven’t told us about and France might be helping us in constructing a major project.

If the agreement encompasses a venture to make nuclear reactors, the Rafales are just a canapé on the smorgasbord.

Maybe we are getting the Rafale below its price tag of $100 million. Aircraft are never sold according to the tag, always well below. The US won’t give us the F-22 Raptor stopping its largesse at the F-18. Maybe Prime Minister Modi has a penchant for a headline maker on each foreign trip. And this is par for the course. Perhaps no one has asked why an aircraft that is 14 years old and never had a market abroad should be first choice. Nor (and here is the puff of dust) has there been much said about other viable options being placed on the table.

Maybe all these factors came into play, parts of them or none at all and just a plain deal between two leaders after three years of hemming and hawing.

Pretty much how the Rajiv Gandhi and Olaf Palme agreement came about to buy the 411 Bofor guns. With a chat followed by a visit from the Swedish PM to India and a gentle request to please, pretty please, take the gun, we’ll throw in the ammo and the maintenance manuals for cheap but help us keep the factory open.

Gandhi agreed. And the rest, as they say, is sordid history. The guns were cannibalised, the manuals offered a feast to termites and the accusations of the kickback eclipsed the gun’s merit. Now, while the ‘rescue mission’ element may not be quite as valid in the Rafale deal it is still a sop if it is examined in isolation. Except for Egypt’s recent 26 fighter deal for 5 billion Euros and this morning’s deal with Qatar the Rafale has not found a market these past 14 years. Unlike the Eurofighter which has been made by a consortium the Rafale is a purely French effort and no one else has gone for it. To that extent India has brought a balloon to the dying party.

There is no clarification on the variant of the 36 planes that India is buying. The naval Rafale makes a certain sense. The self-sell underscores a specific capability. Catapulted from a carrier deck in less than 75 meters, the Navy Rafale instantly and automatically rotates to the correct angle of attack. This critical operation is made possible by the aircraft’s innovative “jump strut” nose landing gear. So if this batch is destined for the flight deck and is the only delta winged carrier fighter in the world then maybe we have a leading edge in this deal.

If not, then it is a mighty expensive option for a heavy fighter especially since the indigenous production promise seems to have stalled before take-off and now has a broken wing. It is this broken wing that is going to power the suspicion that everything is not kosher about the deal and whiff of scandal could be driven to a full blown stench because there are other aircraft that haven’t even got a look in.

But, hey, are the French giving us the reactors. Why obscure the details and allow conjecture to take over?

F-16 Fighter Jet

I once asked Serge Dassault why anyone should buy a Rafale at over three times the price of an F-16 Block 60 Fighting Falcon. He said quite seriously that it was four times more efficient than the most upgraded Lockheed manufactured fighter ever.

I don’t quite know how true that boast is. In an age when drones are taking over the air battles and delivery systems for missiles have become as high a priority as Patriot type defence systems the heroic dogfight imagery is becoming passe. Conventional wars are not on the agenda. Besides, the upgraded version (the F-16 is the poster child for the success of navigating obsolescence) of even the Sukhois and the Gripen has given them a great lease on life. The Gripen, for example, is the only lightweight fighter of the top-line contenders. Boeing’s F/A-18E/F, Dassault’s Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-16 Block 60, Mitsubishi/ Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and Sukhoi’s Su-30/35 all have a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) in excess of 45,000 lb., with commensurate price tags and maintenance costs. 

If you recall India has been to war with obsolete Gnats against Sabrejets and scored. If you take a Su-35, a Typhoon Eurofighter, a Gripen along with an F-18 and pit them against the Rafale it is a toss-up who’ll come out tops.

Cost counts because these babes need high maintenance. An F-16 Block 60 would be available for $30 million. The US air force got them at roughly a discounted $17 million. The Rafale comes in a $100 million. The Su-35 Super Flankers clock in at $35

The Gripen, a largely under-rated first rate fighter has an official tag of about $60 million but highly negotiable with the latest upgrade the JAS 39 E/F which has a carrier version promising to be a tough ‘pugilist’.million give or take a few (they like to catalogue the price at $60 million but don’t go for that) and they are absolutely first rate aircraft. If India has opted out of the Russian monopoly and spread its wings on the global hardware market the price differential is a massive price to pay for cocking a snoot at Moscow. But that does not change the incomparable wow factor of the acrobatic Su-35 and the hush it creates when demonstrated at Farnborough, Le Bourget, Singapore or Dubai whenever aviation’s faithful gather.

The U.S. has recognized the need for more light fighters to meet the projected demand and are pinning their hopes on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Right now, the JSF sounds slightly impractical. A plane with a 56,000-lb. maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) (not exactly a “light” fighter) and an undisclosed unit cost is difficult to imagine. Yet, if there is no ban on export the JSF could do to the world military aircraft industry what the F-16 almost did: kill it.At this moment the Americans think they have a winner in the F-35 JSF project. With good reason.

Suddenly, there will be a stampede for the JSF and there won’t be enough to go round. The other offers will pale into insignificance and the JSF will have that special

Gripen Fighter Jet

stamp of authority.

The intended result of the JSF program is reflected in one sentiment: a state-of-the-art fifth-generation fighter costing just little more than an F-16C. That is to be seen.

That the Indian Air Force is over a decade behind in its frontline fighters is an understatement. The MIG-21 flying coffins became junks years ago. The Jaguars are fat and clumsy. The Harriers are far too old. We fall back mostly on the upgraded MIGs and Sukhoi earlier derivations.

The question to be asked is not what the stand alone Rafales can do for us. And the answer is: not much in themselves. Unless this is the first segment of a bigger plan to purchase strike aircraft and a plan that dovetails with this purchase and has a time critical frame one is loath to say that our generosity is ill placed and only the French will be singing in the rain.

The air force will still be woefully behind the curve.