Friday, January 24, 2014

Rafale's Heavily Armed Configuration in Indian Context

Rafale in its heavily armed configuration. Photo Credit: Dassault

The Rafale was recently tested for the first time in its heavily-armed configuration, comprising six air-to-ground precision AASM Hammer missiles, four medium and long range air-to-air missiles from the MICA family, two very long range METEOR missiles, as well as three 2,000 liter fuel tanks.

Rafale has 14 hard-points, including 8 under the wings, and is the only fighter capable of carrying a load that is 1.5 times its own weight.

Two Rafale aircraft represent the same potential as six Mirage 2000 aircraft.

Its payload capacity and the mix of weapons that it can carry, give the Rafale a lot of versatility and firepower. From the outset, Dassault pitched the Rafale as a swing role fighter to India capable of performing interdiction and interception during the same sortie.

The question is - How relevant is a swing role fighter to the Indian context. Launching an aircraft heavily armed with air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons is most effective when the airspace is uncontested, as was the case for allies in Libya and Iraq. In a conventional Indian war against Pakistan or China, airspace on both sides of the border is likely to be heavily contested. Attacking aircraft are very likely to be challenged by enemy fighters. A heavily armed swing role aircraft would be forced to jettison its weapon load frequently in such an environment resulting in a lot of wasted missions.

However, a swing role aircraft would come in pretty handy in a Kargil like situation, where the airspace in the area of operation is uncontested, because there is no conventional war underway.

The fact that the IAF has opted for the Rafale could be a pointer to the types of wars that it expects to fight in the future.

Kargil did happen and could happen again. Indeed, another Kargil is more likely to happen than a conventional war across the international border. This is true even in the context of China. Swing role fighters could well save the day in case large portions of Arunachal Pradesh were to fall to the PLA following quick mobilization and attack.