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The Rafale: How Effective It Is as a Viable Weapons System

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The Rafale is a French-built interceptor with a multirole capability. The plane was first negotiated in 2004 when the UPA government led by the Congress was in power. At that time the deal was for 126 aircraft. For10 years nothing happened and the deal remained on paper. One reason for this could be the involvement of senior officials including the AirChief Tyagi along with politicians in murky deals in other defense projects.

In 2014, the Congress-led UPA government was routed in the polls. The BJP now came to power and within two months after the new government took over France's minister for foreign affairs and international development, Laurent Fabius met Prime Minister Modi to push for the Rafale deal. At the time the deal was still for 126 aircraft. A month before the meeting, the Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappiersaid that the company was hopeful of closing the deal by end 2014.

The deal ran into rough weather. The Indian defence Minister Mohan Parrikar said that the IAF was ordering additional Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters and these were adequate for the IAF in case it was decided not to procure the Rafale.

In April 2015 Prime Minister Modi made a visit to France and it was announced that the IAF would acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets in fly-away condition. These would equip two squadrons with 18 aircraft each. No explanation was given as to why the deal was whittled down from 126 aircraft to only 36.

After six years of the Modi government coming to power, five Rafales have been flown from France and have joined the Indian Airforce. There is much euphoria in India after the planes joined the Indian air force. Many senior generals with very little knowledge of aviation have been stating that now China would be wary of India with the Rafale in the Indian arsenal. Most of these gentlemen have not read the theories of Guilio Douhet to understand that five or even 36 aircraft are not enough to win an air war and create a favorable air situation.


The Rafale

Any weapon system which is purchased must also be cost-effective and be in a position to dominate the airspace both in numbers and capability. A limiting factor for any aircraft purchased by any country is that the spare parts and vital components are always on tap from the home country and the manufacturer. A point that must be mentioned here is that the Rafale has been around for almost 2 decades and during this period no country other than Egypt and now India has ventured to buy this plane. The Air Force and the Modi government should have thought as to why this plane is not popular with most countries of the world when the earlier French planes like the Mirage was sold to almost a dozen countries.

Even Egypt is having second thoughts on the Rafale fighter. After procuring 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, Egypt did not order any more of these planes. In turn, the Egyptian's ordered the Russian Sukhoi Su 35. This preference for the Sukhoi has raised eyebrows. The Egyptian air force has claimed that the Russian heavyweight jets can outperform the Israeli and US warplanes in the middle east region and hence they have opted for the Su 35.

The Eurasian Times has reported that despite boasting of awe-inspiring capabilities the French origin jets haven't seen many buyers and Egypt was the first overseas contract for the Rafale,14 years after it entered service with the French Air Force.

It is food for thought that other than France and Egypt only India and Qatar are using Rafale jets and that too in very limited numbers. A point brought out by many aviation experts is that the Rafale's a practical ceiling is lower than the J 16 and even in engine thrust, the Chinese J-16 and Russian SU- 35 are superior to the French combat aircraft.

Last year Egypt had inked a deal worth US $2 billion 24 Russian made Su-35. This was after receiving 24 Rafale jets.earlier. These planes have been received by Egypt.

Egypt opted for the Russian plane mainly because the Americans have given the F 35 to Israel. The Rafale is not in the class of the F35 and costs more than four times the Russian plane. The Egyptians wanted a cost-effective weapon to match the F 35 and hence they chose the Su 35.

The Indian Air Force experts and the government must think about why nobody has made mass purchases of the Rafale. Why almost a dozen countries are operating the F 35 the American Fighter? From Germany to Japan and the UK the F 35 has been inducted.

The Chinese have inducted the J20 which is a copy of the SU-35 though it does not have the same capability. Given the capability of the Chinese, it will not be long before they are able to change the power plant of the J20.


Last Word

As have already pointed out, the potency of a weapon system depends on quantity, quality, as well as price. Without going into figures the cost of the plane is four times the cost of the Russian Su-35 and the Swedish Gripen fighter. There is also no Indigenous manufacture and transfer of technology covered. Any loss of aircraft in an accident or otherwise is also not covered. In case one or two planes are lost in an accident they will not be automatically replaced by the French but India will have to pay heavily for it. Otherwise, the fleet will keep dwindling.

In such a situation with the F 35 not available for India the better bet would have been to go in for the SU 35 as the Russians like in the case of the MIG would have transferred technology to India. The sad part is that India still remains an importer of weapons and not a single item of any importance is manufactured in India for the Indian armed forces. The much-touted Tejas Jet which is claimed to be an Indian manufactured plane uses the power plant from General Electric of the USA so I wonder how it can be called a purely Indian plane. The real reason for the planes not being manufactured in India and the various tanks and guns also is because of the nexus between the politicians and civil servants who saw imports as a lucrative opportunity to siphon away money for their pockets. A lack of foresight also on the part of Pandit Nehru and subsequent Indian leaders lead to neglect of building a technological base in India for the manufacture of these sophisticated machines.

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As a man with experience in the air force the logic of 36 aircraft without any backup planes coming beats my imagination.


tom on September 30, 2020:

unupgraded mig 29-poor cockpit rear visbility,short range and endurance,export version used by india since 1987 lacks russian version radar and missile capablity,but all that is solved by upgrade called mig 29 smti.sir did you serve in no24 hawks squadron,i have mig 29 diecast

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 18, 2020:

Thank you Umesh, is the Kharghar golf course still closed?

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 18, 2020:

Very informative. Thanks.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 14, 2020:

Robert, that is how China has prospered by copying everything, patent rights, or not. Even the USA has now realized it and Trump has taken steps. How are things in England now?

Robert Sacchi on August 14, 2020:

That makes sense. It does seem more economic than political, but that's splitting hairs. The best way to cut your own high tech industry's throat is to sell items to countries that can make a copy that is either cheaper or better.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 14, 2020:

I think there is politics involved. Russians are getting vary of the Chinese especially of the Chinese ability to do reverse engineering and copy the product. The Russians sold them a few Su 35 and the Chinese copied the plane and made the J 20. That could be one reason for stopping the S 400 for the time being

Robert Sacchi on August 14, 2020:

It is interesting the Russians have stopped supplying S 400s to China. I wonder if the decision was political or economic.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 14, 2020:

I have flown the MiG 29 it's a good plan but had its limitation. The Rafale is a very costly plane though it has got avionics. The plane it will have to face is the Su35 and the J20 The Chinese fifth-generation fighter. The Rafale can match these planes but then 36 aircraft is not going to lead anywhere. Only 5 have been inducted so far. It will take more than two years for the balance 31 to come. To give you an idea the distance from London to Warsaw is 1600 km while the India China border is 3400 km in length. This gives you an idea of the vastness of the area which has to be covered and two squadrons can't do much. The main strength of the IAF remains the Su 30 And there are roughly 20 squadrons of these. As there was considerable delay in getting the Rafale the IAF thought it better to immediately get from the Russians nearly 45 su30 which they agreed to supply within 60 days.

There is a lot of politics going on also and Russia has now stopped the supply of the S 400 to China. The Indians are going to get the S 400 by the end of this year. The Russians also rejected the Chinese request to stops the planes to India. One of my friends who is now a vice Marshal told me that the Indians may be going in for the SU 35.

Robert Sacchi on August 14, 2020:

I could see where a small number of Rafale fighters could make sense. Does the Rafale have an advantage in areas such as avionics? I remember when Germany reunited the only East German aircraft they were interested in keeping was the MiG-29. They found the mechanics of the aircraft was good but the electronics were about 20 years behind western aircraft.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 13, 2020:

You are right Robert, a major clash with China is not expected as even CHINA doesn't want one

Robert Sacchi on August 13, 2020:

Interesting article. Could it be that India considers a major conflict highly unlikely and is just preparing for small border clashes?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 12, 2020:

Thank you, Flourish, for commenting

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 12, 2020:

This sounds like a poor decision for so many reasons.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 12, 2020:

The Rafale is almost 4 times the cost of the Gripen and the Su 35. Another negative point against the Rafale is that there is no transfer of technology while that was not the case in the case of the Gripen and and the Su35.

R Mehra on August 12, 2020:

The Rafale is a good plane but it had some meaning only if 126 as originally planned had been bought. Buying just 36 is neither here nor there and in fact is a waste of resources. I agree that the Su 35 or even the Gripen from Sweden is the better option. It would have made for a better cost-effective option.

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