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Dogfight Dukes
Individually, the Dassault Rafale and Sukhoi-30 are powerful fighters, but together they are a dramatic force multiplier that will transform the IAF’s war fighting tactics; the combo is bad news for India’s enemies
Rakesh Krishnan Simha

The first of the 36 Rafale aircraft India is buying from France was handed over to the Indian Air Force in September this year. By 2022, when both squadrons of the French fighter are operational, the Indian Air Force will have four lethal warplanes in its fleet, including the Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flanker, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 Fulcrum. Plus, with the indigenous Tejas being inducted at the rate of 8-12 aircraft per year, the IAF is on course to becoming a well-balanced fighting force.

Since the IAF has around 250 Su-30s (for an eventual Flanker fleet of well over 300 Sukhois), 90 Fulcrums and around 45 Mirages, the 36 Rafales will not be the dominant in numbers (although that could change with possible follow-on orders). However, where it lacks quantity, the aircraft will compensate by bringing a whole suite of advanced 4.5 generation technologies that have never before been seen in the region. The brand new Rafale will take India’s air combat capability to an entirely different level.

It needs to be emphasised that no single weapons platform can be a game changer. Countries that integrate weapons and systems and operate them in sync with each other are usually the countries that win wars. The Rafale by itself won’t be a war winner but it will become a force multiplier – that is, when deployed with the workhorse Sukhoi, MiGs, Mirages and the Tejas, all five aircraft become more lethal by feeding off of each other’s synergies.

God’s eye view of the battlespace

The Rafale’s greatest strength is that it introduces network-centric warfare capabilities and data-logistics similar to those on fifth generation stealth jets such as the American F-35, enabling the French jet on patrol to build a more accurate picture of the battle-space by pooling sensors over a secure network, and even exchange data using new satellite communications antenna.

As Dassault claims, the Rafale’s “multi-sensor data fusion” provides a link between the battlespace surrounding the aircraft and the pilot with its unique ability to grasp the outcome of tactical situations and make sensible decisions.

Each Rafale will therefore act like a mini AWACS aircraft, passing on to other pilots’ data about the location of enemy aircraft, air defences and radar coverage, thereby greatly enhancing IAF pilots’ situational awareness.

Cutting off the enemy’s jugular

As the IAF’s air dominance fighter, it is the Sukhois that currently have the role of kicking down the enemy’s door so that other attacking aircraft can pour in through the breach. However, the Sukhoi has a drawback – it is an extremely large and heavy aircraft that will light up like a Christmas tree on enemy radars. The Su-30 was not built to be stealthy and that is the reason why India sent in the smaller Mirages to hit Balakot on February 26, 2019.

Since the French will not have a fifth-generation fighter for the next two decades, they have packed the Rafale with technologies that are capable of going head to head with the latest stealth jets. The Rafale, with its low radar profile and firepower (14 hardpoints versus 12 on the Sukhoi) can now perform that role. According to military aviation writers such as Sebastien Roblin, the Rafale is much more agile than the F-35 stealth fighter, with superior climb rate, sustained turn performance and the ability to super-cruise (maintain supersonic flight without using fuel-gulping afterburners) at Mach 1.4 while carrying weapons.

Anti-aircraft defences consist of several links – command, control, communication, ground radar, missiles and airborne radar – in a long kill chain. Using its semi-stealthy profile, wide range of weapons, powerful jammers and 360-degree early-warning capability, the Rafale can snap one or more of these links, and thereby disrupt the enemy’s detection ability.

See first, shoot first

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October 2019