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France's Rafale May Not be the Best Choice for the Indian Air Force

February 01st - 2018

In April 2015 India agreed to a €7.87 billion ($9.35 billion) contract to acquire 36 Dassault Rafale fourth generation multirole fighters from France. The fighter jets are expected to be delivered between November 2019 and mid of 2022, and will become India's most capable multirole aircraft. While the Rafale fighters are yet to be delivered, the Indian Air Force has more recently made a case for the acquisition of a further 36 fighters - noting that a second batch of the aircraft would cost only 60% as much as the first. Despite the Rafale's capabilities as a fourth generation platform attention has nevertheless been called to the remarkable costs of the light fighters - whose price is several times that of its Russian and American equivalents and even eclipses that of most fourth generation high performance air superiority fighters such as the F-15 and Su-30. Indeed, while it is a potent fighter with a formidable long range strike capability, the Rafale is like many other Western European weapons systems extremely expensive if not overpriced compared to alternatives from the United States and elsewhere. An example is a a comparison of the Rafale with the Su-30MKI, a heavy air superiority platform and the most capable fighter in the Indian Air Force. The Sukhoi is among the most capable fighters in the world in an air to air role, and exceeds the capabilities of the Rafale on all fronts with a far greater payload (20 tons vs 14 tons), speed (Mach 2 vs Mach 1.8), altitude (57,000ft vs 50,000ft) and even range (the Sukhoi's is 41% greater). The Rafale's only advantage is a very slightly higher thrust-weight ratio, though should the Su-30 reduce its payload and fuel to match the Rafale's more limited carriage and weight it would be far more manoeuvrable than the French platform. The Rafale's inability to operate long range missiles is also a crippling inhibitor to its capabilities, with the French platform having no equivalent to the AIM-120C or R-77 firing at ranges of over 60km - whereas the Su-30 can comfortably engage enemy aircraft at up to 130km away using its R-27 missiles. Despite every capability disadvantage, the French platform's price is nevertheless well over double that of the Sukhoi. 

While India is undertaking significant efforts to increase its Air Force's capabilities, with the goal of being able to match a joint Chinese-Pakistani force on its borders, further investment in somewhat overpriced Western European fourth generation light fighters is hardly the most efficient way to do so. Should India require an elite light platform, investment in the MiG-35 or F-16E would prove more than capable and come at a fraction of the cost of the Rafale - with the former in many ways exceeding the French platform's capabilities. With the purpose of light platforms being support for and low operational and acquisition costs relative to heavy fighters, the Rafale hardly fulfils this role effectively. 

The Indian Air Force's presentation advocating for new Rafale fighters has reportedly compared them to the fifth generation Sukhoi/HAL FGFA program to the French fighter, with the Air Force emphasising that the Rafale was despite its considerable cost still cheaper than the program to acquire a variant of the Su-57. While the joint Indian-Russian program has stalled, and the fifth generation fighter is indeed likely to cost more than the older Rafale, the two platforms cannot be practically compared. The Su-57 is not only a generation ahead of the Rafale, but it is also a high performance air superiority platform as opposed to a light multirole platform. A comparison of the two therefore is equivalent to a comparison of the United States' F-22 and an advanced variant of their F-16 - in terms of their air to air combat capabilities, range, technological sophistication and survivability it is no comparison at all. Air superiority platforms have repeatedly demonstrated their significant capability advantage over their multirole equivalents from the same generation, such as the performance of American F-15s and Ethiopian Su-27s against MiG-29s and more recently war-games between Chinese J-11s and Pakistani JF-17s, in which air superiority platforms exacted heavily tolls on the multirole fighters and suffered no losses. This capability difference is only exacerbated should there be a generational difference between them in favour of the air superiority platform - such as an F-22's advantage over an F-16, and F-14 over an F-5 or a Chinese J-20's advantage over a Rafale. The platform can do all that the Su-30 can and much more, with stealth capabilities, three dimensional thrust vectoring for supermanoeuvrability, improved radars and avionics and the ability to carry the advanced K-77 air to air missiles with a 194km range. The Su-57 may well cost more than then Rafale, but it is hardly a comparable platform and represents a far more efficient use of the country's limited budget. 

While India does arguably need an upgrade in its aerial warfare capabilities in light of Chinese acquisitions of the J-20, Su-35 and S-400 and development of the J-11D and J-31fighters and PL-15 missiles, the Rafale hardly represents a platform surpassing the country's existing capabilities. Should India seek to match China in the air more suitable platforms would be the Su-57, likely able to outmatch anything China fields, S-400 SAM systems and possibly a stealth variant of the Su-35 already under discussion. Joint development of an air to air missile for the Su-30 fleet capable of engaging targets at extreme ranges with Russia is also a possibility, perhaps based on the 400km range R-37 Russia designed for potential use on Russia's own own Su-30 and Su-35 fighters. These are all highly cost effective means of negating China's currently tremendous and growing advantage in the air. Should India require light fighters, they should hardly come as the Air Force's most expensive platforms considering their relatively limited capabilities and support role. Alternatives including joint production of Japan's Shinshin X2 program or South Korea's KAI KFX program have far better prospects, both being fifth generation fighters with capabilities exceeding the Rafale which would give India an edge over China in a way French platforms cannot.

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