Part 3: From light fighter to nuclear delivery platform: Long road to the Rafale - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 24 November 2017

Part 3: From light fighter to nuclear delivery platform: Long road to the Rafale

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Nov 17

Since the turn of the century, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) began its quest for cheap, light fighters to replace the Soviet-era fleet of light MiG variants, the IAF’s specifications for the replacement fighter have changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable.

From supporting development of an indigenous fighter, to adding more fighters to the Mirage-2000 fleet already in service, the IAF switched tack to buying medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) through competitive global tendering; to eventually buying 36 Rafale fighters in a government-to-government deal with France.

In the newest twist, after Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced on April 10, 2015 in Paris that India would procure 36 Rafale fighters from French vendor, Dassault, the justification for acquiring such a high-end fighter transformed into veiled hints that it is a platform for delivering nuclear weapons in wartime.

Three days after Modi’s Rafale announcement, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar said on Doordarshan: “It is a strategic purchase and should never have gone through an RFP (Request for Proposals, or a competitive tender)”

Most nuclear strategists have taken “strategic purchase” to mean that India would rig Rafale fighters to deliver nuclear weapons – in place of the Mirage 2000s and Jaguars that currently do the job – as the airborne leg of its nuclear triad.

In the calculations of many analysts, there could be no other valid reason for an air force that already operates seven types of fighters to buy just 36 aircraft of an entirely new type, further complicating a logistical nightmare.

Furthermore, nuclear strategists say in the era of highly reliable land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, delivering nuclear weapons by aircraft is a dispensable option.

Says Vipin Narang, nuclear strategist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “Given India’s diverse and capable land and sea-based missiles, it is worth considering whether one even needs a replacement delivery platform for nuclear gravity bombs. If India is committed to a triad, a more cost effective solution may be to make Brahmos a nuclear missile and use the Sukhoi-30MKI to deliver it, obviating the need to replace Mirage and Jaguars. It is hard to justify $225 million a plane for an increasingly obsolete mission.”

If indeed the Rafale’s nuclear capability led to its purchase, it remains unclear why the government does not publicly state it? The commitment to a nuclear triad – of delivery of nukes by land, sea and air -- is already publicly enunciated in India’s nuclear doctrine. It would be reasonable to state that the IAF is paying souch a heavy cost to have the most seamless transition from the Mirage 2000 to another French platform, says Narang.

However, there would be questions over whether the Rafale needs to do that job. The Mirage 2000 and the Jaguar are both being upgraded, and can act as airborne nuclear vectors till 2030-35.

Shifting goalposts

The nuclear talk is only the latest example of the IAF shifting goalposts on its fighter purchase. It is worth tracing the procurement over the last two decades.

Since the early 1980s, when the IAF had 42 fighter squadrons but 30 of them were light MiG variants that faced obsolescence, it was decided to develop the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace them. In 1981 the IAF, in a document called “Air Staff Target 203”, defined a requirement for a light, single-engine to replace the MiGs from the mid-1990s.

But the LCA was delayed and, in 1999 had still to make its first flight (it eventually flew only in 2001). The IAF, happy with the performance of the Mirage 2000 in the 1999 Kargil war, began lobbying for buying the Mirage production line that Dassault was closing down, and re-establishing it in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to build the excellent Mirage 2000-5 fighter.

“As an air force we were very familiar and comfortable with the operational and tactical handling of the Mirage 2000,” said Air Marshal (Retired) Pranab Kumar Barbora, who was Vice Chief of Air Staff till 2010.

That would have given the IAF large numbers of inexpensive yet sophisticated, single-engine fighters, ideal for replacing the MiGs. But the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) defence minister, George Fernandes, under fire after the Tehelka exposes on defence procurement corruption, shied away from a single-vendor buy from Dassault – ironically, considering that eventually happened with the Rafale purchase 15 years later.

In 2002, Fernandes ordered the IAF to float a global tender. Specifications were framed for a light fighter, and the IAF floated a “Request for Information” to four global vendors in 2004. However, in 2005, Dassault – apparently miffed at having to compete instead of being awarded a single-vendor contract – foreclosed the option of transferring the Mirage 2000 line to India.

It took the IAF three more years to draw up specifications of a new fighter. On August 28, 2007, when the IAF issued an international tender for what was dubbed the MMRCA, the inexpensive, light, single-engine MiG-replacement fighter had morphed into a high-tech, medium-to-heavy fighter that could have one engine or two, and would inevitably cost far more than what was hitherto envisaged.

When responses to the tender came in, there were now six aircraft in the fray: Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen - C; Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Super Viper; Russian Aircraft Corporation’s MIG-35; Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Eurofighter’s Typhoon and Dassault’s Rafale.

Defence Minister AK Antony, while chairing a meeting of his Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on June 29, 2007, outlined three guiding principles for the MMRCA procurement: “First, the operational requirements of IAF should be fully met. Second, the selection process should be competitive, fair and transparent, so that best value for money is realized. Lastly, Indian defence industries should get an opportunity to grow to global scales.”

A decade later, none of these objectives have been met. With the IAF’s operational requirements still unmet with the procurement of just 36 Rafales, fresh tendering is underway for 114 “single-engine fighters”. Instead of a “competitive, fair and transparent” selection, the decision to buy the Rafale remains opaque. And, with the “Make in India” component of the deal scrapped, indigenous defence industry remains ignored.

The Dassault advantage

Through the five years it took the IAF to conduct and conclude the MMRCA selection process, the buzz within the defence aerospace community was that the contest structure favoured Dassault.

To win, a fighter had first to meet the IAF’s requirements in technical evaluation and performance flight-testing. Then, in the second stage of evaluation, commercial bids would be opened of those vendors whose fighters had met the IAF’s norms. Based on a “life-cycle costing” matrix, the lowest bidder (termed L-1) would be declared the winner.

After lengthy flight trials the IAF eliminated four fighters in April 2011 – the Gripen-C, F-16, F/A-18E/F and the MiG-35. Coincidentally, these were the four that were significantly cheaper than the Rafale. Only the excellent, but expensive, Eurofighter Typhoon went into a commercial bidding contest against the Rafale. On January 30, 2012, Dassault was informed it was the L-1 bidder.

Amongst the fighters the IAF eliminiated were the F-16 Super Viper and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the world’s most combat tested and proven fighters that form the backbone of the world’s most formidable air force.

Ironically, the IAF is now pursuing two fresh acquisitions – for single-engine fighter and multi-role carrier-borne fighters respectively – in which the F-16 and F/A-18 are hot contenders. Evidently, the purchase of 36 Rafales has changed little for the IAF.


  1. So basically the crux of your whole article is that buy an American plane... Lol.. Why waste 1000 words to say that then?

  2. I feel the sole purpose for which rafale was purchased to have capable sanction free nuclear delivery platform and that is why only two squadrons were purchased . It is extremely expensive and thus for other roles some other plane needs to be selected.i feel the SU 30 numbers must be bumped to atleast 360 with some consultancy taken to improve the engine life and spares be manufactured in India. The availability of the planes be atleast 75 % and try to build atleast 400 tejas at a brisk rate about 40 planes per year . Anything less than that is not worth it. Try to get AESA radar in mirage upgrade and upgrade all MIG 29 this itself makes 46 squadrons. 4-5 squadrons of upgraded Jaguars with Darin 3 upgrade and new HTFE 40 engine would make jaguar a decent plane. Another five squadron of latest version of F 18 with two squadron of fifth generation plane , this makes 57-58 squadrons with AMCA work should start as more join in phase out mirage , Jaguars and migs. The priorities have to be set.complete the tests of tejas and get FOC. Built in next six months Tejas MK1 A with AESA radar with more internal fuel and internal electronic warfare suite , electro optic sensor integration and easy maintanibility and start Building prototype for MK 2 with EPE engine. Try to fully devlop multi rack pyelons and fully devlop namica and Astra missiles , devlop a smaller erosion of brahmos to add sharp teeth to the force. China would never ever dare to risk a war. I am not talking of air superiority or dominance , I am talking of battlefield dominance. This is perhaps the cheapest option to attain the required numbers with least possible expense. Tejas can be more effective if a naval version is used in northeast and laddhakh as it is easier to devlop and maintain multiple small four hundred meters runways . With aerial support so close to the border any attack by china would be beaten off then and there with very heavy casualties to the Chinese. Tejas be used as point defense fighter with very good ground strike capability and can clean up armour , artillery , supply trucks , bridges and few radars as well as with very good air to air capability can defend itself and keep the area free from enemy fighters. The advantage is small size , composite structure and easy maintenance and high sortie rate with modular construction and can be repaired and made to fly. I strongly feel this is my very honest view from a bystander who has no wasted interest .


  3. your last statement needs correction, it's IN which is pursuing the MRCBF project, not IAF.
    but you are right, IAF leadership failed and always had their favourite in mind when going for nonsensical tenders, look at the time they wasted for MMRCA, almost 5 years!! now they want another tender and another 5 years. another GOI and IAF boss will do a U turn and we are back to square one. on one hand they want to kill Tejas to go in for F-16/Girpen which once they rejected as they did not fulfill the perf parameters. now they are the hot favourites, what a joke!! it really shows the lack of leadership in all dept.

  4. You have ducked the question on role of ADAG group ,JV partner Dassault.

    HAL is being sidelined.

  5. The decision to go for just 36 aircrafts by the Modi govt. was astonishing, mostly because it all but guaranteed another aircraft type would have to be inducted to make up the numbers. The number(36) though I have to believe was arrived at as a function of 2 factors 1. whatever the IAF viewed as a minimum number to make a difference in the role envisaged and 2. The amount of money available with the govt to spend.
    You have repeatedly pointed out how the MMRCA contest was flawed, but the biggest flaw was the apparent technical evaluation with no regards to price.There was no way we could have afforded a Jet that costs 100+ million euro, at the numbers required. If the F-16 can be considered now, why couldn't it have been considered back then for the full 126 aircrafts? The Navy will now be looking at the F-18 to meets its requirements, given this factor would the F-18 have made sense for the IAF?
    The proposed "single engine" contract is unlikely to be signed before the next election.
    The IAF is paying the price for its own folly.

  6. Quite frankly.... in the whole saga of the single-engine, light fighter replacement, the IAF comes incompetent, bungling force that wants the latest, most glamorous toy to play with. The whole Air brass should be given a dressing down, and send over to the Naval HQ to learn the art of indigenization.

    We can ill afford 2 decades of procurement - and no fighter to show at the end of it - and no scale build into the domestic industry either. Just a whole lot of paper wasted, and plenty of man-hours.

  7. Reading this man's blog one would never know that Ajai Shukla was once part of the military. Every report is biased, spoon fed by commercial interest and devoid of strategic thinking. Now it is almost certain his ideas are politically motivated. Real shame - except one article re: China I read I have now decided not to ever bother reading this blog again unless it is factual.

  8. Thank you for this amazing analysis. Could you please also do a similar point-by-point analysis of the Tejasvini? Recently, the Singaporean defense Minister has flown the aircraft and the comments were very positive. That deal should be in the bag. ~ SatishV

  9. The genesis of the MRCA lay in the Mirage-2000 jet, which was what IAF wanted post-Kargil. However, with the Mirage lines shutting down, the MRCA metamorphozed into the M-MRCA.

    The wasted decade since turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Tejas, that grew from a mere "LCA" to a fighter whose specs really match those of the Mirage-2000 and Gripen-C. IAF's test pilots themselves have said on record that the Tejas matches the Mirage-000. And any comparison of specs of the Tejas with Gripen-C will tell us that both have the same range-payload specs (expected, since both use the GE-F-404 engine).

    If the IAF of 1999-2000 were to see the Tejas Mk.1 TODAY, they would place an order of 126 jets immediately. However, with the MRCA transforming into the Medium Multi-Role aircraft, F-16s, MiG-35s and Gripen-E have come to the mix. Most of these fighters were in the Teas class earlier during the 1990s. But during the early 2000s, they moved from the thrust class of ~90-100 kN to approx ~140 kN thrust.

    So, F-16 Block C moved from 100 kN of thrust to a massive engine of 150 kN thrust in the F-16 E. The MiG-29 moved from 2x engines with ~50 kN each, to 2x engines of 80 kN thrust. Interestingly, the Tejas' twin, the Gripen-C moved from the GE-F-404 of 90 kN thrust to the GE-F-414 enhanced, that provides ~130 kN of thrust.

    But...but...wait ! We also have plans of Tejas Mk.2 that will also feature the GE-F-414 engine ! This will bring it in the league of the Gripen-E, which is being touted for the Single-Engine proposal.

    So, instead of buying Gripens or F-16s, the Tejas Mk.2 will meet the single engine requirement of the IAF !!

    It is thus very interesting to see the metamorphosis of the Tejas from a so-called "LCA" to a full-fledged medium fighter.


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