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Rafale - An omnirole boost to the IAF


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In modern warfare, air dominance is a must, for the safe conduction of air-to-ground, air-to-sea,

tactical air support and reconnaissance operations. Fighter aircrafts are undoubtedly the most

strategic weapon today, both in terms of combat effectiveness and of important technologies

implemented. The main intention behind investment in fighter jets is to give us a decisive combat edge over the enemy. The Rafale, being an omnirole aircraft, is the right answer to carry out the widest range of missions with the least number of aircrafts. Let’s find out why.

The Rafale fighter jet is a twin-engine, canard-delta wing, omnirole aircraft. (A canard is a

small forewing attached in front of the main wing of the aircraft. It helps in decreasing drag,

meaning it decreases the total amount of lift the aircraft needs to produce, and also improves the overall stability. Delta wing is a wing shaped like a triangle and it derives the name from the

Greek letter delta “Δ”. An aircraft which can be used for a wide range of missions and has equal

capabilities for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions is referred to as an omnirole aircraft).

Rafale Fighter Aircraft (File I PTI)

It is designed and manufactured by a French company, Dassault Aviation. With its multi-role capabilities, such as air defence, ground support and reconnaissance, the Rafale gives air superiority to the Indian Air Force. Since the Russian-origin MiG-21 was ageing, Indian Air Force had decided to buy Rafale in 2016.

17 Squadron (stationed at Ambala), known as the Golden Arrows who operated MiG-21 was disbanded in 2016 after the Indian Air Force gradually started phasing out MiG-21 jets. The squadron was resurrected in 2019 to fly the Rafale jets. Ambala base is considered to be one of the most strategically located bases of the Indian Air Force. The second squadron of Rafale would be stationed at Hasimara base in West Bengal. IAF is also carrying out upgradation of its infrastructure in Ambala and Hasimara to accommodate the incoming Rafale aircrafts.

In 2016, India ordered 36 Rafale Jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in the month of September. Out of the 36 Rafale jets, 30 are fighter jets and 6 are trainers. Trainers will come with twin seats along with features similar to that of the fighter jets. The trainers will carry “RB” series tail numbers, the initials of the Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria. The remaining 30 fighter jets will carry “BS” series tail numbers, the initials of Air Chief Marshal (retd) B. S. Dhanoa. Both of them played a crucial role in negotiations for procuring the omnirole fighter aircraft. Air Chief Marshal (retd) B.S. Dhanoa had also commanded the 17 squadron during the Kargil war in 1999.

On the 8th of October, 2019 which is also celebrated as the Air Force day, the jets were received by the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh in a Handover Ceremony in France. 29th July 2020 was a significant moment for India as the first batch of 5 Rafale Jets were flown into the Ambala Air Force station. The aircrew bringing the fighter jets was headed by Group Captain Harkirat Singh. All the 36 Rafale jets are expected to be delivered by the end of 2021.

Rafales being escorted by Su-30 MKIs while entering the Indian Airspace

The omnirole fighter aircraft is 15.30m long and 5.30m high. The aircraft’s overall empty weight

is 10 tonnes and it has a maximum takeoff weight of 24.5 tonnes. The external load that a Rafale

can carry is 9.5 tonnes and this makes the aircraft special as it can carry a weight equivalent to its own and fly. It has a wingspan of 10.9m and a wing surface area of 45.7sq. m. Rafale has a top speed of Mach 1.8 (1.8 times the speed of sound), making it essential in airborne interception

with enemy air crafts. The approach speed of the aircraft is less than 120 knots which makes it

safe for the pilots for landing. (The approach speed is the speed at which the aircraft should

approach the runway for a safe landing) The maximum operating altitude of Rafale is 50,000 ft.

The twin-engine fighter jet is powered by M88-2 engines from SNECMA, each providing a

thrust of 75kN and thus enhancing the performance of the fighter jet. Rafale has the facility for

aerial refueling which allows it to receive aviation fuel from a tanker during flight. It can also

perform buddy-buddy refueling which allows one fighter jet to lend its fuel to another while still

in flight. The rate of climb of Rafale is 305 m/sec as compared to Su-30 MKI, which has a rate of

climb of 300 m/sec. This means that the thrust to weight ratio of Rafale is better than Su-30

giving Rafale an edge in vertical planes.

The aircraft is fitted with 14 hardpoints. (Hardpoints, or more formally known as weapon

stations, are specially designed locations on an airframe which is designed to carry external

loads, such as fuel tanks and weapons) India has specifically invested in the Rafale M variant

which is enabled for carrier operations as well. In the Rafale M there are only 13 hardpoints

because of its reinforced undercarriage to cope with the additional stresses of naval landings. In

Rafale, five of the hardpoints are suitable for heavy equipment like auxiliary fuel tanks and it has

a maximum external load capacity of 9t. The mid-air refueling capability would also entail the

aircraft to carry more ammunition since it doesn’t necessarily have to carry additional fuel tanks,

which are called conformal fuel tanks (CFTs).

Rafale Fighter Aircraft carries two Scalp cruise missiles or four direct attack weapons. Photo: French Air Force

The aircraft has a twin gunpod and a Nexter (formerly Giat) 30mm internal revolver cannon which can fire up to 2,500 rounds a minute. Since it’s an internal cannon, this means that all the 13 hardpoints can be used for other weapons/auxiliary fuel tanks. The missile of this aircraft, mainly the Meteor air-to-air missile and the Scalp Cruise missile can execute a long-range fight. Meteor is the next generation of BVRAAM (beyond-visual-range missile, capable of engaging at ranges of 37kms or beyond) which is designed to reform air-to-air combat. Meteor can take out an enemy aircraft at a range of over 100kms. Talking about the meteor missiles, one of the Indian Air Force officers was quoted saying, “Rafale fighter jets fitted with meteor missile which has a very high no-escape zone (No-Escape Zone is the zone within which there is a high kill chance against a target even if it is alerted), is many times greater than any other air-to-air missile systems”. The long-range Scalp cruise missile is an air-to-ground missile that is capable of taking out targets within a radius of 300kms. Rafale has a lightning-fast turnaround (The turnaround time of an aircraft is defined as the time that passes from when an aircraft lands until it takes off again for a new flight) which makes the aircraft more versatile for various missions.

Rafale making a Carrier Landing

The combat aircraft has a self-protection suite, SPECTRA (Self-Protection Equipment to Counter Threats for Rafale Aircraft) which has been jointly developed by MBDA and Thales. It is the foundation of the Rafale’s outstanding survivability and superior situational awareness. It carries out long-range detection, identification, and accurate localization of infrared, electromagnetic, and laser threats. This omnirole fighter jet edges out the Su-30 MKI, giving Rafale a good survivability in hostile airspace. The Rafale AESA radar (Active Electronically Scanned Array radar) is the most advanced radar ever built. The Rafale is the first operational aircraft and the only combat aircraft to use an electronically scanning radar. In the AESA radar, the beam of radio waves can be electronically steered to point in different directions without moving the antenna. In comparison to radars with conventional antennas, unmatched levels of situational awareness are attained with earlier detection and tracking of multiple targets. It has an electronic scanning agility which means that the radar system can quickly shift its operating frequency to account for atmospheric effects, jamming8 etc. (Radar Jamming is a deliberate attempt to blind the radars by increasing the noise levels at the input of the receiver) The radar also has a high-resolution ground mapping with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) modes. SAR can generate real time high resolution 2-D ground maps and 3-D maps for terrain. This radar is unlike anything that the IAF has used before.

The cockpit of the aircraft has hands-on throttle and stick control (HOTAS). There are two sticks in this cockpit instead of one, with a right handed side-stick controller and a left handed throttle. This will allow the pilot to access cockpit functions and fly the aircraft without removing their hands from the throttle and flight controls. The glass cockpit was designed keeping in mind the concept of data fusion where a central computer will select and prioritise information to display for pilots for simpler command and control. The highly digitised cockpit also has an integrated Direct Voice Input (DVI) which allows a range of aircraft functions to be controlled by spoken voice commands and has a holographic head-up display (HUD) system which manages the aircraft control data, mission data, and firing cues. There’s also no need to carry heavy oxygen canisters as there is an on-board oxygen generating system which is developed by a French-based Multi-National Company, Air Liquide. The pilot also has a helmet-mounted sight and display.

Cockpit of the Rafale(above) with HOTAS (two sticks controls) in comparison to the cockpit of Su-30 MKI(below) with one stick control

In conversation with another officer of the Indian Air force, he said, “The fighter jet has a weapon system which outguns other weapon systems in the region and will give India the ability and edge over other neighboring countries while engaging targets”. More importantly the Rafale aircraft has more than 30,000 flight hours in operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria proving its worth in combat. This gives IAF a vital edge over the neighbouring countries as China’s J-20 stealth fighter is still untested in combat and hasn’t been evaluated by neutral third parties and Pakistan’s JF-17 is a single engine aircraft. Rafale, on the other hand, is an extremely experienced aircraft, thus the modern omnirole fighter aircraft adds as a force multiplier to the Indian Air Force.


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