After the Indian Air Force struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, about 80 km from the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Modi said, "Rafale fighters could have delivered even better results". His reference was apparently to the stealth of Rafale, an air-dominance aircraft manufactured by French Dassault Aviation. Instead, the Indian Air Force deployed a dozen Mirage-2000 aircraft, made by the same company to hit the target. The Rafale is a Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that is said to boost India’s air dominance exponentially, currently safeguarded by fighter jets like Russia made Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG 29, along with French Mirage-2000 and indigenously built HAL Tejas.
Here’s a look at the history and specifications of the Dassault Rafale to understand what makes this Fighter Jet so special for the Indian Air Force and why it could have delivered even better results in a strike like Balakot?
Origin of Rafale
Rafale is a French word meaning "gust of wind" and is a French-origin Delta winged, twin engine multirole fighter aircraft manufactured and designed by Dassault Aviation. The initial requirement of Rafale came into light in mid-1970s, when both the French Air Force and Navy expressed a requirement for a new generation of fighters. In early 80’s Dassault was formally announced to build aircrafts for the French government and the testing started in 1991. The production of the first aircraft series started in late 1992, but was suspended in 1995 due to political and economic uncertainty.
The production was restarted in 1997 after an initial order of 48 aircrafts was placed by the Ministry of Defence followed by a further order of 59 Rafale in 2004 and 60 aircrafts in 2009. The French Air Force first operational Rafale squadron, EC 1/7 “Provence”, was stationed at Saint-Dizier air base in 2006. Along with French Military including Air Force and Navy, countries like Egypt and Qatar are the current operators of the Rafale MMRCA, while India will join the list this year itself.
The Dassault Rafale has been combat proven and has actively taken part in many wars in last 13 years. From 2006 to 2011, French Air Force and Navy Rafale fighters were engaged in countless combat missions in Afghanistan where they demonstrated a high proficiency. In 2011, French Air Force and French Navy Rafale fighters were engaged in coalition operations over Libya. They were the first fighters to operate over Benghazi and Tripoli, and carried out the whole spectrum of missions. French Air Force Rafales have taken a leading role in Mali, helping destroy enemy infrastructure and support friendly troops in contact. More recently, Rafales were engaged in support of peace-keeping operations in the Central African Republic, and as part of a wide international coalition in Iraq.
India and Rafale Deal
Though the idea to induct additional fighter jets in the IAF has been since 2001, the actual process began in 2007. The current IAF fleet largely consists of heavy and light-weight combat aircraft. So the defence ministry considered bringing in intermediate medium-weight fighter jets. The Defence Acquisition Council, headed by then Defence Minister AK Antony, approved the ‘Request For Proposal’ to buy 126 aircrafts in August 2007. This kick-started the bidding process. The plan included acquiring 126 aircraft, 18 of them in fly-away condition and the rest to be made in India at the Hindustan Aeronautics facility under transfer of technology.
Dassault’s Rafale was not the India’s only choice as several international aviation manufacturers expressed interest upon knowing the Indian government’s mammoth plan to revamp its air force fleet by introducing MMRCAs. Six renowned aircraft manufacturers competed to bag the contract of 126 fighter jets, which was touted to be the largest-ever defence procurement deal of India. The initial bidders were Lockheed Martin’s F-16s, Boeing’s F/A-18s, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG-35, Sweden’s Saab’s Gripen and Dassault’s Rafale.
All aircraft were tested by the IAF and after careful analysis on the bids, two of them — Eurofighter and Rafale — were shortlisted. Dassault bagged the contract to provide 126 fighter jets as it was the lowest bidder and the aircraft were said to be easy to maintain. After Rafale won the contract, the Indian side and Dassault started negotiations in 2012. Though the initial plan was to buy 126 jets, India scaled it down to 36, that too in ready condition. The first squadrons of the Rafale are set to join the IAF fleet by 2019.
The Rafale is a modern fighter jet known for its agility, speed, weapon holding capacity and attack capability. The Dassault Rafale has a delta wing design and is capable to g-forces as high as 11g (in case of emergency). The Rafale is available in both single and dual seating cabin (India ordered 28 single and 8 dual seater Rafale). The Rafale is 15.27 metre long and a wingspan of 10.80 metre. The empty weight of Rafale ranges from 9900 kg to 10600 kg depending on the variant and a maximum take-off weight of 24500 kg.
The Rafale is powered by two SNECMA M88 engines, each capable of providing up to 50 kilonewtons (11,000 pounds-force) of dry thrust and 75 kN (17,000 pounds-force) with afterburners. The engines push the Rafale to attain a high speed of 1.8 Mach (1912 kmph) and a range of more than 3700 km with 3 drop tanks.
Dassault has also loaded the Rafale with a Martin-Baker Mark 16F "zero-zero" ejection seat, capable of operation at zero speed and zero altitude. In terms of weapons, the Rafale can be equipped with air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and air-to-surface missiles along with Nuclear weapons. For avionics, the Rafale is also equipped with AESA radar, SPECTRA Electronic Warfare System and IRST System.