The Rafale aircraft will give India a strategic advantage in case of any aerial combat with China in the mountainous Tibet region as the fleet will be able to use the terrain to its advantage, destroy enemy air defence and incapacitate the surface-to-air missiles, former Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal (retd) BS Dhanoa said on Sunday.
Dhanoa, known as the architect of the Balakot strikes, said the Rafale jets along with S-400 missile systems will give the Indian Air Force a major combat edge in the entire region and that India's adversaries will think twice before starting a war with it.
In case of Pakistan, he said the purpose of the S-400 and Rafale is to hit Pakistani aircraft inside Pakistani air space and not when they come inside Indian territory, adding the neighbouring country would not have responded on February 27 last year to the Balakot air strikes if India had the French-manufactured jets then.
In an interview, Dhanoa said the Rafale, with its fantastic electronic warfare suite and maneuverability, will be able use mountainous terrain in Tibet to its advantage and blind the enemy before India's strike aircraft penetrate hostile airspace to carry out their missions.
The former Chief of Air Staff also said that the Rafales being supplied to the IAF are much more advanced than the ones being used by the French Air Force as India had asked for something "more" due to requirement to operate in unique conditions like operations from Leh.
Five Rafale jets out of 36 arrived India last week at a time India is in the midst of a bitter border row with China in the high altitude eastern Ladakh region.
"Rafale has got a fantastic Electronic Warfare (EW) suite (SPECTRA), fantastic weapons and therefore are capable of protecting themselves electronically besides being able to use the terrain to their advantage," Dhanoa said.
"So they (Rafales) can play an important role in doing DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defence) on the Surface-to-Air Missiles that the Chinese have put on Tibet. "Once you take out those surface to air missiles, then other aircraft like Su30, Jaguars, even Mig 21s can go out and drop the bombs on the Chinese forces. The strike aircraft carrying bombs can put tonnes and tonnes of bombs on the enemy troops, freely carrying out their mission. But if you do not do DEAD then you will suffer a lot of casualties," he said.
The leading air forces globally carry out Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) or DEAD using their top of the line aircraft or weapons before launching any major operation in hostile territories.
As the Chief of Air Staff, Dhanoa had strongly defended the Rafale deal when the opposition parties ramped up attack on the government alleging massive irregularities in the procurement. The top IAF brass led by Dhanoa played a key role in implementation of the mega deal.
"Against China there are big Himalayan mountains in between us which create serious line of sight issues. You can put a missile with a range of 300-400 kms on the ground in Tibet or in India. But it will only work within the line of sight," he said. He said the Rafales, with terrain following capability, will give India a major capability enhancement.
"In air combat, the first thing that is important is information dominance, you get information and deny the enemy the information. The key role the Rafales will play in Tibet is information dominance and in case of Pakistan, it is a major deterrent. Of course there will be other roles too," he said.
Asked about the comparison between the Rafales and J-20 fighter jets of China, he said the Chinese aircraft is not stealthy and presently, with its current engines, cannot supercruise unlike the newly acquired Indian fleet.
In a beyond visual range (BVR) combat, he said Indian missiles are far superior than theirs. The French avionics on board the Rafale are "far superior" than the Chinese systems in J-20s, he said.
"Hence in a BVR environment the Rafales are superior to the J-20s," he added. "With the induction of the Rafales we will have a tremendous jump in capability. That's why I called both (Rafale and S 400) of them game changers. Both these platforms will give the IAF a tremendous capability jump. The Rafale in the air and S-400 on the ground.
In October 2018, India signed a USD 5 billion deal to buy the S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia to bolster the IAF's air defence mechanism. The 'Triumf' interceptor-based missile system can destroy incoming hostile aircraft, missiles and even drones at ranges of up to 400 km. The delivery of the missile systems is scheduled to begin next year.
"Both S-400 and Rafales are critical game changers. Rafale is a deterrent. The purpose of deterrence is not to fight a war. Purpose of deterrence is to make the other person think twice before he starts a war or a skirmish with you," he said. He said the Pakistanis would not have responded on February 27 last year to India's Balakot strikes if India had the Rafale jets.
In this context, he also mentioned an operation by the IAF to drop bombs on a Pakistani post along the LoC in Kel sector in 2002, and how Pakistani Air Force never dared to respond to it.
"On August 2, 2002, we did bombing of a Pakistani post as the Pakistanis had intruded about 600-700 metres inside the LoC in our area and set up a post. We bombed with four Mirage 2000s and after that the Pakistanis never came back," Dhanoa said.
"The Pakistanis never ever dreamt of bombing an Indian post in retaliation because we had Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles on Mirage 2000, MiG 29 and the Su-30 Ks and they did not have any BVR missiles on any of their fighters," he recalled.
"They just kept quiet about it and just didn't acknowledge that something had happened and later on played it low key when the news did break in the international media! That is what is called deterrence," he added.
Asked whether India should consider procuring two more squadrons of Rafales as it makes operational sense, Dhanoa called it a good idea and said that it will be the "cheapest option" of getting a 4.5 generation fighter into the air force.
"We already have infrastructure for two squadrons. We do not need additional infrastructure for the next two squadrons. They will come, in my assessment, at 60 to 70 per cent of the cost of the current ones," he said.
"The cost of research and development for all India-specific enhancements have already been covered. The next two squadrons of Rafales will be the cheapest option of getting a 4.5 generation fighter into the air force," he added.
Dhanoa, who retired as the IAF Chief on September 30 last year, said having two more squadrons of Rafales will give the force a lot of strength. "If you have 72-80 aircraft, it will match whatever F-16s the Pakistanis have got. It will be good for deterrence," he said adding it will make economic sense.
Dhanoa also thanked all the people who stood by the Rafale deal, including the defence minister, the civil servants, the then defence secretary, the director general (acquisition) and many others in the government.
"You have to give them full marks, because they stood by it despite many apprehensions. Normally everybody gets scared that this deal may be termed later as a scam and they may be hauled up by the investigation agencies after their retirement, or some other roving inquiry that may happen which may implicate them in the future. These people stood by it; we signed and executed the deal," he said. Dhanoa said the political leadership also stood their ground and did not dump the deal.
"They were going into an election. You could have always opted for a soft option of setting up a committee. Everybody stood their ground. The national leadership, the bureaucracy. That is why you have the aircraft," he added.
Dhanoa also expressed happiness that the first squadron of Rafales will be part of the Number 17 Squadron, also known as 'Golden Arrows', based in Ambala.
"I am very happy…I was the last Commodore Commandant of 17 squadron. It got number plated in March 2012. It stopped flying in December 2011. Having celebrated our Diamond Jubilee in October 2011. Last year the Squadron has been resurrected and this year aircraft have finally come to the Squadron," he said.
"Golden Arrows have a very rich tradition. The Squadron has fought in all the wars. It participated in the Liberation of Goa, 1965 war, 1971 war, and it fought in Kargil," he added.
Dhanoa commanded the squadron during the Kargil war. "In case, there is fighting in Eastern Ladakh, we will not miss it," the Air Chief Marshal (Retd.) said in a lighter vein.