Should India buy a 4th generation Rafale fighter to take On China’s 5th Generation Stealth fighter Chengdu J-20?
Shailesh Kumar New Delhi, 05 June 2016
India is in the final phase of price negotiation for 36 French Rafale fighters. It is still wise to have last minute thinking while Government crosses the last mile just before India is about to ink the deal. Least we regret later, better be thoughtful now if the deal is really worth to maintain strategic balance in the region.
There are two key points of this story. But before you read further, here is the disclaimer:
Disclaimer: The story is a presentation of an idea rather a different view point in national interest. National Defence (and the author) in no way is endorsing any product or any company. Mentioning of any particular product or company is mere necessity in order to prove a potential point of view considering national interest.
Aspect 1: Should India really buy Rafale fighter?
Aspect 2: What are the alternatives? Which combat aircraft can provide air superiority and dominance vis-à-vis China’s J-20 or J-31?
Lets discuss Aspect 1 first.
Should India really buy Rafale?
Why does India need more fighter jets?Should India really buy Rafale now?
Indian Air Force is capable of dealing with Pakistan with the present strength of squadrons. IAF requires air dominance fighters for two front war to take on China as border dispute lingers on.
It can’t match PLA Air Force in terms of numbers. PLAAF has more than 1700 fighter aircraft while India has 600 fighters in its squadron. So to balance the air power game, IAF requires air dominance fighters. But, is Rafale really an air dominance fighter vis-a vis Chinese Chengdu J-20 or J-31 stealth fighter?
A cursory comparison can nail down Rafale as a bad choice as the French fighter Rafale is ‘4th Generation-plus fighter’, inferior in crucial aspects like stealth to the J-20, China’s ‘5th Generation’ stealth fighter will be inducted in PLAAF almost at the same time when the first lot of Rafale could be delivered to Indian Air Force if we presume the contract is signed today.
Once operational, J-20s, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force will be dominating the Himalayas. The IAF Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft already outclassed by 2020 will limp around the skies till 2050. Through the entire 30-40 year service life of the selected MMRCA, the IAF will fly a second rung fighter when it could have gotten the best.
Even countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore are realising that a fifth generation fleet is needed for a credible defence capability against the PLA.
IAF projected the demand for 126 MMRCA in 2001 when there was hardly any 5th Generation fighter available for sale.Unwilling to wait for a 5th Generation fighter, the IAF scaled down its requirements and initiated an impartial multi-vendor contest for whatever Gen-4+ fighters were there in the market. But when in 2015 MMRCA was cancelled, a robust fifth Generation fighter was well available for quick delivery. Fifth generation fighter is stealth and not seen on enemy radar at longer ranges. While it can detect incoming enemy aircraft and launch missiles much before being detected. Each 5th Generation fighter is the battlefield equivalent of 3-4 previous generation aircraft.
Now consider the cost of Rafale. Different media reports projected Rafale cost around 1650 crore a single fighter. In the cost India can have around 6 LCA Tejas, India’s own indigenously built 4+ Generation fighter. Even defence minister doesn’t seem to be happy with the high cost of Rafale. The price negotiation is still lingering on despite more that a year of G2G deal initiated by none other than the Prime Minister Modi and President Hollande. What if a 5th Generation fighter is available for same or lesser cost and immediate delivery under G2G deal? Should India really buy Rafale or make a decision to scrap the contract for once and all in favour of a robust battle winning fifth generation fighter?
Aspect 2: What are the alternatives?
India has got at least 3 alternatives.
First alternative is the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft or SukhoiPak-Fa T-50.
This is a fifth generation stealth fighter under development jointly by India and Russia. The aircraft is a stealthy, single-seat, twin-engine jet fighter. It is a multirole fighter designed for air superiority and attack roles. The fighter is planned to have supercruise, stealth, supermaneuverability, and advanced avionics to overcome the prior generation of fighter aircraft as well as ground and maritime defences. India has plans to buy around 130 FGFA. Each fighter is likely to cost 350 crore rupees. But the cost may rise further with the delay owing to adverse economic conditions in Russia and Ukranian crisis. So, the development and delivery both are not reliable at the moment. It will not be wise to wait for the FGFA.
Second alternative is HAL AMCA
HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft is India’s indigenous under development fifth-generation fighter aircraft. It is being developed by Aeronautical Development Agency and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. It is a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth supermaneuverable all weather multirole fighter aircraft. The program is too late and the first flight is scheduled to occur in 2023–24 only.
Third alternative is American F-35 B
The Lockheed Martin’s F-35B is single-seat, single-engine, all- weather stealth multirole fifth generation fighter. The fifth generation combat aircraft is designed to perform ground attack and air defense missions. The aircraft was not operational in 2001 when MMRCA proposal was first mooted. But now world’s most robust fighter is available for sale perhaps much cheaper than fourth generation Rafale with immediate delivery. F-35B is short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) platform. The fighter’s single engine can’t be considered a negative factor because IAF’s Su-30mki despite having twin engines crashed 6 times between 2009 and 2015.
It could be worth considering. In view of the changed scenario, national security demands scrapping the overpriced Rafale procurement and buying the F-35 through a single-vendor contract. Should defence of the country be held hostage to the procedural requirement of multi-vendor bidding; is overpaying justifiable even if it is done through competitive bidding. On earlier occasions, India has procured several good aircraft on a single-vendor, government-to-government basis- the Sukhoi-30MKI from Russia; and the C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft from the US. Should not the procurement of a new fighter that will form the backbone of the IAF for decades be treated with the same yardstick to maintain the strategic balance in the region.
(“Shailesh Kumar is a senior journalist and has worked with various media organisations including India TV, Star News, News24, NewsX”)
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Shailesh Kumar is an independent journalist with over 17 years of experience in crime, political and defence reporting for leading media brands including Star News, India TV and NewsX. He is the founder editor of defence and security news portal, National Defence.