Why India chose the Rafale-M aircraft over the F/A-18 Super Hornet

World News

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impending trip to Paris, a deal for 26 naval Rafales is reportedly likely to be signed between India and France. This has both positive and negative features. The positive is that it promotes commonality; the negative is that it exposes the huge gaps that still exist in our procurement system.

The Navy should be commended first for enhancing Air Force-Navy interoperability. In the past, the Navy made this decision, specifically due to the MiG-29K’s spare parts and training compatibility with Air Force MiG-29s. With regard to the upcoming agreement, the Navy will benefit greatly from a shared arsenal of weapons and electronics as well as the Rafale’s improvements made specifically for India, which will also result in significant financial savings.

Additionally, the initial maintenance and training infrastructure purchased for the Air Force Rafales will help the Navy and the public by dramatically reducing expenses. It’s important to keep in mind that the cost of maintenance over the course of an aircraft’s life is double that of procurement.

The India-specific upgrades, which include a strong optical suite for the detection of stealth aircraft and a nuclear delivery capability, would be the most crucial operational components of the commonality. When you consider how the Chinese Navy stacks up against us, these are especially important.

Unfortunately, India cannot currently compete with China’s spending levels and the sheer quantity of aircraft carriers and sea-based aircraft that China is able to deploy. Chinese naval fighters are all Sukhoi 30 derivatives, which are heavier, better equipped, and more powerful than the MiG-29 (although operating these heavier aircraft from an aircraft carrier’s very short runway may impose significant restrictions on heavier aircraft, negating some of the advantages; while the Chinese don’t have these contraptions, steam or electric catapults do away with the drawbacks of short runways).

This made choosing a high-quality solution vital. A MiG on a Sukhoi, or a Russian-on-Russian engagement, obviously has a 50/50 chance of success, but a vastly superior Western platform, armed with longer-range missiles like the Meteor and the ability to detect any alleged stealth aircraft through infrared emissions changes that equation significantly in India’s favour. It is important to note that while fighters of Russian origin invented optical detection to make up for inadequate radar technology, western optical systems currently outperform their Russian and Chinese equivalents in this area by a significant margin.

All Indian Rafales have nuclear delivery enabled, which is a substantial improvement. The Air Force Rafales’ ability to deliver nuclear bombs is their worst-kept secret; the French have made all the necessary modifications and clearances for them to carry stand-off nuclear warheads. With the ability to launch long-range, air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear payloads and the inherent force projection capabilities of an aircraft carrier that can transport a floating airfield out into the Pacific Ocean, this gives the Navy a substantial new capability.

However, we are aware that the Rafales will necessitate a substantial redesign of our follow-on carriers. The size of their aircraft elevators, which move fighters from the runway on deck to the hangars below deck, is just what this has to do with. The present lifts are exactly 10 metres wide, which is insufficient to fit the Rafale because its wings cannot be folded, unlike the MiG-29 or F/A-18 Super Hornet, for example. This means that unless extensive re-engineering and retrofits are made, the Rafales can only equip ships that will be built. They are not backwards compatible with existing carriers.

More importantly, the number of aircraft will be rather minimal due to the roughly 40,000-tonne displacement cap on our carriers as well as the amount of deck space the Rafales take up (in the absence of folding wings). The Rafales are expected to make up for their low onboard numbers with superior quality and the capacity to shoot down adversary aircraft from farther away.

Of course, aircraft carriers are not independent vessels. They work together as a coordinated whole in intricate battle groups with other frigates, destroyers, and submarines. This is where the Indian Navy, despite having significantly fewer ships than the Chinese Navy, can choke off the Malacca Straits and wreak havoc in the South China Sea thanks to the BrahMos anti-ship missile (with a greater range and speed than any Chinese ship-borne missile), the Meteor air-to-air missile, the Rafale’s superior electronics, and the Scorpene class submarines’ sheer endurance and stealth.

Why not the F/A-18 Super Hornet, one may ask? After all, it has a wider variety of weaponry to choose from, is more adaptable, has folding wings, and a potent and dedicated electronic warfare variant. Well, there are a few. The AMRAAM, its air-to-air missile, cannot do standoff kills like the Meteor-Rafale combination can. Second, the Americans would in no way permit the Super Hornet to be equipped with any nuclear bomb delivery system. Last but not least, adding another combatant would have required establishing an entirely new maintenance, logistics, and training system, not to mention a drawn-out bargaining process made more challenging by the price of developing adaptations specifically for India. Keep in mind that no combatant is an exact fit; each one has strengths and weaknesses. The Super Hornet’s drawbacks in this situation were more pronounced.

We still need to ask why we had a parallel process going on that could have very easily led to the procurement of yet another fighter type, complicating our logistics, even though it is commendable that the Navy ultimately chose the Rafale over the Super Hornet in the interests of cost and commonality. Indeed, economies of scale and a mass purchase may have greatly enhanced the quality of work share, technology, and offsets agreed during the Air Force Rafale sale.

In fact, it raises the question of whether it makes sense to buy fighters in batches of 36 and 26 when a judicious investment in 180–200 (more than the French Air Force and Navy put together) may give leverage for an almost total technology transfer (apart from the Rafale’s 17% US-sourced components). There must be a solution for this fundamental problem. We still can’t synchronise testing, needs, and competitiveness to take advantage of bulk buying. Although a lack of inter-service cooperation is mostly to fault for this, political leadership is also responsible. The goal of an elected government, after all, is to harmonise and combine divergent interests for the good of the public and the country.

Despite the systemic problems with the procurement process, the naval Rafale acquisition is a big plus for India’s need for security in the Indo-Pacific. The advantages greatly exceed the drawbacks. However, even though the system’s weaknesses are being fixed, it still needs to be fixed.

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