Rafale deal: Good or bad
In French the word Rafale means a rapid firing of artillery. So, most of the editorial salvos we shall read or hear are going to be politically motivated and there will be a sedulous search for scandal.
Don’t forget you don’t just buy the plane. You have to also buy the spares, invest in training, logistics, simulators, maintenance manuals (and the politicians). So much for the priorities of the arms industry.
But let’s talk business. The Rafale’s “surprise” ability cannot match the stealth F22. If we stop at 36 aircraft we do not outnumber the enemy. The maneuverability is worthwhile only in the maritime version. Outlasting the enemy depends on range and training and armament as does achieving reliable kills, which are now relevant in more of a “Top Gun” scenario than bed-rocked in reality.
Let us see this deal for what it is. Much like the curate’s egg, good and bad in parts.
No one has ever said the Rafale is a bad aircraft. Nobody makes bad aircraft. But then no one ever said the Bofors shoot and scoot 155mm gun was a lemon either but the ripple effect of that mess still haunts the corridors of power. So, why the Rafale? Because we have a fresh “amour” with Paris? Perhaps EADS will sweeten the deal for India’s aviation sector with a better package for the Airbus family of aircraft. If the agreement encompasses a venture to make nuclear reactors, the Rafales are just a canapé on the smorgasbord.
Maybe we are getting the Rafale below its price tag of $100 million. Aircraft are never sold according to the tag, always well below. The US won’t give us the F22 Raptor stopping its largesse at the F18. Maybe Prime Minister Modi has a penchant for a headline maker on each foreign trip. And this is par for the course. Perhaps no one has asked why an aircraft that is 14 years old and never had a market abroad should be first choice. Nor (and here is the puff of dust) has there been much said about other viable options being placed on the table.
Except for Egypt’s recent 26 fighter’s deal for 5 billion Euros the Rafale has not found a market these past 14 years.
There is no clarification on the variant of the 36 planes that India is buying. The naval Rafale makes a certain sense. The self-sell underscores a specific capability. Catapulted from a carrier deck in less than 75 meters, the Navy Rafale instantly and auto¬matically rotates to the correct angle of attack. This critical operation is made possible by the aircraft’s innovative “jump strut” nose landing gear. So if this batch is destined for the flight deck and is the only delta winged carrier fighter in the world then maybe we have a leading edge in this deal.
If not, then it is a mighty expensive option for a heavy fighter especially since the indigenous production promise seems to have stalled before takeoff and now has a broken wing. It is this broken wing that is going to power the suspicion that everything is not kosher about the deal and whiff of scandal could be driven to a full blown stench because there are other aircraft that haven’t even got a look in.
But, hey, are the French giving us the reactors? Why obscure the details and allow conjecture to take over?
I once asked Serge Dassault why anyone should buy a Rafale at over three times the price of an F16 Block 60 Fighting Falcon. He said quite seriously that it was four times more efficient than the most upgraded Lockheed manufactured fighter ever.
I don’t quite know how true that boast is. In an age when drones are taking over the air battles and delivery systems for missiles have become as high a priority as Patriot type defense systems the heroic dogfight imagery is becoming passé.
Conventional wars are not on the agenda. If you recall India has been to war with obsolete Gnats against Sabres and scored. If you take a Su 35, a Typhoon Eurofighter, a Gripen along with an F 18 and pit them against the Rafale it is a toss-up who’ll come out tops.
Cost counts because these babes need high maintenance. An F-16 Block 60 would be available for $30 million. The US air force got them at roughly a discounted $17 million. The Rafale comes in a $100 million. The Su-35 Super Flankers clock in at $35 million give or take a few and they are absolutely first-rate aircraft. If India has opted out of the Russian monopoly and spread its wings on the global hardware market the price differential is a massive price to pay for cocking a snoot at Moscow. But that does not change the incomparable wow factor of the acrobatic Su 35 and the hush it creates when demonstrated at Farnborough, Le Bourget, Singapore or Dubai whenever aviation’s faithful gather.
The Gripen, a largely underrated first-rate fighter has an official tag of about $60 million but highly negotiable with the latest upgrade the JAS 39 E/F which has a carrier version promising to be a tough “pugilist.”
At this moment the Americans think they have a winner in the F-35 JSF project. With good reason.
The US has recognized the need for more light fighters to meet the projected demand and are pinning their hopes on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Right now, the JSF sounds slightly impractical. A plane with a 56,000-lb. maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) (not exactly a “light” fighter) and an undisclosed unit cost is difficult to imagine. Yet, if there is no ban on export the JSF could do to the world military aircraft industry what the F-16 almost did: Kill it. Suddenly, there will be a stampede for the JSF and there won’t be enough to go round. The other offers will pale into insignificance and the JSF will have that special stamp of authority.
The question to be asked is not what the stand alone Rafales can do for us. And the answer is: Not much in themselves. Unless this is the first segment of a bigger plan to purchase strike aircraft and a plan that dovetails with this purchase and has a time critical frame one is loath to say that our generosity is ill placed and only the French will be singing in the rain. The Indian air force will still be woefully behind the curve.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view