Time to factor in China in defence needs

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh received the first Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in Paris on October 8, the foundation day of the Indian Air Force. The loyal mass media is eulogizing it as a “game changer” as Pakistan has no fighter aircraft comparable to Rafale. It should be borne in mind that Rafale was selected by the Congress-led UPA Government as far back as January, 2012. The contract was for 126 aircrafts. Behind the whole media build-up over Rafale now, there is a not-so-subtle attempt at giving all the credit to the Modi Government, while the truth is that the decision to acquire Rafale was taken by the UPA.

In 2014, after the BJP came to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi airdashed to Paris and arbitrarily, on his own, changed the contract from 126 to 36 aircraft, that is, 96 less than what was originally contracted for. There was some controversy over the new price fixed per aircraft and the way the new contract was entered into. This need not be gone into now as the deal has been finalized and the first aircraft delivered. The Government has said that another three will join the IAF by May, 2020. Nobody apparently knows when the remaining 32 will be delivered.

What about the ninety other aircraft the IAF needs? Nobody knows. Will they be acquired or has the original decision to acquire 126 aircraft been dropped forever and we have settled for only 36? If so, then how is the alarmingly depleted fighter fleet of the IAF going to be replenished? Again, nobody knows. One swallow does not make a summer. One Rafale does not become a “game changer” for India, just as one Arihant does not put in place India’s much needed nuclear triad.

Reliance Defence, the Ambani Company, has been selected by the Modi Government for indigenous manufacture of Rafale, cancelling the original contract with the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Reliance Defence has no experience in aircraft manufacture but got the contract because of Ambanis’ proximity to the Prime Miniser.. But nothing is known about the progress, if any, made by the company for building the Make in India Rafale. The acquisition of Rafale has gained urgency because the IAF intends to de-commission its entire fleet of Russian MiG 21s and MiG 27s latest by 2022.

As far as Rafale being a “game changer” is concerned, with whom does the “game” change? Pakistan is no match for India in a conventional war–Rafale or no Rafale. The training of the IAF pilots is of such high quality that in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, our Gnats made mincemeat of the then famous and formidable US-made Sabre jets. Let Pakistan not forget that. And if Islamabad ever commits the ultimate folly of launching a nuclear strike on India, Pakistan will be wiped off the face of the Earth. Pakistan knows it well enough.

So, our real adversary is China. Does the acquisition of Rafale aircraft give India air-superiority over China? The Government has claimed that the Rafale we are acquiring has been made specially for India, keeping in mind Indian conditions and requirements. What these modifications are is classified information. What is known is that among its multiple roles, Rafale has anti-ship strike capability and can be used for nuclear deterrence missions. It has a speed of Mach 2 and a ceiling of 42,000 feet. The high quality radar-absorbing material Rafale is painted with makes it a “stealth” aircraft.

As far as its superiority over comparable aircraft in Chinese Air Force (People’s Liberation Army Airforce or PLAAF) is concerned, it is worth remembering that Alexander Kadakin, former Russian ambassador in India, (2009 to 2017) was quoted as saying: “Rafale can be shot down like mosquitoes by the Chinese-made Sukhoi.”

China has made the J-16 fighter aircraft which has a “camouflaged” colouring that makes it easy to escape radar detection. According to a Chinese defence expert, the colouring “makes the aircraft blend into the sky and sea so that the enemy will recognize it only at close quarters, giving it a huge advantage in combat.” The J-16 has a range of 3000 kms and a ceiling of 56,800 feet. So, is Rafale really a “game changer” as far as the Chinese are concerned?

The real concern for India is that the IAF’s minimum sanctioned strength of 40 squadrons has come down to 33 squadrons. When the old MiGs are decommissioned by 2022, the fleet strength will be further reduced. We have to reach the sanctioned strength of 40 squadrons as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, the Indian Navy’s fleet strength has also to be raised. India must take into consideration the massive expansion plan of the Chinese navy and be in a position to prevent China from attaining naval supremacy in India’s home turf, the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Navy has taken up a mega expansion plan under which it will have 200 ships, 500 aircrafts and 24 attack submarines. The expansion plan was sanctioned by the UPA Government. India is augmenting its submarine fleet by building six conventional diesel-electric Scorpene class submarines. The first, Kalvari, was commissioned in December, 2007. The second one, Khanderi, was commissioned the other day–September 28.

Six nuclear subs will eventually join the Navy. The first, Arihant, has already been commissioned. Five more are under construction. Nuclear submarines are deadly ships as they can fire nuclear warheads from under water and the enemy has no inkling of where the vessel is prowling under sea. When all the six nuclear subs are commissioned, the Indian Navy will be a formidable force to counter China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Barun Das Gupta

The writer is a freelance journalist.

(Views are personal.)