On the 29th of June 2020, India welcomed five brand new French-made Rafale fighter jets into its aerial arsenal. Experts say the twin engine multi-purpose jets, also the cause of many internal political slugfests will have a substantial impact on the balance of power in the region.
The flight line at Air Force Station (AFS) Ambala in the Indian state of Punjab made way for a brand new entrant. The arrival of the jets in India, estimated at $100-$120 million apiece, didn’t just draw national media attention but was also observed closely from across the border in Islamabad. Ambala is only 509 km away from Pakistan’s capital. If hostilities heighten between the two countries, the Rafale, capable of delivering more than 9 tonnes of weapons on enemy targets, will likely form the spearhead of Indian air strikes against the Western neighbor.
Watch: India receives first batch of French Rafale combat aircrafts
Former Indian Air Force Chief B.S Dhanoa had emphatically remarked that the outcome of the 2019 air battle with Pakistan, which saw the shooting down of a MiG-21, would have been completely different had the IAF been in possession of this French-built warplane. Though Pakistani F-16s remain a formidable threat, the Rafale’s superior sensors, Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities and long range missiles like the Meteor give it the upper hand in combat.
With this prized acquisition, the IAF has finally edged ahead of its arch-rival, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), in a long running game of one-upmanship.
Here is an analysis of how each side has tried to outdo the other in terms of fielding superior fighter aircraft.
From subsonic to supersonic
The strategic convergence of interests between the US and Pakistan saw the PAF acquire the F-86F Sabre in 1954, followed a short while later by the F-104 Starfighter in 1961. The latter had an aura of invincibility around it as the world’s fastest, high altitude supersonic fighter. The age of high performance combat aircraft had dawned in the subcontinent. These acquisitions turned the Pakistan Air Force into a top notch force, comparable to the best in the world. As luck would have it, India’s request to buy the F-104 was declined by the Kennedy administration.
Though the IAF had earlier settled for the British Hawker Hunter, it felt an acute need for a fighter that could take on the F-104. The IAF then knocked on the USSR’s door, which readily agreed to sell the venerable Mig-21 supersonic interceptor, which remains the IAFs backbone to this day. The MIG-21, both nimble and fast in the air, was a credible challenger to the F-104. It went on to acquit itself extremely well in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, downing several Pakistani aircraft.
In February 2019, the MiG-21 pulled off one of the biggest upsets in aviation history when it scalped a PAF F-16. As an aside, the Mig-21 will have completed 62 glorious years of service when it leaves the IAF in 2025.
Round Two begins
After a brief lull, the competition between the two air forces resumed, with Pakistan obtaining the US F-16A in 1983. This was a new generation combat aircraft that had no parallel in the IAF at the time. Air Chief Marshall Dilbagh Singh, then IAF chief, prevailed on Indira Gandhi to order the French Mirage 2000 which was still undergoing flight tests at its manufacturer, Dassault’s facilities, in Bourdeaux Merignac – the same site that is now building the IAF’s new Rafales. The Mirage deal was not without controversy. Despite the storied reputation of its manufacturer, the design did not yet have many of the capabilities the IAF needed to counter the vaunted F-16.
Sceptics argued that the aircraft compared badly with the F-16 in terms of range and endurance. To be sure, the IAF also got the government of the day to sign-off on a deal to buy the Soviet MiG-29, billed as the Eastern Bloc’s answer to the F-16. The two new types added more variety to the already eclectic menagerie of aircraft that made up the IAF fleet of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, between 1979 and 1985, the IAF added as many as 4 combat aircraft types, making it one of the largest fighting forces in the world.
An investment worth its weight in gold
However, both aircraft proved to be India’s saving grace in the 1999 Kargil War. The Mirage 2000 was used to devastating effect by the IAF to cut off Pakistani supply lines at Muntho Dhalo in the icy mountains of Kargil. Precision strikes carried out by the Mirages on Tiger Hill, in support of the Army’s infantry units, broke the will of the enemy and forced them to call for a truce. The MIG-29 – known as the Baaz in IAF service – was the nemesis of the PAF’s early model F-16As which lacked Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles back then. The MiG-29, however, had no such handicap, and could target Pakistani F-16s at will. The threat from the MiG-29s kept the PAF largely out of the fight.
India slips, Pakistan gains
As an ally in the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, the PAF received the latest ‘Block 52+’ version of the F-16 in 2008, along with a comprehensive suite of weapons that included top of the line AIM-120C Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAMs). The IAFs qualitative edge had been blunted. Unfortunately for the IAF, it would take eight long years to catch up. Though it had started looking for a new fighter as far back as 2001, bureaucratic red tape and political wrangling deprived it of a new fighter until 2016, when PM Modi broke with convention to sign a deal with France for 36 Rafale aircraft during an official visit to Paris.
Though the IAF has undoubtedly regained its edge, it knows that its future fleet will need to rely on indigenous aircraft like the LCA Tejas and the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) that are currently in development.