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Will India’s Rafale Jets Give It An Edge Over Its Neighbours?

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The fleet of the first five out of its 36 Rafale fighter jets which India purchased from French company Dassault arrived in the country on July 29. The occasion was marked with stupendous fanfare. Everyone, from politicians to anchorpersons on media to military personnel sang praises of the new combat aircraft. Former Indian Air Chief BS Dhanoa was insistent that China’s new J-20 stealth fighter “doesn’t even come close” to India’s new Rafale fighters. He also said that the aircraft was capable of outgunning any threat that the Chinese and Pakistani Air Force produces.

The reality of these claims and the celebration by India are worth considering.

Currently, Pakistan’s most advanced fighter jet in its fleet is the US-made F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is a 4th generation jet. In comparison, the Indian fleet includes the Russian-made Sukhoi SU-30MKI, also has a 4th generation fighter. In terms of weaponry, Pakistan’s F16s are armed with the AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM. These have a higher capacity than the ones used in SU-30MKI (R-77) and in the Mirage (MICA).

When the Pakistan Air Force felled the Indian plane on February 27 last year, the Indian prime minister said in a public gathering, “The country is feeling the absence of Rafale. The entire country is saying in one voice today, what all could have happened if we had Rafale. The country has suffered a lot due to selfish interests earlier and now politics over Rafale.”

Thus, a big reason for the celebration over Rafale is that the Indian Air Force thinks it will gain an edge over PAF in air-to-air capability. Rafale is a 4.5 generation fighter and, in some respects, more advanced than F-16 Fighting Falcons. Rafale is equipped with Meteor air-to-air missiles with a range of 150-180 km. The F-16 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, on the other hand, has a shorter range of about 100 km.

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However, the upcoming JF-17 Block 3 fighter jet, which made its maiden flight in December, is easily at par with the Rafale in fighting capabilities. JF-17 Block 3 is a 4.5 generation jet and features various technologies from China’s most advanced J-20 fighter. The fighter integrates some limited stealth features, a more powerful engine, a larger AESA radar. According to Asia Times, JF-17 Block 3 will be equipped with PL-15 long-range air-to-air missiles, which have a maximum range of 300km, easily surpassing that of Meteor (150 km) used in Rafale and R-77 (100 km) used in MiG-29 and SU-30MKI.

Moreover, Rafales are not built in India, whereas the JF-17 is jointly manufactured by Pakistan and China. Thus, it will be far more difficult for India to apply upgrades to its designs than Pakistan. The first two JF-17 Block 3 aircraft were already under production at the Aircraft Manufacturing Factory’s (AMF) final assembly line at PAC Kamra in 2019. These will be followed by 12 more, to be finished by the end of 2024, according to a quote by PAC Chairman Air Marshall Ahmer Shahzad to AINonline in 2019.

There is a sense of fear in the Indian Air Force regarding the deployment of longer-ranged Chinese PL-15 missiles on JF-17 BLOCK 3. The PL-15’s Beyond Visual Range missile has reportedly caused serious worry even in the Pentagon. US General Herbert Carlisle voiced serious concerns in 2015 when the development of the PL-15 entered the public domain: “Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, things like the PL-15 and the range of that weapon.”

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Although we know that the strategic partnership between the US and India is strengthening day by day, we may rest assured that any move to militarily strengthen India could easily be matched because of our friendship with China. India may have added a few more advanced fighter jets to its fleet, but it should not give it any encouragement to enter a military misadventure with either Pakistan or China, as they both more than adequately match it in its strength.

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Naya Daur