Chandigarh: The formal commissioning of the first five of 36 multi-role Dassault Rafale multirole fighters into the Indian Air Force (IAF) at Ambala Air Force Station on September 10 was accompanied by egregious pageantry at a time of heightened national penury and military tension with China.
The five twin-engine fighters – including three dual-seat trainers – that had earlier arrived at Ambala from France on July 29, officially joined the IAF’s No. 17 ‘Golden Arrows’ squadron, cosseted by Anglo-French Jaguar and Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat aircraft and feted by aerobatic displays.
The latter involved the indigenously developed Tejas Mk1 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the IAF’s Sarang helicopter air display team, that operates four modified locally designed Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs), manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bangalore.
As part of the induction ceremony, one twin-seat Rafale was escorted by two IAF Jaguars and two Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat aircraft, flying in ‘arrowhead’ formation, followed by an aerial display conducted by Tejas and the Sarang helicopter team, streaming colourful smoke.
But to many IAF veterans and discerning viewers of the widely televised induction ceremony, it seemed almost as if the 4.5 generation Rafale fighter, armed with an assortment of deadly long, medium and short range missile and touted by defence minister Rajnath Singh as a regional ‘game changer’, needed defensive accompaniment.
“The entire spectacle involving several other combat aircraft and helicopters was superfluous and unnecessary,” said a retired two-star IAF officer, declining to be identified. At this juncture when India’s military, especially the IAF, and the entire country is facing an enduring financial calamity, it is scandalous to squander money on such events, he fulminated.
A cross-section of other senior IAF officers said that even if the amount expended on the aerial spectacle over Ambala was limited, it could easily have been spent more gainfully elsewhere, especially at a time when the country’s economy is severely depressed and sinking even further to apocalyptic depths.
“Austerity is something the military seems to have abandoned, despite being faced with depleted budgets and indigence,” said a senior defence ministry official, also declining to be named for fear of repercussions.
And though it is challenging to accurately determine how much these supplementary platforms would have cost the IAF to operate for the Rafale’s induction ceremony, rough estimates by an assortment of fighter pilots put it at over Rs 55 lakh.
Their assessments peg the cost of operating two twin-engine Su-30MKI’s and similarly powered Jaguars for an hour each at around Rs 20 lakh and Rs 14 lakh, respectively, Estimates of flying the single-engine Tejas for the same period seemingly costs around Rs 6 lakh, whilst four twin-engine 5-ton ALH’s, performing aerobatics, would incur an expense of around Rs 15 lakh.
The IAF, however, was unavailable to provide any input into these estimates of operating the fighter and rotary wing platforms that participated in the Rafale’s commissioning ceremony.
“The display added nothing of substance to the induction ceremony, which was unjustified under the prevailing stringent economic calamity spawned by the coronavirus pandemic,” said a former IAF test pilot familiar with new platform initiations over a 30-year span. After all, he added, the Rafale was no more than yet another combat aircraft being installed in service, and the carnival surrounding the event was no more than mere optics that are increasingly becoming the new norm for India’s military.
Retried Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia, one of the IAFs fiercest and most decorated fighter pilot – awarded a Vir Chakra in both the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan – said it would have been more apposite to formally induct the Rafale’s into service the day they first arrived at Ambala in late July.
However, he believes that the pomp and ceremony surrounding their formal induction was intended to convey a ‘political message’ to India’s adversaries-China and Pakistan: the IAF is ready to safeguard its territory and will not tolerate any military or territorial adventurism. Additionally, the show also a ‘re-affirmation’, he declared, of New Delhi’s continuing strategic ties with Paris, and concomitantly of the IAF’s abiding confidence in French fighter platforms.
The IAF has operated French combat aircraft for some 67 years. It acquired Dassault’s M.D. 450 Ouragan (Hurricane) – nicknamed Toofani – in 1953, followed by Mystere IV fighter-bombers from the same manufacturers, that performed ably in the 1965 war. Thereafter, in the late 1970’s the IAF inducted the ground attack SEPECAT Jaguars built jointly by France’s Brequet and UK’s British Aircraft Corporation of which some 118 are still in service and comprise a critical component of India’s strategic deterrence.
The Mirage-2000H (Hindustan) followed in the late 1980’s, of which the IAF operates around 50 platforms, which are presently undergoing an upgrade to Mirage 2000-5 levels by augmenting their avionics, weaponry and overall operational life. The hard-wired Mirage-2000H’s competently executed themselves during the Kargil operations in 1999, by accurately delivering precision guided munitions at precipitous Himalayan heights to destroy Pakistan Army bunkers and hastened their withdrawal across the Line of Control. And, once again, these same French fighters were deployed in the February 2019 strikes against militant training camps at Balakot in northwest Pakistan.
The 36 Rafales, acquired for Rs 590 billion ($8.04 billion) followed thereafter via an Inter-Governmental Agreement in late 2016, but many IAF veterans acquiesce that their commissioning into service could have been more ‘subtle’, akin to the relatively lowkey earlier inductions.
“It would have been mature and meaningful if the Rafales had been installed in a sombre ceremony, rather than one that blatantly flaunted the IAF’s capabilities,” said a former three-star air force officer. It’s always more prudent, he advised, paraphrasing the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, to be subtle even to the point of formlessness and soundlessness – for then you can be the director of your opponent’s fate.