Military & Aerospace

The Rafale: Indian Quest for Air Supremacy
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Newly arrived Rafale aircraft of IAF stopping in dispersal at Air Force Station Ambala on 29 Jul 2020.

The first five of India’s new Rafale fighters touched down at Ambala air base on July 29, 2020. Accordingly 31 more will follow and thus they will form two squadrons of 18 each by the end of 2021. The second squadron is planned at Hasimara in the east.

These Rafale fighters will definitely be making up some of the huge capability deficiency of the Indian Air Force. Though India’s larger requirement is of 126 such jets. The Indian Air Force has long needed refurbishing, but the defence of India has suffered due to collusion of foreign arms dealers with the corrupt politico-bureaucratic nexus and in some cases even the military was party to the crime. All this along with the infamous bureaucratic red tape and budgetary constraints, they have all towards perennial delays. The nation has suffered.

Now, the arrival of the new fighters—the first in over 20 years—in the middle of an unprecedented border face-off against China, will be a boost for Indian military capability as well as morale. But it won’t do much to change the hard reality that, as an air power, India is falling far behind.

However, the Rafale fighters even though five in numbers, bear that potential to alter any course of short high intensity conflict in a border situation with Pakistan or China.

When compared with Chinese JF 20 supposedly a fifth generation aircraft, Rafale is an omni-role aircraft. It can carry out at least four missions in one sortie while the J-20 cannot carry out multiple missions is one go. JF 20 is reported to be underpowered and not so stealthy while the Rafale is a battle proven technology. As per the senior Indian Air Force officer, Indian radars have been able to pick up these JF 20s. The Chinese did try to develop an engine but failed. They had to go for Russian engines, so the thrust-to-weight ratio is not favourable for an aircraft with the declared capability.

The Rafale’s unchallenged capability lies in the superior technology that binds this multi role fighter jet. The India-specific changes and modifications have also been carried out by Dassault. This adds to its already high potency in the South Asian skies rivalling out the unmatched contenders like the JF 17 and much advanced JF 20 quiet easily.

These modifications involve a mix of hardware and software changes, including an improved infrared search-and-track capability, the addition of an Israeli helmet-mounted display and sight system, changes to the electronically scanned radar, a new device for jamming low-band radio frequencies, integration of an Israeli-created decoy system, an upgraded radar altimeter, expanded navigation aids, and a more robust cold start system for the engines to make them suitable for winter operations from the Air Force’s Himalayan bases.

India’s newly-acquired five Rafale fighters are conducting exercises in an endeavour to seamlessly fit into India’s operational environment as early as possible. They are likely to be operationally ready by the end of August 2020.

So what is that technological bind that sets Rafale in a superior league from rest of its aerial challengers in the skies of South Asia.

In modern warfare, air dominance from day one is a must, so that air-to-ground and air-to-sea operations can be conducted safely and efficiently.

In the course of asymmetrical and counter-insurgency conflicts, the air arm also remains at the forefront of the military effort, its flexibility and firing power helping ensure that allied forces prevail.

Omnirole by design, the Rafale, with its ‘Omnirole’ capabilities, fully complies with the requirement to carry out the widest range of roles with the smallest number of aircraft.

The Rafale participates in permanent “Quick Reaction Alert” (QRA) / air-defense / air sovereignty missions, power projection and deployments for external missions, deep strike missions, air support for ground forces, reconnaissance missions, pilot training sorties and nuclear deterrence duties.

Lessons learned from the latest conflicts where air power was used, can be summarized into four overarching expectations about weapon systems by political decision makers:–

  • Versatility, is that capability, with the same system, to perform different missions,
  • Interoperability, or the ability to fight alongside aircrafts and systems from diverse sources, like the US, Russian or Israel, using common procedures and standards agreements, and collaborating and communicating in real-time with other systems,
  • Flexibility, which can be illustrated by the ability to conduct several different missions in the course of the same sortie (‘Omnirole’ capability). With this capability, it is possible to switch instantly on the demand of a political decision maker, from a coercion mission (‘strike force’) to a preventive mission (a dissuasive low-altitude, high-speed ‘show of force’), or even to cancel a mission until the last second (reversibility),
  • Survivability, that is the capability to survive in a dense threat environment thanks to stealth and / or to advanced electronic warfare systems.

The Rafale omnirole aircraft is capable of seven types of combat operations through a very wide range of missions:–

  • Air-defense / air-superiority,
  • Anti-Access/Aera Denial,
  • Reconnaissance,
  • Close air support,
  • Dynamic Targeting,
  • Air-to-ground precision strike / interdiction,
  • Anti-ship attacks,
  • Nuclear deterrence,
  • Buddy-buddy refuelling.

Fully optimised airframe, the Rafale features a delta wing with close-coupled canards. In-house research in computational fluid dynamics has shown the specific benefits of close coupling between the wings and the canards: it ensures a wide range of centre of gravity positions for all flight conditions, as well as excellent handling throughout the whole flight envelope.

The close-coupled canards / delta wing configuration is key to the combat performance of the Rafale: even at high angle-of-attack, it remains fully agile, and its range performance in strike missions with heavy weapon loads is unmatched for such a compact design.

An advanced digital ‘Fly-by-Wire’ (FBW) Flight Control System (FCS) provides for longitudinal stability and superior handling performance. The FCS is quadruple redundant with three digital channels and one separately designed analogue channel, with no mechanical back-up: design independence between channels is key to avoiding simultaneous anomalies on all channels.

The Flight Control System of the Rafale attains the highest level of flight safety with over one million flight hours without a single accident caused by the FCS. The Rafale is safe and easy to fly in all flight regimes, featuring the same precise, yet benign handling performance in all load-out configurations throughout the flight envelope.

The flight control system of the Rafale offers auto flight in terrain following mode in all weather conditions, allowing the Rafale to fly unobserved in the opponent’s airspace: an important survivability factor in a high threat environment.

The radar cross section of the airframe has been kept to the lowest possible value by selecting the most adequate outer mould line and materials. Most of the stealth design features are classified, but some of them are clearly visible, such as the serrated patterns on the trailing edge of the wings and canards.

Composite materials are extensively used in the Rafale and they account for 70% of the wetted area. They also account for the 40% increase in the max take-off weight to empty weight ratio compared with traditional airframes built of aluminium and titanium.

Wide range of smart and discreet sensors, Rafale is equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) RBE2 radar provides a wide range of functions:–

  • All-aspect look-up and look-down detection and tracking of multiple air targets for close combat and long-range interception, in all weather and in severe jamming environments,
  • Ability to track targets in, or out of the search domain, bringing the ultimate advantage in air combat,
  • Real time generation of three-dimensional maps for terrain-following above uncharted terrain in blind conditions. The Rafale is the sole new generation combat aircraft to currently propose such a function,
  • Real time generation of high resolution 2D ground maps for navigation updates and detection, identification and designation of ground targets,
  • Detection and tracking of multiple naval targets.

The RBE2-AESA is fully compatible in terms of detection range with the upcoming long range METEOR air-to-air missile. The AESA offers an unprecedented growth-potential for the future.

Developed by Thales, the Front Sector Optronics (FSO) system is fully integrated with other systems in the aircraft, and it provides a multi-spectral threat warning capability against hostile radars, missiles and lasers.

The SPECTRA system carries out reliable long-range detection, identification and localisation of threats, allowing the pilot to instantly select the most effective defensive measures based on combinations of radar jamming, infrared or radar decoying and evasive manoeuvres.

The angular localisation performance of the SPECTRA sensors makes it possible to accurately locate ground threats in order to avoid them, or to target them for destruction with precision guided munitions.

The outstanding capability of SPECTRA regarding airborne threat localisation, is one of the keys of the Rafale’s superior situational awareness.

Also instrumental in SPECTRA’s performance is a threat library that can be easily defined, integrated and updated on short notice by users in their own country, and in full autonomy.

SPECTRA now includes a new generation missile warning system that offers increased detection performance against the latest threats.

Operating in the optronic wavelengths, it is immune to radar jamming and it provides covert long-range detection and identification, high resolution angular tracking and laser range-finding for air, sea and ground targets.

Sheer power of multisensory data fusion. The net-centric capability of the Rafale hinges on its open architecture, its data fusion software and its compatibility with a variety of data links, which “plug” the Rafale into the integrated battle-space.

A secure high-rate data link is provided to share data in combined air operations in real time with other aircraft in the formation, airborne and surface command and control centres, tactical air controllers or other friendly assets.

As a net-centric capable asset, the Rafale can exchange images. The ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) is an element of this capability which allows aircrews and forward air controllers on the ground to share videos or images of the target. It helps prevent blue-on-blue incidents and collateral damage, a decisive advantage in peacekeeping operations.

The Rafale’s interoperability, as part of a multinational operation, has been demonstrated on countless occasions, and Link 16 as well as non-NATO solutions can be provided to meet various customers’ requirements.

The IR sensor of the Talios pod operates in the mid-wave infrared band and is coupled to a high-resolution new generation TV sensor.

For both strategic and tactical reconnaissance missions, the French Armed Forces have adopted the new generation Thales AREOS reconnaissance system for the Rafale.

As demonstrated in Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Iraq and Syria, this high-tech, day and night equipment can be used in a wide range of scenarios, at stand-off distances, from high to low altitudes.

To shorten the intelligence gathering cycle and accelerate the tempo of operations, the AREOS pod is fitted with a data link which allows high resolution images to be transmitted back to military decision makers in real time.

What makes the essential difference is the Rafale’s ‘multi-sensor data fusion’ process running on data provided by all the sensors of the aircraft.

In essence, the ‘multi-sensor data fusion’ concept implemented into the Rafale allows the pilot to act as a true ‘tactical decision maker’, rather than being only a sensor operator.

The core of these enhanced capabilities of the Rafale lies in a ‘Modular Data Processing Unit’ (MDPU) incorporating “commercial off the shelf” (COTS) elements. It is composed of up to 19 flight “line-replaceable units” (LRUs), with 18 of them individually providing 50 times the processing power of a typical mission computer employed in previous generation fighters.

The MDPU is the cornerstone of the upgradeability of the Rafale. It allows a seamless integration of new weapons and new capabilities to maintain the war-fighting relevance of the Rafale over the years as tactical requirements evolve, and as the computer industry keeps rolling out new generations of processors and software.

The ‘multi-sensor data fusion’ provides a link between the battle-space surrounding the aircraft and the pilot’s brain with its unique ability to grasp the outcome of tactical situations and make sensible decisions.

Implementation of the ‘multi-sensor data fusion’ into the Rafaletranslates into accurate, reliable and strong tracks, uncluttered displays, reduced pilot workload, quicker pilot response, and eventually into increased situational awareness.

It is a full automated process carried out in three steps:–

  • Establishing consolidated track files and refining primary information provided by the sensors,
  • Overcoming individual sensor limitations related to wavelength / frequency, field of regard, angular and distance resolution, etc, by sharing track information received from all the sensors,
  • Assessing the confidence level of consolidated tracks, suppressing redundant track symbols and decluttering the displays.

A unique Man-Machine Interface (MMI) Dassault Aviation has developed a very easy to use pilot interface (MMI), combining the “Hands on Throttle and Stick” (HOTAS) control concept with touch screens.

Rafale is equipped with full range of advance weapon systems. The mission system of the Rafale has the potential to integrate a variety of current and future armaments. The Indian Rafale operates the following weapons:–

  • The MICA air-to-air Beyond Visual Range (BVR) interception, combat and self-defense missiles, in their IR (heat-seeking) and EM (active radar homing) The MICA can be used within visual range (WVR) and beyond visual range (BVR).
  • The METEOR very long-range air-to-air missile, The METEOR very long-range rocket and ram-jet powered air-to-air EM missile. Its combination with the Rafale weapon system is a real paradigm change in air to air affairs.
  • The HAMMER (standing for Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) modular, rocket-boosted air-to-ground precision guided weapon series, fitted with INS/GPS or INS/GPS/IIR (imaging infra-red) guidance kits, or with the upcoming INS/GPS/laser guidance
  • The SCALP long-range stand-off missile,
  • Laser-guided bombs with different warheads from 500lbs to 2,000 lbs
  • Classic bombs non guided
  • The 2500 rounds/min NEXTER 30M791 30 mm internal cannon, available on both single and two-seaters.

In the cockpit of Rafale, pilot relies on a highly integrated suite of equipment with the following capabilities:–

  • For short-term actions, head-up flying using a wide-field-of-view holographic “Head-up Display” (HUD),
  • For medium and long-term actions, analysis of the tactical situation as a whole (the “big picture”), using a multi-image Head-Level Display (HLD). The HLD picture is focused at the same distance as the HUD picture to allow for fast eye transitions between head-up and head-down displays and the external world’s view,
  • Management of system resources via the left and right colour touch screens.

The comprehensive design of the cockpit provides for everything that aircrews can expect from an ‘omnirole’ fighter: a wide field of view at the front, on both sides, and at the rear, a superior agility, an increased G-protection with 29° tilted seats, and an efficient air conditioning system demonstrated under all climates.

Mission ready Rafale, with its 10-tonne empty weight, the RAFALE is fitted with 14 hard points (13 on the Rafale-M). Five of them are capable of drop tanks and heavy ordnance. Total external load capacity is more than nine tonnes (20,000 lbs.). Hence, RAFALE can lift the equivalent of its own empty weight in payloads.

‘Buddy-buddy’ refuelling missions can be carried out in portions of the airspace out of reach of dedicated and vulnerable tanker aircraft.

With its outstanding load-carrying capability and its advanced mission system, the Rafale can carry out both air-to-ground strikes, as well as air-to-air attacks and interceptions during the same sortie.

It is capable of performing several actions at the same time, such as firing air-to-air missiles during a very low altitude penetration phase: a clear demonstration of the true ‘omnirole’ capability and outstanding survivability of the Rafale.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Danvir Singh

Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review, former Commanding Officer, 9 Sikh LI and author of  book "Kashmir's Death Trap: Tales of Perfidy and Valour".

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