Is India aiming to boost the Rafale’s firepower with Russian missiles?

The ability to use Russian weapons would only help the Rafale in export competitions. Source: AP

The ability to use Russian weapons would only help the Rafale in export competitions. Source: AP

The MMRCA contract stipulates that weapons of the IAF’s choice be integrated with the chosen aircraft. That leaves a window open for Russian missiles to be used on the Rafale.

If India and France are able to sign the final contract for the Rafale, then there is a possibility the French fighter-bomber will be armed with Russian claws.

According to Boris Obnosov, General Director of Russia’s Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation (TRV), if required the Moscow-based company is ready to adapt Russian missiles for the French aircraft. ‘‘These include long, medium and short-range air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, guided aviation bombs and a large spectrum of submarine weapons. By their performance characteristics they are as good as if not better than best Western analogues,” he told the media at the MAKS air show in the Moscow Region

During the bidding process for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), India had stipulated that the first 18 aircraft be delivered with a full complement of integrated weapons. Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer, would, of course, want to equip the Rafale with French built missiles but there is another clause that requires the vendor to “integrate additional weapons of the Indian Air Force’s choice, as required”.

In fact, one of the reasons for the delay in the signing of the MMRCA contract could be the issue of third-party weaponry. “It seems likely the IAF and TRV are looking at future upgrades to the Rafale. But the matter could be one more complication that is preventing a conclusion of the Indian Rafale deal,” says Aviation News International.

Mating Russian weapons with French warplanes is not really rocket science any more. The Iraqi Air Force Mirage’s F1EQ fighters have carried the Vympel Kh-29L air to surface missiles, which are designed to strike hardened ground and surface targets such as big railway and highway bridges, aircraft in reinforced concrete shelters and ships. The South African Air Force Mirage F1s carried the R-73E short range air-to-air missiles. This versatile missile has also been test fired from India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.

Fire power advantage

The ability to use Russian weapons would only help the Rafale in export competitions. In this backdrop, Obnosov pointed out that France is not averse to the idea of using Russian missiles if it helps them sew up the India deal. “They have some interest in the adjustment of our products to the French Rafale fighter,” he said.

However, Obnosov added: “This question cannot be resolved quickly as any other work (but) we are in the process of settling it.”

India will definitely be pushing for this tie-up as it has large stocks of Russian missiles. Also, other than the French MICA air-to-air missiles that came with the Mirage 2000, the IAF does not have any Rafale-compatible weapons.

The only barrier may be technical but Defence Industry Daily points out that it may not come cheap. “Unless the TRV/Dassault partnership develops a Universal Weapon Interface for TRV’s products, and probably modifies a number of the missiles themselves, that kind of integration and testing is time-consuming and expensive,” it says.

To be sure, the Rafale doesn’t do too badly with its own complement of weapons. DID says that a combination of French made infrared scan and track systems and MICA infra-red medium-range missiles allows the Rafale to supplement its radar-guided missiles with passively-targeted, no-warning attacks on enemy aircraft from beyond visual range (BVR). At present, this capability is only duplicated by Russian aircraft: Sukhoi’s Su-27/30 Flanker family, and advanced MiG-29s.

Missile dilemma

Air superiority being the raison d’etre of air forces, air-to-air missiles are a critical component of a fighter aircraft. Because the efficacy of BVR missiles – the primary battle axe of fighter pilots – is itself in doubt, the IAF needs to have the best available air-to-air missile.

Until the 1980s – before the Flanker arrived in the skies – the Russians were up against highly sophisticated aircraft such as the F-14, F-15 and F-16. To counter these aircraft, they developed a range of missiles designed to down the F-series fighters. It is the reason why even now Russian aircraft take to the air with a full complement of air-to-air missiles for a broad spectrum of missions. More than any other air force, the IAF has understood and adopted this strategy.

The French MICA simply doesn’t have the pedigree of the missiles from the Russian stables. So the questions before the IAF are: Will the insistence on having Russian missiles on the Rafale jack up the price? And what is the tradeoff in capability if India buys French missiles?

The deputy chief of air staff Air Marshal S. Sukumar said at a conference that the contract with Dassault Aviation will be finalised before the end of the government’s current fiscal year, which ends on March 31, 2014. The French were hoping to lock in the deal in 2013, but the mysterious death of chief Indian negotiator Arun Kumar Bal on October 2 slowed down the talks.

As with any Indian defence deal, it’s not over till it’s over.

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