By Haris Bilal Malik
India aspires to create its hegemony and ultimately dominate the South Asian region. For this purpose, along with other counterforce capabilities, India has been pursuing an overwhelming increase in its air power. This is further aimed at achieving offensive strike capabilities, particularly against Pakistan. Driven mostly with the acquisition of modern jet planes from its strategic partners like Russia, the US, and France. Quite recently, India has acquired Rafale fighter jets from France which are widely believed to be one of the most advanced fighter jets currently available in the world. Since then, there has been an obsession in India about its prospective combat role including its nuclear capability. It seems like India wants to portray it as a game-changer and a landmark strategic win over its regional counterparts Pakistan and China. Pakistan has also feared that these jets could be modified exclusively for the nuclear role which could further lead to the intensification of an arms race in South Asia. There is still an ongoing debate at the international and regional levels about the capabilities of the Rafale jets vis-à-vis Pakistan’s aerial warfare capabilities. The debate has more significance in wake of the humiliation which India had faced in the hands of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during the Pulwama-Balakot episode in February last year.
On July 29, 2020, India received the first five Rafale aircraft out of 36 in total it had ordered. The controversial deal worth the US $ 9.4 billion after many setbacks was finalized in 2016. The jets, though delayed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, are scheduled to be delivered not later than 2022. The acquisition of Rafale has been quite controversial for India in various aspects. Initially, India had wished to purchase 126 of total jets when the negotiations started between India and France in 2014. Later on, the number was decreased to only 36 with a reported increase in the cost up to three times. Like many other defence deals, the Rafale deal has also been referred to as a corruption scandal of the Prime Minister Modi’s lead BJP government. Besides such controversies, India’s obsession with the Rafale is quite visible from the statements of India’s political and military top brass. For instance, in an event after the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, Mr. Modi asserted that if India had Rafales at that time, the results would have been different. Likewise, Air Chief Marshal (R) BS Dhanoa, the then Air Chief of Indian Air Force (IAF), also came up with the same obsession. He held that if the IAF had Rafales in its inventory during the crisis, it must have shot down 4-5 Pakistani jets.
Rafale is believed to be one of the most advanced 4.5 generation jets equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and semi-stealthy features. This makes it a nearly 5th generation fighter jet; on paper, it would likely provide IAF an edge over its regional counterparts. Furthermore, a combination of advanced and lethal weapons can be integrated with this jet that has enhanced its strike range. Here, without going into technical specifications, like for instance, it can carry air-to-air ramjet missiles, air-to-ground precision-guided missiles along with laser-guided bombs and unguided bombs capable of delivering different warheads within range of 100 to 600 kilometers. The diversity of missiles having different roles and target ranges would enable Indian Rafales to carry beyond visual range (BVR) deep strikes inside both of its bordering countries i.e. Pakistan and China. In the South Asian context, it is considered to be slightly superior to the fighter jets currently available in PAF’s inventory. Along with all other advanced strike capabilities, most significantly, Rafale is also capable of delivering nuclear warheads. This would likely further enhance the deterrent value of India’s air-based nuclear capabilities, previously, mostly fulfilled by the Russian origin Su-30 MKIs. It is also speculated that India might integrate its BrahMos supersonic nuclear-capable cruise missile with the Rafale fighter jet. This would likely create a security dilemma for Pakistan. Once operationalized, it would further compel Pakistan to counter the threat while staying within its existing posture of credible nuclear deterrence.
In this regard, Pakistan’s air-based nuclear deterrence approach would be significant to analyze. Earlier this year on February 17, 2020, Pakistan successfully tested its Ra’ad-II air-launched cruise missile. The nuclear-capable missile has a reported range of 600 kilometers. It has further added up to the standoff capability of Pakistan air-based nuclear deterrence. The Ra’ad-II, an advanced version of the Ra’ad-I cruise missile is a stealth missile-like India’s BrahMos cruise missile and has a pinpoint accuracy based on its guidance and navigation system. Similarly, it is also believed to be a terrain hugging and a highly maneuverable delivery system. Currently, the missile was fired from the PAF’s Mirage-III aircraft. However, as per the estimates, the Ra’ad-II would be eventually integrated with the JF-17 thunder fighter jet of the PAF. Most probably, the JF-17B (the twin-seat variant), and the forthcoming AESA radar-equipped Block-III variant (a near equivalent to the Rafale jet) would likely be considered in this regard. This would further complement the existing standoff capability of the JF-17 with a better strike role.
While the South Asian region remains one of the most volatile regions in the world, India’s induction of Rafale fighter jet would further intensify the arms race in South Asia. At the time, when the security environment in the region has already been under stress especially after the Pulwama-Balakot crisis between India and Pakistan and the Ladakh-Galwan crisis between India and China, India’s acquisition of Rafale is significant. Regardless of the humiliation which India had faced during these crises, it indicates that India aspires to dominate the escalation ladder with its military prowess. Despite this notion, the fact remains that Pakistan has proved its appropriate resort to retaliate during the recent crisis. The presence of nuclear-capable Rafale in IAF inventory would provide a qualitative edge to India which would further complicate the dynamics of escalation in South Asia. No doubt, Pakistan’s JF-17 Block-III with its deep strike capability seems to be almost at par with India’s much-hyped Rafale. However, the requirement of a next-generation fighter jet for Pakistan, either indigenously or foreign acquired needs not to be ruled out completely.
Haris Bilal Malik currently works as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), in Islamabad Pakistan.