Opinion | What the IAF-PAF dogfight reveals
The February 27 aerial duel shows India’s military capability doesn’t match its ambitions. Blame the nation’s tardy defence acquisition process for this.
Whether the Rafale deal is a scam or the best thing for India’s defence is for more eminent people to debate. Let me, meanwhile, list four facts emerging from the February 26-27 air skirmishes to bring the story of what should be called the real Rafale scandal.
*In the Rajouri-Mendhar sector air skirmish a day after the Indian Air Forces’ (IAF) successful Balakot strikes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was able to create surprise and local superiority — technological and numerical — in a chosen battlefield. It struck in daylight when least expected, and perfectly timed to attack the changeover of IAF AWAC patrols. The outnumbered IAF pilots (12 aircraft of three vastly different types), scrambled from various bases, and showed the presence of mind not to walk into the ambush set for them, but they failed to deliver a deterrent punishment on PAF.
Watch: Once Rafale is here, Pak won’t come near LoC’: Air Force Chief Dhanoa
* Four Sukhoi-30s, the IAF’s most powerful air-superiority aircraft, were involved in the melee at beyond visual range (BVR). They were surprised by the PAF F-16s firing their American AMRAAM missiles from so far that their own radar/computer/missiles were not able to give them a “firing solution”. Translated: India’s best fighter, which constitutes half of the IAF’s combat force, was outranged and outgunned.
* Fortunately, two of the upgraded Mirage-2000s were on patrol. These have new French missiles (MICA, or Missile d’Interception, de combat d’autodefense), which are the exact peers of the F-16/AMRAAM. They were able to lock on to some of the PAF planes, which panicked into dropping their South African origin, stand-off weapons (SOWs) in a hurry, mostly missing the targets. Nevertheless, one fell in the middle of the Nowshera brigade headquarters compound. It was a closer call than we think.
* Surprised, and outnumbered, the IAF scrambled six MiG-21 Bisons from Srinagar and Awantipur. Since these climbed in the shadow of the Pir Panjal range, the PAF AWAC failed to detect them. Their sudden appearance at the battlefield upset the PAF plan. This was fortuitous.
It is only because of the IAF’s good training, situational awareness, and some luck that this audacious PAF mission failed. No ground target was hit. Its larger objective of luring vastly outnumbered and outranged IAF jets into a pre-set “killing zone” was the bigger failure.
Which brings us to our central question: Should we have even been having this conversation today if we had the military capability to match our economy (eight times Pakistan’s) and strategic ambition? February 27 reminded us that we don’t.
If we had a functional defence acquisition system, by now we would have built such a gap that Pakistan wouldn’t even dare to retaliate. Check out on a rarely-reported Mirage-2000 laser bomb raid to clear a Pakistani incursion across the LoC in Machil sector in 2002. Forget retaliation, the Pakistanis pretended nothing had happened. Indian air-to-air missiles then, on both Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s, had better range than the PAF, which ducked the challenge. Computers, radars and missiles decide the outcome in modern, mostly BVR, post-dogfight era air warfare.
How did India lose that edge?
This serial crime dates back to the Vajpayee government. In 2001, IAF projected the need of a new fighter to replace the MiGs. Its choice was more Mirage-2000s. Dassault was willing to shift its production line to India, the IAF knew the plane and loved it. By this time, the IAF would have had 6-8 more squadrons of the upgraded, Made-in-India Mirages with new missiles. The Rafale would probably not even be needed so desperately. PAF wouldn’t have dared to carry out the 27 February raid, and if it did, it would have been mauled. But then, George Fernandes, smarting under Coffingate and Tehelka, refused to go with a “single-vendor” deal. The full process for a new acquisition was launched.
We slept for a decade. The Pakistanis got their new F-16s and AMRAAM missiles from the US after 2010. Tactical balance in the air shifted. We, meanwhile, took until 2012 for a new fighter — Rafale — to be chosen. Except that defence minister AK Antony wouldn’t take a decision. Three of his negotiation committee of 14 dissented, so he set a committee above them. And he set up another committee of three outside “monitors” to supervise this committee. Finally, all inputs in, the choice was cleared. Sure enough, Antony ducked again.
He said three things at different times: Within the MoD, he then said, call fresh bids. To the media, he said he didn’t have headroom in the budget that year. And now, he told the media three weeks ago, that he put off the deal in the “national interest” since two eminent persons, Subramanian Swamy and Yashwant Sinha, had written letters pointing out problems in the deal and he had ordered an inquiry. He has since refused to talk about these letters even when chased by a reporter from The Print. The issue is too sensitive, he tells her. Chances are, his party knocked him on the head for nearly killing their Rafale story just to save his own neck. I will be pleasantly surprised if he talks about those letters again.
The earlier 126-aircraft MMRCA deal was dead by the time the NDA came in. The first wake-up call came early enough, with the Pathankot raid. As usual, the air forces were first off the blocks, and during aggressive patrolling, the IAF realised the PAF’s range superiority. It’s an unwritten story yet, but some MICA missiles were bought overnight, slung on Mirages which flew deliberately close enough for PAF to observe them. In the four years since, how many of our 40+ Mirages can even carry that missile? Don’t ask me for the truth because, as Jack Nicholson’s Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessep said in A Few Good Men, you can’t face the truth. Be grateful that those two on patrol on the morning of February 27 could .
As I promised, I am telling you about the real Rafale scandal without mentioning the Rafale deal. The Vajpayee government wouldn’t buy additional Mirages, scared of touching a single-vendor order. The MICA missile had first been sought by the IAF in 2001, the first only came in 2015 when Pathankot shocked the MoD to pull the file down from orbit. Existing Mirages then had to be upgraded. Two were upgraded by Dassault. HAL said it would do the rest. How many has it done yet? I warned you, you can’t face the truth.
Then it gets even more scandalous.
How did Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman cross the LoC? He was in visual pursuit of a PAF fighter for sure. But his controller was warning him to return. He didn’t. Because he couldn’t hear. As you’d expect in 2019, the battle zone had full radio-jamming. That’s why modern fighters have secure data links. Why didn’t that MiG have it? Ask the gallant bureaucrat of MoD who blocked the purchase for three years claiming that a defence PSU would make it. Don’t ask me his name, find out. You might learn another truth you don’t want to face.
That order has lately been placed. With Israel. Soon enough, all IAF fighters will have this secure data link. And you’d die of shame, when I tell you it is a purchase, worth a mere ₹630 crore, less than half the price of one Rafale. We were lucky to lose just one MiG that day.