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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Consequences of India's Limited Rafale Fleet & the Delayed T-50

Image 1: Rafale test of MBDA Meteor beyond visual range missile

In April of 2015, France and India announced a $4.3 billion government to government contract to provide the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 36 Rafales in fly away condition in addition to support equipment and maintenance assistance. The government to government contract was praised by many aviation publications as a pragmatic solution to quickly develop the IAF opposed to the defunct $20 billion dollar Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition in which Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would produce 108 Rafales under domestic license and Dassault would provide 18 fly-way condition aircraft. The IAF desperately needs additional fighter aircraft to meet its operational requirement of 42 fighter squadrons, the minimum number required to fight a two front war with both Pakistan and China, from the current 25 IAF squadrons. Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar recently announced the IAF has no intention to acquire more than 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft.

Most commentators, including myself, believed the IAF would acquire more than 36 aircraft given the benefits of a larger fleet in terms of logistics and sustainment costs. IAF modernization have been stalled further due to developmental and funding issues with respect to the fifth generation T-50/FGFA. The decision to acquire a limited Rafale fleet in conjunction with the delay of the FGFA has three major affects on the IAF: (1) at least some of the funds saved by foregoing the MMRCA program will be utilized to fund the indigenous HAL Tejas fighter, (2) the acquisition of the Rafale represented an opportunity to pursue closer ties with the West and the decision to forego a major Rafale commitment will ensure Russia remains the principle foreign supplier in the IAF, and (3) the Su-30 MKI will remain the only air dominance fighter available in large numbers within the IAF over the next decade which can compete with high-end PLAAF aircraft.

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk I is a fourth generation delta wing fighter design produced to replace the IAF's aging fleet of 150 "Bison" configuration Mig-21 aircraft (Chandra, 2015). Both the Mig-27 and Mig-21 squadrons will have to be retired in the early 2020s due to the age of the airframes and poor maintenance meaning a further reduction to the IAF by at least 7 squadrons. HAL is scheduled to produce 230 MK I and MK II Tejas aircraft for the IAF and possibly a naval variant for India's future aircraft carriers. However, the Tejas program is plagued with a series of design and manufacturing shortcomings. India's Comptroller and Auditor General recently declared that the Tejas failed to meet IAF standards:

Image 2: HAL Tejas MK I
"India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) declared on 8 May that the locally designed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk I was 'operationally deficient' and its pilots vulnerable even to 7.62 mm rounds fired at the fighter's front end. In the 63-page report tabled in parliament, Shashi Kant Sharma revealed that the long-delayed LCA Mk I, which obtained its second initial operational clearance (IOC-2) in December 2013, had failed to meet the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) air staff requirements on numerous counts...The persistent shortcomings, some of which were still under design, development, and testing, include excessive weight, engine thrust, reduced internal fuel capacity, non-compliance of all-weather operations, non-achievement of single-point defueling fuel system protection, and pilot protection. They restrict the "operational efficiency and survivability of the aircraft, thereby limiting its employability when inducted into IAF squadrons" - Rahul Bedi, 2015
The more capable MK II variant, which incorporates fixes for many of the deficiencies above, will not enter service for at least another five years. HAL's inability to produce a reliable low-end fourth generation fighter is indicative of the systemic shortcomings of India's domestic arms industry which has had difficulty in producing even basic assault rifles. State owned industries such as HAL are isolated from private sector competition and simply do not have the incentives to improve production - consistent with discussions of India's troubled heavy Import Substitution Industrialization development strategy.  The inefficient production processes of HAL was demonstrated in the domestic production of Su-30 MKI aircraft:
"Of the SU-30MKI’s roughly 43,000 components, there are 5,800 large metal plates, castings and forgings that must come from Russia...Those plates, castings, and forgings are a source of considerable waste: 'For example, a 486 kg titanium bar supplied by Russia is whittled down to a 15.9 kg tail component. The titanium shaved off is wasted. Similarly a wing bracket that weighs just 3.1 kg has to be fashioned from a titanium forging that weighs 27 kg…. manufacturing sophisticated raw materials like titanium extrusions in India is not economically viable for the tiny quantities needed for Su-30MKI fighters.'An assembly line that wasn’t state-owned wouldn’t be wasting all that left-over titanium.” - Defense Industry Daily, 2014 [emphasis mine]
The decision to limit the IAF to just 36 Rafales and prioritize domestically produced aircraft ensures the IAF will field a greater number of fighter aircraft over the next decade at the cost of greater high-end air-to-air capabilities. While the MK II has the potential to compete with both the Pakistani JF-17 and F-16 as well as the Chinese J-10A, it will be outclassed by more advanced flanker derivatives flown by the PLAAF such as the J-11B & J-16. Without the Rafale, the high-end air-to-air capability of the IAF will be dependent upon the Su-30 MKI which comprises nearly one third of operational IAF squadrons.

Image 3: Su-30 MKI

The IAF will purchase a total of 272 Su-30 MKI multi-role fighter aircraft with 90 ordered directly from Sukhoi and 182 produced under license by HAL, a total of 205 aircraft have been delivered. (Defense Industry Daily & IHS Janes, 2015). The Su-30 MKI is the most capable fighter aircraft in the IAF inventory and compares favorably against most high-end fighter aircraft within the PLAAF with the exception of the J-16 and J-20. The proposed "Super 30" variant would add new capabilities such as integration of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, upgraded electronic warfare suite, updated on board computers, and an AESA radar such as the Phazotron Zhuk-AE (Defense Industry Daily, 2014). Given the significant performance of the Su-30 MKI at the cost of roughly $75 million per aircraft, compared to the $220 million price of the Rafale under the deal announced in April (note: the $220 figure includes maintenance and support unlike the Su-30 MKI figure), many within the Ministry of Defense have urged the acquisition of additional Su-30 MKI aircraft at the cost of the MMRCA. Russia has been eager to enact retribution over the cancellation of the Mistral warship deal with France and has aggressively marketed for additional Su-30 MKI aircraft within the MOD. Despite the fact that no additional orders for Su-30 MKI aircraft have been made, it is likely the IAF will compensate for the lack of high-end Rafales with additional upgraded Su-30 MKI aircraft over the next decade. While the decision is largely pragmatic in terms of additional capabilities and cost, the IAF must remediate the poor availability of its Su-30 MKI fleet due to maintenance and sustainment concerns.

On May 27th 2015, the MOD announced it would conduct a review over the safety of its Su-30 MKI fleet after the loss of an aircraft earlier in the month. The crash is the latest in a series of SU-30 MKI fleet sustainment shortfalls for the IAF. The jet maintains a 55% mission availability rate meaning that with a fleet of 200 aircraft, only 110 would be operable at any time. For reference, the USAF F-22 has a mission capable rate of 72.7% and the F-15C had a mission capable rate of 73.2% (Everstine, 2014). The primary cause for the low operational readiness of India's Su-30 fleet is a result of its Saturn AL-31FP engines:
"There have been no fewer than 69 investigations involving engine failures since 2012, according to Parrikar. Between January 2013 and December 2014 alone, the Indian Air Force recorded 35 technical problems with the turbofans...Parrikar attributed the failures to faulty bearings that contaminated the plane’s oil supply. It seems that metal fatigue led to tiny pieces of metal shearing off the friction-reducing bearings, which then entered the oil system. This accounted for 33 of 69 engine failures. Another 11 failures were the result of engine vibrations, while eight more arose from a lack of pressure in that same lubricating oil. New Delhi has not revealed the cause for the remaining 17 incidents." - Thomas Newdick, 2015 
Prior to the latest crash, Defense Minister Parrikar insisted that alterations to the AL-31 would increase mission availability rates to 70% by the end of 2015 (Bendi, 2015). With more capable fighter aircraft such as the Super 30 and higher mission availability rates from improved maintenance,  the IAF may seek to reconsider the merits of obtaining 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft given the substantial opportunity costs. Furthermore, the IAF should consider additional C4ISR, tanker, and electronic attack aircraft which would increase the effectiveness of existing fighter aircraft. The IAF largely lacks substantial dedicated electronic attack aircraft which would be vital in in defeating either the Pakistani or Chinese integrated air defense system given that the IAF will largely field fourth generation aircraft for the next two decades (IADS). Despite its substantial air-to-air capabilities, the FGFA will be ill suited to defeating IADS due to its intentional lack of rear stealth as per Russian requirements. Part II will detail the aforementioned additional recommendations to the IAF.


  1. Rafale Proposal Could Speed Deliveries to India, Pierre Tran and Vivek Raghuvanshi, 2015. 
  2. The Chinese Threat: An Indian Perspective, Vijai K. Nair, 2003. 
  3. A Turnaround For India’s First Indigenous Fighter, Jay Menon, 2015. 
  4. India Ordered, Modernized, Perhaps Regrets SU-30MKIs, Defense industry Daily, 2015.
  5. Why the Air Force Has to Wait Another 5 Years for Indigenously-Built Tejas Fighter, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, 2015. 
  6. India to review safety of Su-30MKI fighter fleet, Gareth Jennings, 2015.
  7. Rafale deal an unmitigated disaster – Bharat Karnad of CPR, 2015.
  8. HAL hands back first overhauled Su-30MKI to Indian Air Force, Rahul Bedi, 2015.
  9. Race against time: More people, money needed to keep aging fleets flying, Brian Everstine, 2014. 
  10. IN FOCUS: India advances air force modernisation, Greg Waldron, 2012. 
  11. India's auditor general brands Tejas 'operationally deficient', Rahul Bedi, 2015. 


  1. Hi Matt

    Good article once again. :-)

    What effect would the Su35s have against the Su30, if Russia was to supply china with the aircraft and right to it?

    Have you ever thought off doing a quick 5 min video on you tube about the fighter jets. Even china, usa, russia quick analyses.

    There is Russian some vids just about the SU35 with about 2 millin hit,s and not even 2 yrs old. You would make some money off of it. :-) Help pay the bills.

    Been working a lot, sorry no comments on other articles, I read them are all really good :D

    All the best Stone30 :-)

    1. Hi Stone30

      Thank you! :D With the exception of more reliable and powerful engines, the Su-35 does not add substantial improvements over the J-16 and J-11D PLAAF Flanker derivatives. Both will have AESA radars and many of the standard 4++ generation fighter improvements.

      The "Super 30" variant of the Su-30 MKI would probably match or exceed the Su-35 in some respects such as avionics. I think the S-400 deal which has been confirmed has the potential to be more significant for India given the IAF's lack of electronic warfare and stealth aircraft to defeat the Chinese IADS (depends where they are stationed though probably near Taiwan such as Xiamen not China-India border)

      Haha, I have considered making videos but never got around to it. Clearly YouTube needs more informative and cited military content rather than the typical Russia > USA, China > USA or vice versa.

      I've been reading a lot about the Australian perspective about developments in the South China Sea (SCS). Any US response to China regarding reclamation and freedom of navigation must be multi-lateral and be in consultation with US allies. I hope the US has the foresight to stand its ground in the SCS, luckily Def Sec Ashton Carter is extremely competent. Its good to hear from you and I'm glad you enjoyed them! :) I haven't had too much time myself until recently.I plan to write some geopolitics and naval articles as well in the future.