Following multiple border clashes with Pakistan in 2019 and more recently with Chinese forces in Galwan Valley, a number of Indian officials and military analysts have referred to the French Rafale fighter as a guarantor of a favourable outcome in future conflicts. The Rafale is a ‘4+ generation’ French fighter which first flew in 1986, and the Indian Air Force plans to induct 36 of the aircraft into service by 2025. The fighter is particularly prized for its low operational cost and maintenance requirements, although its compatibility with Meteor and SCALP missiles and respectable avionics have also been attractive. Despite these strengths however, the Rafale’s ability to seriously benefit Indian operations against China in particular remain extremely limited for a number of reasons.
India’s contract for 36 Rafale fighters has cost a tremendous €7.8 billion ($8.721 billion), leading to widespread allegations of corruption within the government and leading to very serious questions among analysts around the world regarding the cost effectiveness of such a purchase. Under the contract India has paid $242 million per fighter – making it the most costly in the world including much heavier and more sophisticated American and Russian designs. The cost is considered to largely be a result of the very low efficiency of France’s defence sector and its military aviation in particular, and leave the Rafale costing over 50% more than the American F-35A and 41% more than the F-15QA – valuing all three as part of export packages. The F-15QA outperforms the Rafale across the spectrum, while the F-35A represents a state of the art fifth generation design which will continue to be upgraded and integrate new subsystems for at least four more decades and boasts far more advanced sensors, avionics and stealth capabilities. The gap in cost effectiveness is greater still when compared to Russian designs such as the Su-57 fifth generation fighter and Su-34 strike fighter.
The Rafale’s extreme cost means that should the Indian Air Force invest in acquiring large numbers of the aircraft, each squadron will take a disproportionate amount of the defence budget and provide a relatively unexceptional capability in return. The potential implications of this are particularly serious when comparing the Rafale to state of the art Chinese designs such as the J-10C, J-16 and J-20 next generation platforms. Because defence manufacturers generally make a much smaller profit when selling to the country’s own armed forces, which applies to the U.S., France, China and others, the Chinese Air Force will pay considerably less to acquire aircraft which are both much heavier and more sophisticated than the Rafale. This combined with the generally far greater efficiency of China’s defence sector relative to France, with China benefitting from much higher purchasing power and manufacturing military aircraft on a much larger scale, means that it will be completely unaffordable for India to attempt to maintain any semblance of a favourable balance of power by purchasing Rafale fighters.
Regarding combat performance, comparing the Rafale with the latest Chinese designs is indicative of both the far greater research and development budget in China relative to France, the country’s much larger and more efficient defence sector and the Rafale’s greater age. Although China’s Air Force is thought to be able to purchase J-20 fighters for less than a third the cost that India imports Rafale fighters from France, the discrepancy in capabilities is massive favouring the Chinese jet and the two are from entirely different generations and weight ranges. A cheaper Chinese aircraft from a lighter weight range and from the same generation as the Rafale, the J-16’s cost is well under a fifth that which India pays for Rafale fighters. The aircraft nevertheless retains superior capabilities across the spectrum. While the Rafale has a maximum speed below average at Mach 1.8, the J-16 is 40% faster and can comfortably exceed Mach 2.2.
The Rafale has a low flight ceiling at around 15km, providing the J-16 with a considerable advantage as it can operate at much higher 20km altitudes. The Rafale’s M88 engines put out a very low level of thrust at 75kN, while the WS-10B is around twice as powerful with an estimated thrusts of 145-150kN. This gives the Chinese jet a far superior flight performance and a better thrust/weight ratio. The Rafale’s endurance is also very limited, and its range is very restricted when carrying a full weapons payload, which compares poorly to the J-16’s high endurance design. While the latest Rafale variants integrate AESA radars, these are much smaller than those on the J-16 which seriously restricts situational awareness. Although both deploy air to air missiles with comparable ranges, the Meteor and PL-15 respectively, the Chinese missile is guided by an AESA rather than a passive radar making it much more difficult to jam and therefore more reliable. The Rafale’s only notable advantage, other than its low fuel consumption, is its lower radar cross section largely by virtue of it being a much smaller aircraft. The J-16 largely compensates for this however with application of advanced radar absorbent coatings – something the Rafale lacks.
Ultimately should India seek to build a modern fighter fleet capable of challenging China, which currently deploys the world’s second largest fleet of fifth generation fighters and is expanding and modernising rapidly, the Rafale offers an extremely poor return on investment and can be considered both overpriced and underpowered. Given significant qualitative problems with French built fighters which have emerged after strenuous use, Taiwan’s Mirage 2000 fleet being a key example, this is an all the more serious issue. The Rafale when purchased by India is not only several times as expensive as even the most elite Chinese designs, but is also unable to match the latest Chinese fighters which benefit from high end technologies developed by a colossal defence sector which dwarfs that of France. With India’s defence budget under a third that of China, this is totally unsustainable. More feasible options will be the pursuit of a domestic next generation fighter with Russian support, acquisition of Russian MiG-35 and Su-57 next generation fighters which have a cost a small fraction of that of the Rafale and are in many ways much more capable, and pursuit of upgrades to the existing Su-30MKI fleet possibly including integration of AESA radars, new AL-41 engines and new electronic warfare systems.