The strategic import of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment last week that results would have been different (in the Balakot airstrikes) had Rafale been part of Indian Air Force (IAF) was lost in the Rahul Gandhi led political dogfight that has characterised the aircraft deal over last two years. Like it happens in politics, the immediate overpowers the distant, both past and future.
So, while the first of Rafale would arrive later this year, and hopefully gain squadron strength by 2021, here’s a contextual peep from the past into the strategic dimension of the French multirole jet. The IAF action during the 1999 Kargil war – Operation Safed Sagar – saw some initial reverses with Migs and the helicopter gunships that were used within the New Delhi determined constraints of not crossing the Line of Control. Tide turned only after Mirage 2000s were pressed into action, with Israel supplied Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs) clearing the heights of Pakistani intruders.
The reasons were specific to the asymmetrical edge IAF had over the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which reflected both in terms of absolute numbers and the technology available. Against three squadrons each of Mig 29s and Mirages with the IAF, the PAF had only two operational squadrons of F16s. Pakistanis also lacked Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and night bombing capabilities. American restrictions under Pressler amendments through much of the 1990s had ensured that condition of PAF. IAF veterans who were part of the action then, speak with a certain cool about how the PAF combat air patrols stayed clear of Indian formations other side of the LoC.
Despite the edge, the gaps in India’s conventional superiority were sought to be plugged as part of Kargil review. IAF went back to the drawing board and came back with plans to upgrade its combat fleet leading to the induction of Sukhois for example. Rafale was part of that plan – first MMRCA proposal being floated in 2001 – which if worked would have seen the deep strike aircraft with IAF before the turn of the decade. Unfortunately, the deal kept getting delayed, stuck in the whirlpool of AK Antony’s indecisive defence ministry in UPA years.
Luckily for Pakistan, 9/11 happened, making it a sought-after ally in the Afghanistan war, resulting in dilution of Pressler sanctions, and massive infusion of funds and technology into its military machine. This meant that while IAF still has an edge over PAF in terms of absolute numbers, the commanding superiority has gone. Why do you think the PAF counter-action happened within 24-hrs of the Balakot airstrikes? In PM’s lament was an oblique admission that IAF lacks incursions-at-will capacity. Perhaps this understanding has guided his government’s seeming hurry to seal the Rafale deal making opposition smell a scam.
Under Modi and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, India’s security doctrine has undergone a strategic shift from an only-defence posture to that of an offensive-defense, Uri and Myanmar being earlier examples. It was recently underscored by none other than former NSA MK Narayanan when he wrote in a column (The Hindu) that they too had weighed the option of carrying out punitive strikes inside Pakistan post the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack but decided against it. This was an indirect admission that the UPA government developed cold feet fearing escalation.
So while Congress party continues with its search for a scam into a cutthroat election season, it would be expected that the opposition knows where to draw the line on India’s national security objectives. IAF needs its asymmetrical superiority back urgently and Rafale is an important component for that. Think of it this way. The mini arms race into which a cash-starved Pakistan would be thrown into if six squadrons of Rafale are inducted into IAF might bleed it white without a war. Go figure.