Ambala, Hasimara Rafale bases strategically selected to address Pakistan and China, optimise limited resources

It is important to keep in mind that these Rafale squadrons are only filling the gaps and not an addition to the sanctioned IAF strength.

Simantik Dowerah July 24, 2020 13:12:26 IST
Ambala, Hasimara Rafale bases strategically selected to address Pakistan and China, optimise limited resources

The excitement over the touchdown of the first five Rafale jets on Indian soil later next week and their looming induction into the Indian Air Force (IAF) — an extremely significant chapter in India's military history — have been overshadowed by recent events.

No one could have envisioned this kind of "war-like"situation with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in September 2016, when India inked a pact with France's Dassault Aviation to procure 36 Rafale fighter jets (two squadrons of 18 each) at a cost of Rs 59,000 crore.

Nor could anyone have anticipated this on 11 September, 2019, when No 17 Squadron was resurrected at the Ambala Air Force Station or when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh received the first Rafale combat jet at the production unit of Dassault Aviation at Merignac in the southwestern French town of Bordeaux last October.

"The first batch of five Indian Air Force (IAF) Rafale is likely to arrive in India by end July 2020. The aircraft will be inducted at Air Force Station Ambala on 29 July subject to weather. No media coverage is planned on arrival. The final induction ceremony will take place in second half of August 20 wherein full media coverage would be planned," a formal IAF statement had said earlier.

But the death of 20 Indian soldiers and 76 wounded in Ladakh, along with an unknown number of casualties of China's People's Liberation Army, changed the military equation with Beijing.

That the brand new aircraft is expected to be in the thick of action as soon as possible is indicative of the seriousness of the situation.

For an air force 12 short of its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the situation is already a logistical nightmare in terms of machines and human resources.

There is no doubt that the acquisition of Rafale fighter jets was made with an eye on China and Pakistan, but no one expected the relationship with Beijing to deteriorate as quickly as a sandcastle hit by waves.

Never has the old adage of peace through strength, with the Rafale jets being a critical addition to the air force, rang more true.

Add to that the operating mantra: if they dare, scare.

Home bases for Rafale squadrons

Rafale is India's attempt to prevent the worst (read war). Which necessitated the craft being strategically placed to make optimum use of limited resources by covering the maximum geographical area. Deterrence, in short.

India shares the 740-kilometre Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and the 3,448-kilometre Line of Actual Control with China. Which leaves the country protecting a massive geographical expanse.

The choice of home bases to station the two Rafale squadrons — Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in West Bengal — was made keeping these conditions in mind. Located 200 kilometres north of Delhi, the Ambala Air Force Station comes under the operational command of the Western Air Command in Delhi.

During the airstrike on terror camps in Pakistan's Balakot in last February, the Mirage 2000s took off from this base. The Air Force Station in Ambala also played a critical role during the 1999 Kargil War with 234 operational sorties being carried out from the base.

The Ambala IAF base already houses two squadrons (No. 14 and No. 5) of Jaguar aircraft with the Rafale becoming the third addition. “Rafale gives us longer range than Jaguars. Ambala gives us adequate depth when the range required is more, both towards the north and west. We have adequate area for air to air refuelling which is not possible at forward bases,” former Vice-Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal PK Barbora (Retired) told The Tribune.

From the geographical and strategic point of view, Ambala is situated almost equidistant from the LoC and the LAC on its northwest and northeast respectively. Whether for offensive or defensive missions or to conduct combat air patrols at a short notice on either border, it won't take much time for the Rafale aircraft to be deployed.

In another piece in The Tribune, IAF officers felt that "Ambala was chosen for housing Rafales in the western sector due to several factors such as depth from the border, base infrastructure and technical facilities, airspace availability for local flying and training as well as allocation of IAF assets at other airbases in the region."

On the eastern front, the selection of Hasimara as the home base for the second squadron Rafale is also logistically significant. The IAF base in Hasimara is under the operational command of the Shillong-based Eastern Air Command, which shares the security concerns of the Line of Actual Control along with the Western Air Command and Prayagraj-based Central Air Command.

Hasimara Air Force Station is responsible for the protection of the tiny Chicken's Neck or the Siliguri Corridor in North Bengal,  a narrow stretch of land about 22 kilometres wide that connects the country's mainland with the northeastern states.

This narrow stretch of land is surrounded by Nepal on the north and Bangladesh on the south. The base is also shouldering the responsibility of securing the Nathula Pass in Sikkim from the Chinese. In the event of war, support from the Hasimara airbase to the three important army mountain divisions based in Gangtok, Binnaguri and Kalimpong respectively under the Sukna-based 33 Corps could have a decisive impact on the outcome.

The Doka La plateau, which lies between China's Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan's Ha Valley to the east and India's Nathang Valley to the west, saw a major stand-off between the Indian and Chinese armies in June 2017 when the Chinese attempted to forcibly build a road on Bhutanese territory.

During a military conflict with China, this area will also come under the purview of the Hasimara airbase and hence the planned stationing of the Rafale fighter jets assumes paramount significance. The air security in the North East is primarily handled by the IAF bases in Tezpur and Chabua (both in Assam) with the Russian-made Sukhoi-30 aircraft as the most potent weapon delivery machine.

The IAF base in Jorhat, Assam, also houses one of the two AH-64E (I) Apache helicopter squadrons. The other squadron is in Pathankot. All airbases in the North East are under the command of the Eastern Air Command and completely focussed on activities along the Line of Actual Control in their respective area of operations.

“The second base for Rafale is planned at Hashimara (West Bengal). Pakistan is not the real enemy as far air power is concerned, but our eastern neighbour China is. When we didn’t have Rafale, we had moved three squadrons of Sukhoi in the east. With Rafale, we will have adequate number of airborne fighters and fighter bombers to look after the China threat,” former Vice-Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Barbora told The Tribune.

The recent violent clash between the two armies in the Galwan Valley only proved the decision to base the Rafale squadrons in Ambala and Hasimara to be strategically correct given the mercurial nature of China and its conflict-happy ally Pakistan.

What makes Rafale fighter jet special

The twin-engine Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, Rafale is the first and, so far, only European aircraft with an electronic scanning radar. With Rafale fighter jet's 'omnirole' capabilities, the IAF will be able to carry out a wide range of missions such as air defence, air superiority, close air support, dynamic targeting, air-to-ground precision strike, anti-ship attacks, nuclear deterrence, etc.

Apart from Israeli helmet-mounted display, the weapon systems include the new-age beyond visual range missile Meteor, which is capable of hitting the enemy aircraft and its missiles from more than 100-km.

According to its manufacturer Dassault Aviation, the Rafale has three variants "the Air Force single-seat Rafale C, the Air Force two-seat Rafale B, and the Navy single-seat Rafale M feature maximum airframe and equipment commonality, and very similar mission capabilities."

"In the defence sector, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is our longest standing export customer and has been flying Dassault aircraft since 1953. The acquisition contract for 36 Rafale — signed in 2016 — and the modernisation of the Mirage 2000 I/TI are a continuation of this historic partnership," Dassault Aviation had said in a statement.

The Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2004 and with the French Air Force in 2006 and is said to have proven its worth in combat in war zones such as Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria.

The Rafale jets customised for the IAF have certain bespoke modifications for the force that have been awaited as a crucial enhancement to India's Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft fleet. The first Rafale jet comes with tail number RB 001, with RB denoting the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria who played a key role in striking the deal for the jets in his previous role as IAF deputy chief.

Meteor and Scalp: Weapon systems to reckon with

Besides the agility of the aircraft, it is the weapon systems that make the difference. Armed with Meteor and Scalp missile systems, it is one of the most combat-proven 4.5 generation fighters. The Meteor is a Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM).

MBDA, which makes the Meteor, says the missile is "guided by an advanced active radar seeker, Meteor provides all weather capability to engage a wide variety of targets from agile fast jets to small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and cruise missiles. It is designed to meet the most stringent of requirements and is capable of operating in the most severe of clutter and countermeasure environments."

Moreover, the Meteor is also equipped with data link communication, which allows its use in a network-centric environment. The weapon can be operated by using third party data giving the pilot an opportunity to have the most flexible weapon system.

According to a report in The Economic Times, "The beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile is considered to be the best in its class and can take out enemy aircraft at a range of much beyond 100 km, outranging the American origin AMRAAM being used by Pakistan."

It may be said that Pakistani jets reportedly used AMRAAMs during the response a day after India's bombing of a Jaish-e-Mohammed facility in Balakot on 26 February, 2019. Another weapon that is also from the MBDA stable and arms the Rafale is the Storm Shadow or the SCALP air-launched long-range, conventionally armed, deep strike weapon, which is designed to meet the requirements of pre-planned attacks against high value fixed or stationary targets.

The Rafale manufacturers describe SCALP as "able to be operated in extreme conditions, the weapon offers operators a highly flexible, deep-strike capability based around a sophisticated mission planning system."

It also says: "Storm Shadow / SCALP has been put into operations with the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force in 2003 and was used in the Gulf, Iraq and Libya. The weapon is now in service with three other nations giving unrivalled deep strike capability. Storm Shadow / SCALP is operated from Tornado, Rafale, Mirage 2000 and in the future from Eurofighter Typhoon."

Apart from the Meteor and SCALP missile systems, the Rafale jets will be armed with the MICA air-to-air BVR interception, combat and self-defence missiles. The MICA can be also be used for within visual range (WVR) delivery. Then the Rafale fighter jet also has the HAMMER (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range), which is a modular, rocket-boosted air-to-ground precision-guided weapon series.

The Rafale is also capable to be armed with AM39 EXOCET anti-ship missile, Laser-guided bombs with different warheads from 500lbs to 2,000 lbs, classic bombs non guided and the 2,500 rounds/min NEXTER 30M791 30 mm internal cannon, according to Dassault Aviation.

Better defence, sharper offence

Given the a high probability of Pakistan resorting to a full-scale offensive against India in case war breaks out with China, New Delhi has little choice but to view the two rival air forces as one big unit rather than two separate entities.

China's large number of indigenously manufactured fighter jets such as the Xian H-6, Xian JH-7, Chengdu J-7, Shenyang J-16, Chengdu J-20, Shenyang J-11, Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-16, Shenyang J-8 apart from the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 and Sukhoi Su-35, combined with India's crippling shortage of fighter squadrons could be a recipe for disaster.

The fact that most of these Chinese craft have not been battle-tested offers little solace. There is every possibility that they might exceed expectations during real action. Besides, China always has the numbers advantage, be it men or machinery, compared to India.

Pakistan may not overwhelm with its relatively fewer fighter squadrons of Mirage 5, Mirage III, JF-17 Thunder and F-16 Fighting Falcon but could upset India's balance in concert with China.

The induction of Rafale will certainly increase India's air power, be it offensive, defensive or reconnaissance missions, but it is equally important to keep in mind that these squadrons are only plugging the gaps and not an addition to sanctioned strength.

After taking over as the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal RS Bhadauria unveiled his plans to beef up the squadron strength but even then this "will only raise numbers to 37 squadrons by 2025, before falling again to 33 squadrons by 2032", as per a Business Standard piece.

Dassault Aviation describes Rafale as a fully versatile aircraft "able to carry out all combat aviation missions: air superiority and air defence, close air support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence".

In terms of its capability, Rafale can indeed be a game-changer for India, but for that to happen the country must also address strategically non-negotiable shortcomings.

India can't afford a Charlie Foxtrot.

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