As mentioned here previously, and as reported already by DefenseNews, India is considering breaking negotiations to buy the French Rafale fighter and buying more Su-30MKIs instead. This is supposedly due to both budgetary reasons and heavy Russian lobbying.
If India were to do so, this would be a grave mistake that would cost India dearly in the very near future. Here’s why.
The Su-30MKI, as I have demonstrated earlier, is DECISIVELY inferior to the Dassault Rafale on all counts:
- SIZE: The Su-30MKI (like all other Flanker variants) is much bigger and hotter, and therefore much easier to detect visually, with infrared sensors (such as the Rafale’s OSF), and with radar, than the Rafale, which is a small aircraft with a wingspan of just 10.8 m. In confrontation with the PLAAF’s J-7, J-10, and J-31 fighters, or the Pakistani Air Force’s J-7, Mirage 5, F-16, and JF-17 fighters, Indian Su-30MKI pilots will be at a distinct disadvantage: they will be detected visually and with IR sensors long before they can detect these small fighters.
- PILOT VIEW: Its pilot doesn’t have a good rearward view from his cockpit, unlike the Rafale’s pilot, who enjoys full, unobstructed view in all directions from his own cockpit.
- WEIGHT: It is much heavier, and therefore is far less capable of transitioning from one maneuver to another, than the Rafale.
- MANEUVERABILITY: It is far less maneuverable than the French fighter: its wing loading and thrust/weight ratios are 401 kg/sq m and 1.00:1 at 56% fuel, respectively. For the Rafale, the figures are 306 kg/sq m and around 1.23:1. In fact, at a full fuel and weapon load, the Rafale still has a 0.988:1 thrust/weight ratio – almost the same ratio as the one achieved by the Su-30MKI at a 56% weapons load. This means that a fully-loaded Rafale is as maneuverable as a half-fully-loaded Su-30MKI, while a half-fully-loaded Rafale can run circles around a Flanker.
- RATE OF CLIMB: The Su-30MKI’s rate of climb (300 m/s) is inferior to that of the Rafale (305 m/sq).
- WEAPONS LOAD: It can’t carry as many arms as the Rafale can (12 at most, versus 13-14 for the Rafale), nor are the Russian-supplied weapons as capable as those offered by France’s MBDA (which include the supersonic, 160-km-range Meteor ramjet missile and the 50-km-range MICA IR-guided missile).
- TAKEOFF FROM MAKESHIFT RUNWAYS: It can’t take off from highways or unpaved runways – unlike the Rafale – because its wingspan and the takeoff distance requirement are too great. By contrast, the Rafale, with a wingspan of just 10.8 metres, can take off from any Western highway (motorway).
- MAINTENANCE: It spends 4 times as many hours in maintenance for 1 hour of flight than the Rafale (32 vs 8). It’s a veritable hangar queen.
How do these glaring weaknesses translate into inferiority and vulnerability in combat?
To prevail in air combat, one must:
- Be capable of defending one’s own airspace anytime, on call, at a moment’s notice if need be;
- Be harder to detect than the enemy and detect him faster so that he’ll be shot down unaware of his attacker (as 80% of all fighters shot down throughout aviation history were);
- If possible, be more numerous than the enemy;
- Provide one’s own pilots with more flight hours than the enemy to practice flying skills;
- Be more maneuverable than the enemy;
- Be more capable of transitioning from one maneuver to another than the enemy.
The Dassault Rafale meets these requirements. The Su-30MKI does not. The Rafale needs only 8 hours of maintenance for every hour flown, so a squadron can be called into duty at any moment and, with a sufficient budget, pilot skills can be maintained. It is small and has a tiny thermal signature, and is thus hard to detect. It is highly maneuverable and can run circles around bigger, heavier, more sluggish aircraft than the Su-30MKI. And it provides its pilot with full unobstructed horizontal view from the cockpit. The same cannot be said of the Su-30.
The Su-30MKI will leave the Indian Air Force at a deep disadvantage vis-a-vis the PAF (flying J-7s, Mirage 5s, F-16s, J-10s, and JF-17s) and J-7, J-10, and J-31-equipped squadrons of the PLAAF. These aircraft are all much smaller, lighter, more maneuverable, and have a much smaller infrared (thermal) signature than the Su-30. Being lighter, they can also transition from one maneuver to another far easier than the Su-30 can; and being much smaller than the Su-30, they can easily take off from highways or even dirt strips (excluding possibly the J-31).
Also, they (except possibly the J-31) spend far, far less time in maintenance than the Su-30MKI, and excluding the J-7 (which both the PLAAF and the PAF are now retiring), they offer their pilots full, unobstructed 360 degree horizontal view from the cockpit – like the Rafale, but unlike the Su-30MKI. In fact, giving the pilot such unobstructed view was a formal requirement for both the F-16 and the Rafale programs. So a PLAAF or PAF pilot flying one of the aircraft types listed above can sneak up undetected upon the Su-30MKI from the rear and shoot him down unaware, but the reverse is not the case.
Unlike the deeply and irredeemably flawed Su-30MKI, the Dassault Rafale, if procured by India, would give the IAF an advantage over both the PLAAF and the PAF, because it matches or bests all of their fighter aircraft on all the parametres listed above, including size, weight, thermal signature, maneuverability, takeoff capacity, weapons, sensors, flying availability, and ease of maintenance.
Compared to the Rafale, PLAAF and PAF aircraft are inferior by at least one criterion:
- The MiG-21/J-7 (like the Flanker family) was intended to be a supersonic interceptor. Its pilot’s view to the rear is severely obstructed.
- The J-7, Mirage 5, and JF-17 lack modern sensors which the Rafale has (which is not surprising, given that the Mirage 5 first flew in 1967; it was an excellent fighter in its day, but not anymore).
- The F-16, the J-10, and the J-31, while far more maneuverable and far lighter than the Su-30, are nonetheless less maneuverable, and accelerate worse, than the Rafale. The wing loading ratios are: 449 kg/sq m for the F-16, 381 kg/sq m for the J-10, and 306 kg/sq m for the Rafale. The T/W ratios at 50% fuel + ammo are: 1.095:1 for the F-16, 1.16:1 for the J-10, and around 1.23:1 for the Rafale. The F-16’s climb rate is only 254 m/s, while the Rafale’s is 305 m/s.
- The J-31 is larger, and may be hotter, than the Rafale, making it easier for a Rafale pilot to detect, either visually or with the French fighter’s excellent OSF IRST system. (Detecting the much bigger J-20 would, of course, be even easier.)
In short, the Su-30MKI is decisively inferior to the Dassault Rafale and to many fighter types flown by China’s PLAAF and Pakistan’s PAF – the two most likely adversaries India will face in the future – while the Rafale can beat every fighter type flown by either of these organisations. It is an aircraft which, owing to its combination of small size, radar and thermal signature reduction, maneuverability, speed, armament, and ease of maintenance will give New Delhi an edge over both China and Pakistan. It can also be integrated with India’s newest Astra missile and is already capable of carrying the much longer-ranged Meteor Beyond Visual Range missile. India would therefore be well advised to cease Su-30MKI production, ditch any plan of substituting the Su-30 for the Rafale, and procure the Dassault aircraft.