Explained: Why Rafale-M is best suited for India's aircraft carriers
A year after the inter-governmental agreement between India and France for the procurement of 36 Rafale multi-role aircraft was completed, the focus now shifts to the potential acquisition of 26 more fighter jets, specifically the naval variant, Rafale-M. Girish Linganna explores the distinctive features and modifications of the Rafale-M for carrier-based operations.
In September 2016, India and France entered into an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) for the procurement of 36 Rafale multi-role aircraft in fly-away conditions. In September 2020, the Indian Air Force officially inducted the first batch of five Rafale aircraft out of a total of 36 at the Ambala Air Force Station in Haryana. These jets became a part of the Golden Arrow Squadron. Despite the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, by July 2022, the delivery of the 36 Rafale aircraft was successfully completed, marking the fulfilment of the procurement process initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seven years earlier. Now the two countries are inching closer to signing a deal for 26 more fighter jets. However, this time the aircraft being sought is the naval version of Dassault Aviation's Rafale fighter jet.
The Rafale-M (Marine)
Rafale-M is a versatile combat aircraft that possess a similar outward appearance, yet the naval variant distinguishes itself with a lengthened and reinforced nose section.
The purpose-built Rafale-M aircraft is specifically crafted for deployment on aircraft carriers. Notably, INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant aircraft carriers, which currently employ MiG-29Ks, require the presence of Rafales to support operations on both naval vessels. The naval iteration of the Rafale incorporates several alterations that render it well-suited for carrier-based operations.
* Reinforced undercarriage: The undercarriage of an aircraft that lands on aircraft carriers is made stronger, reinforced, and more durable to withstand the harsh conditions of landing on a moving, pitching deck. This is because carrier landings are often hard and uneven, and the undercarriage needs to be able to absorb the impact without breaking. The strengthened undercarriage also helps to prevent the aircraft from bouncing or rolling after landing, which can be dangerous.
* Tailhook: Aircraft that land on aircraft carriers have a tailhook that is used to stop the aircraft after landing. The tailhook snags an arresting cable that is stretched across the landing area. When the tailhook snags the cable, it pulls the cable out, which engages the arresting gear below deck. The arresting gear then slows down the aircraft by applying a force in the opposite direction of the aircraft's motion. This allows the aircraft to come to a stop safely in a short distance.
* Nosewheel with a 'jump strut': Some aircraft have a nosewheel with a special feature called a 'jump strut'. This strut is pneumatically extended just before takeoff, which raises the nose of the aircraft and helps it to accelerate more quickly. This is useful for short takeoffs, such as those that are performed from aircraft carriers using a catapult. The jump strut is only extended for short takeoffs because it would be too heavy and cumbersome to use for all takeoffs. It is also important to note that the jump strut can only be used on aircraft that have a strong enough nosewheel assembly to withstand the forces involved in raising the nose of the aircraft.
* Built-in stairway from the carrier deck to the cockpit: Aircraft that operate from carriers often have a built-in stairway that allows pilots to access the cockpit from the carrier deck. This stairway is typically located on the side of the aircraft, and it is made of a sturdy material that can withstand the harsh conditions on the carrier deck. The built-in stairway is a valuable safety feature, as it allows pilots to quickly and easily access the cockpit in an emergency. It also makes it easier for pilots to board and disembark the aircraft, which can be helpful in busy situations.
* Microwave Landing System: A Microwave Landing System (MLS) is a radio navigation system that helps aircraft land safely on runways. MLS is typically used at large airports, but it can also be used on aircraft carriers. A carrier-based MLS uses a series of antennas to transmit microwave signals to the aircraft. The aircraft's avionics system then uses these signals to determine the aircraft's position and altitude relative to the runway. This information is then displayed to the pilot, who can use it to land the aircraft safely. Overall, carrier-based MLS is a valuable safety tool that can help pilots land aircraft safely on aircraft carriers.
* Telemir fin-tip mechanism: A Telemir fin-tip mechanism is a device that is used to synchronise the inertial navigation system (INS) with external devices. The INS is a self-contained navigation system that uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to track the position and orientation of an aircraft. However, the INS can drift over time, so it needs to be synchronised with external devices, such as GPS receivers, to maintain its accuracy. The Telemir fin-tip mechanism uses a small, lightweight sensor that is mounted on the tip of the aircraft's fin. This sensor measures the aircraft's pitch, roll, and yaw, and it sends this information to the INS. The INS then uses this information to correct for any drift in its measurements.
* Firepower: The naval version of an aircraft can carry a wider range of weapons than the land-based version because it needs to be able to defend itself against ships and other sea-based threats. The naval version can carry anti-ship missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and other weapons that are designed to attack ships and other sea-based targets. This gives the naval version a broader range of capabilities than the land-based version, making it a more versatile and effective weapon system.
* Thales Radar System: The Thales RBE2-M is a radar system that is specifically designed for maritime operations. This means that it is optimized for detecting and tracking ships and other sea-based targets. The RBE2-M has a number of features that make it well-suited for maritime operations, such as a long range, a wide field of view, and the ability to detect low-observable targets.
* Electronic Warfare (EW) suite: Thales SPECTRA is an electronic warfare (EW) suite that is specifically designed for maritime operations. This means that it is optimized for detecting, identifying, and countering threats from enemy radars, missiles, and lasers. The SPECTRA has a number of features that make it well-suited for maritime operations, such as a wide range of frequencies, a high degree of automation, and the ability to operate in harsh environments.
Industry officials stated that the navy's decision to choose the Rafale-M had the advantage of similarity with the IAF's 36 Rafale fighters, apart from its operational capabilities. Dassault had established a maintenance and flight training facility for the Rafale at Ambala, which could greatly decrease overall procurement expenses and speed up the introduction of the navy's Rafale-M.