The induction of the Rafale in the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a game changer in the Indo-Pacific region, which is bonding around four major pillars—India, Japan, the United States and Australia. Together, these countries are facing off against a belligerent China, which is trying to muscle its way in a broad strategic arc, starting from the South China Sea in the east to the Suez Canal in the west.
Welcoming the built-in-France jets in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “There is no greater blessing than protecting the nation, protecting the nation is a virtuous deed and is the best <em>Yagna</em>. There is nothing beyond this. Touch the sky with glory. Welcome,” says a rough translation of his tweet.
Right now, the Rafales, despite their small number, will make a substantial psychological impact on the frontline in Ladakh, where Indian and Chinese troops backed by heavy weaponry are engaged in a bristling standoff that began in May.
Already, the presence of the French 4.5 generation aircraft is rattling many in Chinese military circles. <em>Xilu.com</em>, a website belonging to the media universe of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has acknowledged the lethality of the Rafale. But in tune with the characteristic Middle Kingdom hubris, it says that its fifth generation J-20, has the edge, ignoring the fact that the plane has never been tested in battle.
Former Air Chief Marshall (ACM), Birender Singh Dhanoa, of Balakot fame has rubbished China’s tall claims. “The Chinese air threat is mainly from their Surface to Air Missile Systems,” he told <em>The Hindustan Times</em>.
Dhanoa added: “If Chinese equipment was so good, then why did the Pakistanis only use F-16 aircraft to attack Nangi Tekri brigade in Rajouri sector on February 27, 2019 while the Chinese JF-17 merely gave air defence cover to Mirage 3/5 bombers. The Mirage 3/5 dropped the H 2/4 bombs from a safe distance with the JF 17 in a supportive role providing air defence to these aircraft.
"Why does Pakistan use Swedish early air warning platforms up north and keep Chinese AWACS in the south? Why is Pakistan mounting European radar (Selex Gallelio) and Turkish targeting pod on Chinese JF-17? The answer is quite evident.”
Referring specifically to the Rafale, the former chief spotlighted its top-of-the-line electronic warfare suite, Meteor beyond-visual-range-missile and the SCALP air-to-ground weapon with its terrain following capability, which outguns any threat that the Chinese Air Force produces. “If the IAF is successful in destruction and suppression of enemy air defences, then the Chinese fighters out in the open at Hotan air base and at Gonggar air base at Lhasa airport are fair targets. Some 70 Chinese aircraft are without protection at Hotan and some 26 aircraft may be parked inside a tunnel which the PLA were building at Lhasa air base,” the former air chief said.
Dhanoa added that because of its advanced terrain following weapons and level-II of Digital Terrain Elevation Data available to the Indian pilot, precision targeting reduced to a mere 10 meters is possible. “As I have said in the past, Rafale is a game changer.”
While an effective deterrent is being built up in the mountains, a sustained and potent effort is also being simultaneously mounted against China by the four key members of the Indo-Pacific quad around key choke points including the strait of Malacca—the main artery of China’s sea borne trade.
Last week, the US conducted simultaneous naval drills in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, fired by the vision of setting up an 'Asian Arc of Democracy' around China.
Significantly, US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its versatile task force exercised with the Indian Navy near the famous six degree channel. The strategic passage separates the great Nicobar island from Bandar Ache in Indonesia’s Sumatra.
The location of the manoeuvres is highly significant. Together with the 10 degree channel, which separates the Andaman from the Nicobar islands, more than 60,000 commercial vessels pass through the two channels. While fewer trading ships cruise through the 10 degree channel, commercial ships, including those trading with China have to pass through the 6 degree channel to access the Malacca straits—the link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The message of the exercise to China was clear. If China starts a land war with India in Ladakh, India and the quad coalition can retaliate by choking critical Chinese supply lines channeling into the Malacca straits, with potentially disastrous impact on Beijing.
On the Pacific side, USS Ronald Reagan, another American aircraft carrier conducted the trilateral military exercise, with Japan and Australia on the mouth of the disputed South China Sea. The two exercises were carefully timed, as they docked with a fundamental doctrinal change in US foreign policy.
Last week, in a major speech at the Nixon Foundation, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo virtually announced that after a gap of 50 years, the Cold War with China had resumed. “The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change inside of China that President Nixon hoped to induce,” Pompeo said, referring to the former US President Richard Nixon's famous visit to China in 1972.
Instead, he proposed that a new grouping of like-minded nations should be formed to deal with China.
“If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us,” Pompeo said. “There can be no return to past practices just because they’re comfortable or convenient.”
On July 24, Pompeo made specific but complementary India-centric remarks at the virtual US-India Business Council’s Ideas Summit. With China in the backdrop, the US top diplomat announced that the “Quad is revived” and that his country “desires a new age of ambition” in its growing partnership with India.
Narrowing his focus on China, Pompeo said: “It’s important that democracies like ours work together, especially as we see more clearly than ever the true scope of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”.