The IAF is now inducting smart weapons to add to its precision weapons inventory
The arrival of the Rafale with its smart sensors and weapons has provided the IAF with a far enhanced precision strike capability as it has rapidly assimilated the fighter jet into its inventory with 26 aircraft now operational in two squadrons.
The IAF inducted the Rafale F3-R into service in July 2020 when the first batch of five aircraft (three single-seat and two twin-seat) joined No. 17 Squadron, ‘Golden Arrows’. The IAF has a squadron each of Rafales based at Ambala and Hashimara. The air and ground crew have already received comprehensive training on the aircraft and its highly advanced weapons systems.
In addition to the Rafale’s air-to-air armament comprising MBDA’s ramjet powered Meteor long-range Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) and MICA Close Combat Missile (CCM), the IAF has also opted for Safran Electronics & Defence’s AASM Hammer bomb guidance and glide kits and Israeli SPICE guided munitions. Both these air-to-ground weapons are considered smart munitions as opposed to previous generation’s precision munitions.
As per the Rafale contract, Dassault Aviation is in charge of the aircraft package supply protocol (APSP) while MBDA is handling the weapons package supply protocol, with Safran Group companies—Safran Aircraft Engines and Safran Electronics & Defence also involved along with Thales. The Rafale due to the sophistication of its sensors and suite of smart weapons is considered as a quantum jump over the IAF’s current fleet of upgraded Mirage 2000 I/TI, MiG-29UPG and Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs.
The development of the Rafale F3-R started towards the end of 2013 and was qualified by the French defence procurement agency DGA in October 2018. The Rafale has several variants starting with ‘F1’ which was specific to the first French Navy aircraft. This was followed by ‘F2’ which added improved air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities and the ‘F3’ added greater versatility to the aircraft. France is now developing the Rafale F4 which is slated to enter service in two stages in 2023 and 2025 and will deliver a substantial increase to the Rafale’s combat capabilities with greater equipment, increased autonomy and enhanced armament along with higher levels of connectivity allowing it to undertake collaborative combat missions. The Rafale F4 also provides a future upgrade path for the IAF.
The IAF’s Rafale are also unique in that they feature 13 ‘India Specific Enhancements’ (ISE) which will be retrofitted across the entire fleet. The Rafale introduces the Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM) Highly Agile Modular Munition into IAF service. The all-weather smart air-to-surface weapon from Safran Electronics & Defence which also has extended stand-off capacity and can engage targets at the ranges of more than 70km, has been in service with the French armed forces for more than a decade.
The AASM Hammer is compatible with different standard bomb bodies ranging from 125, 250, 500 and the newer 1000kg variant. The AASM essentially comprises a bomb body fitted with guidance kits (Inertial/GPS, Inertial/GPS + Infrared Imagery & Inertial/GPS + Laser) on its front and rear. The Rafale can carry three 250kg AASMs (Mk82 with guidance kit) or two 500kg smart bombs (kitted Mk83) on its standard Rafaut AT730 triple store rack.
Safran is now testing a new 1,000kg variant of the AASM, which is planned to enter service in 2022. The first two inert separation tests from a Rafale were conducted by Safran in December 2020 and live fire tests are now underway. The new 1,000 kg AASMs provide the Rafale with an enhanced strike capability, as up to three can be carried on an aircraft. A new integrated propulsion system also extends standoff range. Other variants of the AASM include the ‘Block 4’ variant which the French armed forces started receiving in 2019. The laser homing AASM version is especially suited to destroying moving targets out to distances of several tens of kilometers with high precision and it is also possible to control the munition flight time, laser illumination and the in-flight weapon settings for terminal laser guidance AASMs.
The Rafale F3-R also features the new-generation TALIOS laser designator pod from Thales for use in air-to-ground strikes in daylight or darkness. The TALIOS dramatically enhances Rafale’s capability to undertake precision strikes and can generate images in both the visible and infrared ranges. It will also be able to perform intelligence and target acquisition along with tracking and designation missions and features new and more efficient fixed or moving target tracking capacities. It also has an automatic moving target detection capacity. The increased quality of the optical sensors on TALIOS delivers precise imagery allowing a better analysis of the scene and the situation.
Another of the smart munitions which will be carried on IAF’s Rafales will be the SPICE air-to-surface missile from Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. India is said to have been the customer since December 2020, when the order was placed with Rafael for SPICE 2000 munitions.
The SPICE is a family of stand-off, autonomous, air-to-ground weapons consisting of SPICE-250, SPICE-1000, and SPICE-2000 variants, with ranges of up to 100km. This family of smart munitions can strike targets with pinpoint accuracy, independent of GPS navigation. The weapon system features autonomous electro-optic Scene-Matching Artificial Intelligence (AI) Algorithms and is in widespread use globally.
With Spice, 500kg or 1,000kg general purpose and penetration warhead bombs can be converted into precision, stand-off strike smart weapons with ranges of 60-100km using SPICE kits. Smart munitions such as SPICE also overcome the shortcomings of Laser-Guided bombs (LBGs) which need to be released at short ranges. The IAF also has access to loitering munitions, pioneering its use with the purchase of Harpy attack drones from Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) over a decade ago and later ordering Harop loitering munitions in 2010.
The IAF placed orders for 240 KAB-1500L guided bombs in 2018 worth approximately Rs1,254 crore for its MiG-29 and Su-30 MKI aircraft. The KAB-1500 family of precision munitions is available as a guided bomb with a laser gyro-stabilised seeker and a penetrator warhead (KAB-1500LG-Pr-E), guided bomb with an EO correlation TV seeker and a HE warhead (KAB-1500Kr) or guided bomb with an EO correlation TV seeker and a Fuel Air Explosive (FAE) warhead. The KAB-1500L G-Pr-E is designed to strike against fixed small hardened and buried targets such as reinforced concrete shelters and command posts, while the KAB-1500Kr can be used against military industrial facilities, warehouses and port terminals. The KAB-1500Kr-OD is a ‘drop-and-forget’ guided bomb designed to engage fixed ground and surface targets such as rail and highway bridges, military industrial facilities, ships and transport vessels, ammunition depots, railway junctions etc.
The Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing several new munitions, including the Rudram Anti-Radiation Missile and Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW). Both weapons are showing promising results. Rudram is being developed for carriage on the Su-30MKI for use against enemy radars, communication sites and suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) missions. Rudram features INS-GPS navigation and uses a ‘Passive Homing Head’ seeker for detection, classification and engagement of targets over a wide band of programmed frequencies. Indigenously designed and developed by DRDO’s Research Centre Imarat (RCI) Hyderabad, the 125kg class SAAW smart weapon will have a range of up to 100km. It will be used to target airfield assets such as radars, bunkers, taxi tracks, and runways. SAAW smart weapons have been fired from HAL Hawk-I aircraft and IAF’s Jaguar fighter.