Rafale vs Su-35: Did India, Egypt Make The Right Move By Opting For French Rafales Over Russian Sukhois?

Last week, India received more Dassault Rafale jets while Egypt signed its second Rafale deal with France, sidelining the second batch of Russian Su-35 jets. Both India and Egypt had the option to opt for powerful Russian Su35 jets but opted for the Rafales.

On May 5, three more Rafale jets arrived in India as part of its deal for 36 aircraft with France. With this, the number of Rafales delivered to the Indian Air Force has gone up to 20.

A day earlier, Egypt signed its second Rafale deal with France, a major success for the French government and Dassault Aviation. Interestingly, this was the second Rafale deal for France this year after Greece signed a similar contract in January for 18 aircraft.

Egypt’s decision to opt for the French Rafales over Russian Su-35 jets has fuelled a debate among defense enthusiasts. While the purchases are also done on the basis of geopolitical and economic reasons, one should not lose sight of how the two 4.5 generation aircraft fare in terms of combat capabilities and other features.

The Dassault Rafale

This delta-wing and Canard configured fighter jet is one of the most advanced and in-demand fourth-generation combat aircraft in the world.

It is a French twin-engine omnirole platform packed with advanced sensor suites and armaments capable of conducting air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike, and nuclear deterrence missions.

The aircraft was made as a competitor to the Eurofighter Typhoon after France parted ways with the group comprising the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain due to disagreements.

Paris then led its own aircraft development program and built a technology demonstrator in July 1986 as part of an eight-year flight-test program, paving the way for the Rafale jets.

The Rafale is distinct from other contemporary European fighters as it is almost entirely built by one country, involving most of France’s major defense contractors, such as Dassault, Thales, and Safran.

Many of the aircraft’s avionics and features, such as direct voice input, the RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and the optoelectronic frontal infra-red search and track (IRST) sensor, were domestically developed and produced for the Rafale program.

Originally scheduled to enter service in 1996, the Rafale suffered significant delays due to post-Cold War budget cuts and changes in priorities. The aircraft is available in three main variants: Rafale C single-seat land-based version, Rafale B twin-seat land-based version, and Rafale M single-seat carrier-based version.

This supersonic aircraft boasts a powerful engine capable of super-cruise and has been combat-tested over the skies of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali, and Libya. Rafale made its combat debut in 2007 when it dropped GBU-12 laser-guided munitions in support of Dutch troops in southern Afghanistan.

The Rafale’s weapon of choice for the ground attack is the AASM ‘Hammer’, which it used extensively to pound militant strongholds and equipment over battlefields in the Middle East, Libya, and Mali. The Rafales are also armed with SCALP-EG (Storm Shadow) air-launched cruise missiles for deep strike missions.

These missiles were notably used by Rafales against pro-Gaddafi militants in Libya during the NATO intervention in the civil war, in strikes against ISIS as part of ‘Operation Chammal’, and against Syrian targets during the 2018 bombing of Damascus and Homs and many other operations.

The Rafale’s latest ‘standard’ is also now integrated with the highly advanced Meteor air-to-air missiles, having the ability to engage highly maneuverable targets, from jets to UAVs to cruise missiles, in heavy electronic countermeasures (ECM) environment with a range in excess of 100 kilometers.

It can also carry the MICA short and medium-range air-to-air missile, which has two variants: MICA RF having an active radar homing seeker and MICA IR having an imaging infra-red homing seeker.

On June 11, 2007, a MICA launched from a Rafale successfully demonstrated its over-the-shoulder capability by destroying a target behind the launch aircraft. The target was designated by another aircraft and coordinates were transmitted by Link 16. 

Mounted on the Rafale, the MICA IR can provide IR imagery to the central data processing system, thus acting as an extra sensor. These two highly capable AAMs along with Rafale’s RBE2 AA AESA radar provide it with superior combat capabilities, aided by its integrated electronic warfare suite “SPECTRA”.

The Russian Su-35

Coming on to this Russian beast, the Su-35 is the latest in the Flanker family and developed from the Su-27 to serve as an interim solution until work on Su-57 was done.

Although originally intended for exports having a redesigned cockpit, weapons-control system and features like thrust-vectoring engines in place of the canards, the Russian Air Force itself became its first customer giving it a designation Su-35S in 2009.

It is a twin-engine multirole fighter, although not equipped with an AESA radar. Instead, the Su-35S is outfitted with Irbis-E, which is a further development of the N011M radar that had been evaluated on Su-27M test-beds and constitutes the core of the Su-35’s weapons-control system.

It can detect an aerial target up to 400 km (220 nmi) away and can track thirty airborne targets and engage eight of them simultaneously. In addition, the multi-function radar is capable of providing high-resolution images of the ground using synthetic aperture mode.

However, several experts have questioned the capability of Irbis-E radar. Being the only ‘4.5’ generation aircraft in service without an AESA radar, the Irbis-E’s performance has been highly questionable.

Abhirup Sengupta, a military aviation enthusiast, claimed in an answer on Quora that:

“Despite being marketed as 4++ gen, Su-35 has the least capable avionics suite among its competitors. It’s the only major 4th gen. aircraft without an AESA radar or any form of Sensor Fusion. The Irbis-E is marketed as having a 350 km range against 3 m^2 target while in reality that’s only in cued-search in a tiny FoV. What’s rarely stated is that in normal volume search that range shrinks down to 200 km.”

He further claimed that Irbis-E is vulnerable to jamming by modern EW suites owing to a smaller bandwidth, which one can gauge from inferior SAR resolution. “Combined with substantially short-ranged missiles put Su-35 at a significant disadvantage in BVR combat.

Especially against an adversary with a capable AESA radar offering not only a superior range but also being highly resistant to DRFM jamming from Su-35’s L-175V Khibiny.”

The aircraft attained full operational capability only in 2018, before which it was tested extensively in Syria. However, the Su-35S deployed there were majorly used to provide air cover for the Su-30SMs and other aircraft on combat air patrol.

The aircraft also carried out some bombing missions, according to some reports. Nevertheless, the aircraft proved to be pivotal in warding off Israeli and Turkish warplanes from carrying out strikes against Syrian targets.

Compared to the Rafale, it is evident that the Su-35 entered service quite late and still has to gather sufficient combat experience.

Still, the Russian aircraft boasts a credible missile arsenal including air-launched cruise missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-radiation missiles. However, it cannot carry nuclear deterrent missiles, a capability in which French aircraft has an edge.

While choosing an aircraft, the reliability factor also comes in. While the Russian aircraft are indeed deemed reliable, the French aircraft do provide more technological features and advanced weapons.

Thus it was better for both India and Egypt who already operate Su-30MKI and Su-35s to opt for French Rafales to diversify their arsenal and strategic allies.