5 Rafales head to India in boost to its air power
Five Rafale fighter jets of the 36 ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF) took off from Mérignac in France and will reach their home base in Ambala on July 29 after a stopover at the Al Dhafra airbase near Abu Dhabi — a move that will boost rapid deployment of the jets to upgrade India’s ageing air power amid tensions with neighbouring China and Pakistan.
The two-leg flight will involve the Rafales covering a distance of nearly 7,000km. The five fighters landed safely at Al Dhafra after a seven-hour flight from France on Monday evening.
“Real beauty and beast!” Indian ambassador to France Jawed Ashraf said while the planes were being flagged off in Bordeaux. “First five Rafale to India – swift, nimble, versatile, advanced and lethal,” he added.
“This also marks a new milestone in the strong and growing India-France defence cooperation,” the Indian Embassy said in a statement.
The new fighters — the first imported jets to be inducted into the IAF in 23 years after the Russian Sukhoi-30 jets entered service in June 1997 — will significantly enhance the offensive capabilities of IAF, which has for long planned to update its fighter jet force.
The jets -- the first of the 36 Rafale jets purchased from French firm Dassault in a government-to-governent deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in September 2016 -- have been specially tailored for IAF. India-specific enhancements on the Rafales include a helmet-mounted sight, radar warning receivers, flight data recorders with storage for 10 hours of data, infrared search and track systems, jammers, cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases, and towed decoys to ward off incoming missiles. The twin-engine jet is capable of carrying out a variety of missions – ground and sea attack, air defence and air superiority, reconnaissance and nuclear strike deterrence. It can carry almost 10 tonnes of weapons on as many as 14 hard points.
The delivery of the remaining 31 fourth-generation-plus fighters will be completed by the end of next year.
The French air force refuelled the fighters — three single-seater and two twin-seater aircraft — using its Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft on their way to Al Dhafra. Aerial refuelling support will be provided by the IAF’s Russian Ilyushin-78 refuellers for the second leg of the journey from Al Dhafra to Ambala.
The jets are being flown by Indian pilots who have undergone comprehensive training on the aircraft, the IAF said. The Rafales will be a part of the IAF’s No. 17 Squadron, which is also known as the “Golden Arrows”. The aircrew bringing the Rafales to India is headed by Group Captain Harkirat Singh, a decorated fighter pilot, who is the commanding officer of the No. 17 Squadron.
The first Rafale’s RB-001 tail number denotes the initials of the IAF chief: Rakesh Bhadauria. He led the complex negotiations for the Rafale deal. The Indian fighters will be equipped with Meteor missiles built by European defence major MBDA Missile Systems. The Meteor’s no-escape zone is touted to be three times greater than that of current medium range air-to-air missiles.
It’s a magnificent achievement to get a fighter of this class decades after the IAF inducted the Mirage-2000s from France in the mid-1980s, said Air Chief Marshal Fali H Major (retd), a former IAF chief.
“The Rafales bring tremendous capabilities to the table. We should now wait and watch how the fighter evolves in the Indian environment. I am sure it will meet each and every qualitative requirement of the IAF,” Major added.
France handed over to India its first Rafale fighter during a ceremony attended by defence minister Rajnath Singh and his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in Merignac on October 8 last year. Air and ground crews of the IAF have been in France for almost three years for the management of the Rafale programme.
The deal for the warplanes became controversial over allegations of corruption levelled by the Congress in the run up to the 2019 general elections, though the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government rejected the charge. The NDA government’s decision to buy 36 Rafales was announced in April 2015, with the deal signed a little more than a year later. This replaced the previous United Progressive Alliance’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited using parts imported from France. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit tabled in February last year concluded that the new deal was 2.86% cheaper than the price negotiated by the UPA government. It did not disclose pricing details.
“I am strongly impressed by the amazing efficiency and determination of the IAF and Indian Ministry of Defense, despite this unprecedented world health crisis, to master rapidly all aspects of the Rafale for Indian sovereignty and contributing to the protection and security of Indian people,” said Dassault Aviation chairman Eric Trappier.
The IAF could deploy its new Rafale fighters in the Ladakh sector as part of India’s overarching plan to strengthen its military posture in the region, where Indian and Chinese forces are locked in a tense border confrontation and disengagement has turned out to be a challenging process, according to people aware of the developments.
A brutal clash at the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh last month left 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers dead. Tensions are also high with neighbouring Pakistan since India revoked the special status to Jammu & Kashmir in August last year.
IAF’s air and ground crews have undergone comprehensive training on the aircraft, including its highly advanced weapons systems and are fully operational. Efforts will now focus on swift operationalisation of the aircraft, a person familiar with the matter said.
Acting on a special request by IAF, France has accelerated the deliveries of Rafale fighters to India — five jets are coming instead of four that were originally planned to be delivered in the first batch. According to the original delivery schedule, the first 18 jets (including the four in the first batch) were to be delivered to the IAF by February 2021, with the rest expected by April-May 2022. However, all deliveries will be completed by the end of 2021.