The first batch of five French-made Rafale fighter jets have finally arrived in India. These are out of the 36 combat jets India had ordered in 2016 at a cost of ₹59,000 crore. They touched down at the Ambala airbase around 3:10 pm on Wednesday (July 29), covering a distance of about 7,000 km from the Merignac airbase in France’s Bordeaux.
These are the first combat jets procured by India in two decades, and the delivery comes amid heightened border tensions with China in eastern Ladakh and continued frayed ties with Pakistan. In an interview to a newspaper, former air chief B.S. Dhanoa said that the Rafale fighters would prove to be a “game changer” in case a battle happens.
Each of the combat aircraft were given a special water cannon salute at the strategically-located air base in Haryana’s Ambala in the presence of top brass of the Indian Air Force, including Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria who had played a key role as lead negotiator in procurement of the jets.
Welcoming the arrival of the jets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a tweet in Sanskrit, said there is no virtue like protecting the nation and there is no vow like defence of the nation.
“The Birds have landed safely in Ambala,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted as soon as the aircraft touched down here. At the same time, he used the occasion to send a veiled message to China. “I would like to add, if it is anyone who should be worried about or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity,” the defence minister said.
The Rafales were escorted by two Sukhoi 30 MKIs after they entered the Indian air space.
Singh said that “the touch down of Rafale combat aircrafts in India marks the beginning of a new era in our military history. These multirole aircraft will revolutionise the capabilities of the IAF.” While the first squadron of the Rafale jets will be stationed at Ambala airbase, the second one will based at Hasimara base in West Bengal.
The NDA government had inked a Rs. 59,000-crore deal on September 23, 2016 to procure 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation after a nearly seven-year exercise to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force did not fructify during the UPA regime.
The emergency acquisition was made primarily to check the depleting combat capability of the IAF as the number of its fighter squadrons had come down to a worrying 31 against the authorised strength of at least 42.
The fleet, comprising three single-seater and two twin-seater aircraft, are being inducted into the IAF as part of its Ambala-based No 17 Squadron, known as the ‘Golden Arrows.’
A government statement on Monday said 10 Rafale jets were delivered to India and that five of them are staying back in France for training missions. The delivery of all 36 aircraft will be completed on schedule by the end of 2021, it added.
The Rafale jets, known for air-superiority and precision strikes, are India’s first major acquisition of fighter planes in 23 years after the Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia.
The aircraft is capable of carrying a range of potent weapons. European missile maker MBDA’s Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile, Scalp cruise missile and MICA weapons system will be the mainstay of the weapons package of the Rafale jets.
The IAF is also procuring new generation medium-range modular air-to-ground weapon system Hammer to integrate with the Rafale jets. Hammer (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range) is a precision-guided missile developed by French defence major Safran. The missile was originally designed and manufactured for the French Air Force and Navy. Meteor is the next generation of BVR air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) designed to revolutionise air-to-air combat. The weapon has been developed by MBDA to combat common threats facing the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden. The Meteor is powered by a unique rocket-ramjet motor that gives it far more engine power for much longer than any other missile, said an official.
Though the jets are being inducted into the IAF on Wednesday, there will be a formal ceremony in mid-August to welcome them into the force. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and top military brass of the country are expected to attend the event.
The fleet landed at Al Dhafra airbase on Monday in the UAE after flying for over seven hours from the Merignac airbase. It was the only stopover by the jets while flying from France to India. The jets were also refuelled mid-air from a French tanker at a height of 30,000 feet, according to the Indian Embassy in France.
The first Rafale jet was handed over to the IAF in October last year during a visit to France by the defence minister.
The Ambala base is considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF as the Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from it. Authorities had imposed prohibitory orders near the Ambala Air Force Station and banned taking of pictures and videos. A large number of police personnel were also deployed in a three-kilometre radius.
People danced and distributed sweets, released tricolour balloons and raised ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ slogans while some enthusiastically counted the jets as five Rafale aircraft arrived at the airbase this afternoon. Despite many restrictions put in place by the authorities, some people even took to streets to catch a glimpse of the fighter jets.
(With inputs from agencies)