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First batch of 5 Rafale jets takes off from France to join IAF fleet

India had signed an agreement with France to procure 36 Rafale jets under a  ₹59,000-crore deal. (File photo: Reuters)Premium
India had signed an agreement with France to procure 36 Rafale jets under a 59,000-crore deal. (File photo: Reuters)

  • The induction imparts a decisive edge to IAF given that its meteor-beyond visual range air-to air missile can take on an enemy aircraft at a range of over 100 km
  • India-specific enhancements include helmet mounted sights and targeting systems to give pilots the ability to shoot at lightning speed

NEW DELHI: The countdown to the induction of the French-built Rafale aircraft into the Indian Air Force (IAF) began on Monday with the first batch of five jets taking off from France.

Often described as a “gamechanger" for the IAF, the induction of the jets -- armed with the beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air meteor missile and 13 India specific enhancements -- comes at a time of heightened tensions between India and China, and many advanced IAF platforms deployed along the India-China border. The multi-role fighter aircraft is scheduled to arrive at Ambala air force station on Wednesday, almost four years after India signed an agreement with France to procure 36 Rafale jets under a 59,000-crore deal.

For a while now, the IAF had been seen as handicapped vis-a-vis its challengers in the region, notably the Pakistan Air Force.

The induction of the Rafale imparts a decisive edge to the IAF given that its meteor-beyond visual range air-to air missile can take on an enemy aircraft at a range of over 100 km. The scalp long-range ground attack missile, with a range of over 300 kilometres, can take out targets with extreme accuracy. The Rafale’s “RBE2 active electronically scanned array radar" allows for early detection and tracking of multiple air targets and generates three-dimensional maps of the terrain over which the jet is flying in real time.

The India-specific enhancements include helmet mounted sights and targeting systems to give pilots the ability to shoot weapons at lightning-quick speed. It has decoy systems to thwart incoming missiles besides modifications in the fuel starter system that will enable the aircraft’s engine to operate at optimum levels even at high-altitude air bases such as Leh.

Combined with the Russian S400 air defence system, it will greatly enhance India’s air superiority over its rivals in the region.

Analysts however add a note of caution, pointing to some time that the IAF will need to integrate jets into its weapons inventory. "Rafale is a potent system no doubt but it will take some finite time before its fully integrated into the IAF," said Manmohan Bahadur, a former IAF air vice marshal, currently additional director general at New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies think tank.

Originally set to arrive in India in May, the delivery of the Rafale was delayed due to the covid-19 pandemic sweeping through the world including France that was seen as one of the severely affected countries in Europe. On Monday, India’s ambassador to France, Jawed Ashraf, was at hand at Dassault Aviation’s Merignac facility to see off the five jets – three single seater and two twin seater – and their IAF pilots.

“Bon Voyage: Indian Ambassador to #France interacts with the Indian pilots of the Rafale. Congratulates and wishes them a safe flight to India with a single hop," the Indian embassy in France said in a Twitter post.

“New milestone in India-France defence cooperation to further strengthen strategic partnership. First batch of five Rafale fighter aircraft fly out from Merignac, France to India," it added in a second post.

In his remarks, Ashraf said IAF pilots bringing the Rafale – seen as fourth generation plus aircraft – to India as “swift, nimble versatile aircraft."

“This is going to add a great deal of strength to our air power and defence preparedness," Ashraf said adding: “it is also a powerful symbol of the strategic partnership between India and France."

France has been a key defence partner of India for decades with New Delhi procuring Mirage fighter aircraft and Scorpene submarines for the Indian military from French vendors.

The induction of the Rafale is seen as critical for the IAF, which is already down to just over 30 squadrons, far less than the sanctioned 42 required for a two-front war against Pakistan and China. Most of the jets in Pakistan’s inventory comprise US-made F-16s besides some Chinese-made JF-17s. China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force has over 600 fourth generation and fourth generation-plus jets. China is also developing the fifth generation J-20 in competition with the US’s fifth-generation fighter jets such as F-22 and F-35 made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

To reach India, the Rafale aircraft will cover a distance of nearly 7,000 kms from France to India with air-to-air refuelling during the first leg of the ferry with dedicated tanker support from the French Air Force, the IAF said in a statement. The single stop en route will take place in the UAE. The jets will be flying slower speeds to keep pace with the tanker and will make detours to ensure they don’t fly through hostile air space. The overnight halt in the UAE is to ensure that the pilots get some rest as well, a person familiar with the matter said.

The first Rafale fighter was handed over to the IAF in October last year at a ceremony attended by the French Minister for Armed Forces Madame Florence Parly and the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The delivery of all 36 aircraft is to be completed on schedule by the end of 2021.

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