Five French-built multi-role Rafale aircraft touched down at the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s Ambala station on Wednesday, opening a new chapter in India’s military aviation history and bolstering India’s defence capabilities.
The Rafales’ landing in India on Wednesday comes almost four years after India signed an agreement with France to procure 36 jets under a ₹59,000-crore deal. It also comes 23 years after India inducted the Russian designed Sukhoi aircraft and 19 years after India first started its search for a state of the art fighter jet to replace the MiG-21 squadrons decommissioned over the years.
The aircrafts’ landing in India coincides with India’s ties with China have frayed due to tensions along the border and the Indian military being vary of the possibility of a two front war with China and Pakistan. It also comes at a time when India is looking to emerge from the economic aftereffects of a stringent lockdown in April-May by attracting investors and firms looking to decouple their supply chains from China. Despite the lockdown and associated uncertainties, India managed to draw almost $ 20 billion in investments and pledges between April-July – in what is seen as a vote of confidence in the Indian economy.
“The Birds have landed safely in Ambala. The touchdown of Rafale combat aircrafts in India marks the beginning of a new era in our military history. These multirole aircrafts will revolutionise the capabilities of the @IAF_MCC," Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in a Twitter post shortly after the first Rafale touched down at Ambala.
“I am extremely happy that IAF’s combat capability has got a timely boost," he said in a second post. In a not so subtle warning to Pakistan and China, the minister said:"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."
“This aircraft has very good flying performance and its weapons, radar and other sensors and electronic warfare capabilities are amongst the best in the world. Its arrival in India will make the IAF much stronger to deter any threat that may be posed to our country," Singh added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also welcomed the arrival of the Rafales on Wednesday.
The five jets include two twin seater trainer aircraft and three single seat aircraft. Besides Ambala, where the deployment of the Rafales is seen as a counter to the threat posed by Pakistan, a second squadron is to be stationed at the Hashimara in West Bengal to take on the threat from China.
With tensions on the border with China running high, the IAF is looking at integrating the Rafales with India’s existing air defence systems as quickly as possible. In a move to ensure speedy integration, the IAF has opted for the French HAMMER air-to-ground precision-guided weapon system. The jets come armed with the beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air Meteor missile and 13 India specific enhancements – with the IAF billing it as a “gamechanger."
With the Mig-27s decommissioned last year, he IAF 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.
“For each of Pakistan’s F-16 in the air, India has had to deploy two Sukhois," said a person familiar with the matter, pointing to the F-16s superior radar and armaments like the beyond visual range air to air missiles. With the Rafales added to the Indian inventory, the equation changes in India’s favour, the person said adding “to match one Rafale in the air, Pakistan will have to scramble two F-16s."
Manmohan Bahadur, a former IAF air vice marshal, and who is currently additional director general at New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies think tank, rated the Rafales as “many leagues better than the F-16s and the JF-17s in terms of range, armaments and electronic warfare capability."
Together with the S-400 system that India is buying from Russia, it is predicted to provide India with a major strategic edge in air defence capabilities.
The acquisition of the Rafale underscores India’s commitment to defence modernization," said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. “For many outsiders, India’s defence policy is ad-hoc and causes domestic political bickering," he said. That the acquisition happened, shows the Modi government’s resolve to buy assets critical to national security and that it is willing to take political risks on this score, he said. Noting that Pakistan’s response to the Balakot air strike by India in February last year had shown India’s vulnerabilities in terms of numbers and quality of fighter aircraft, Pant said that technology especially air power needed to be cutting edge. In that sense, “the Rafales are a harbinger of modernization," he added.