With four more Rafale aircraft landing at Ambala Air Force Station, India has a full-strength squadron of the combat aircraft

Published : April 22, 2021 15:12 IST

A Rafale fighter during its induction ceremony at the Ambala Air Force Station on September 10, 2020. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Thirteen years after the process to acquire a medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) that would fill the gap between the indigenous, under-development Tejas light combat aircraft and the in-service Su-30MKI air superiority fighter was kicked off, the Indian Air Force (IAF) finally got a full-strength squadron of Rafale fighters. (A squadron generally comprises 18 aircraft.) Four more French-built Rafale aircraft joined the No. 17 Golden Arrows squadron in Ambala Air Force Station (AFS), Punjab, on April 21 after flying almost 8,000 km from Merignac Air Base in France, with air-to-air re-fuelling support.

The four Rafales are part of the order India had contracted with Dassault Aviation in September 2016 for 36 warplanes (two squadrons) for ₹59,000 crore under a government-to-government contract. With the arrival of the new aircraft, the number of Rafales in the IAF’s inventory on Indian soil has increased to 18. France has already handed over 25 of the contracted fighters, but seven of them are being used in France to train IAF pilots and crew.

Significantly, the four fighters were flagged off by Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, who is on a five-day visit to France. The visit is expected to boost cooperation between the IAF and the French Air and Space Force (FASF). On April 20, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria held talks with General Philippe Lavigne, Chief of Staff of the FASF, on ways to further expand cooperation between the two countries. Bhadauria also visited a Rafale aircraft training centre during his visit.

“This ferry, which is the fifth from here, marks the end of the [training of the] third batch of our pilots and all our maintenance crew. The Rafale training centre has provided world-class training and it is because of the level and quality of training that we were able to operationalise the aircraft quickly,” he said after flagging off the four Rafale aircraft. Saying that some of the Rafales had been delivered a “little bit” ahead of time, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria said the fighters have contributed to the overall combat potential of the IAF.

The four Rafales were the fifth batch of the Dassault-built fighters to arrive in India. While the first batch of five Rafale jets (three single-seater and two twin-seater fighter aircraft) landed at AFS Ambala on July 29 after a stopover at the Al Dhafra air base near the Strait of Hormuz, the second, third and fourth batches reached the Jamnagar AFS in Gujarat in early November, January and early April respectively before they flew to their home base in Ambala. The formal induction ceremony of the Rafales took place on September 10, 2020.

Based at Ambala AFS, one of the IAF’s most strategically located bases—the Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from the airbase—the Golden Arrows will certainly boost India’s airpower, fighting capabilities and offensive arsenal. The IAF’s second squadron of Rafale fighters will be stationed at Hashimara AFS in West Bengal.

With a combat range of 780-1,650-km without mid-air refueling, the 4.5-generation Rafales can be armed, depending on the nature of their mission, with long stand-off weapons like the over 300-km range “Scalp” air-to-ground cruise missile, the “Meteo” air-to-air missile and the “Hammer” air-to-ground precision-guided munition.

Sources told Frontline that five more Rafales would be landing in India in a matter of weeks and will be ferried to Hashimara AFS. All the 36 contracted aircraft are scheduled to be delivered on time, by the end of 2022.

The Rafales were deployed for patrolling along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in eastern Ladakh and other fronts during the height of the confrontation with China. The Rafales’ “Hammer” air-to-ground precision-guided munitions, which have a strike range of 20 to 70 km, are designed to destroy bunkers, hardened shelters and other targets in terrains such as the mountainous ones prevalent in Ladakh.

For the IAF, the Rafales are a welcome, and timely, force multiplier. But, with the Air Force’s combat squadron strength down to under 30, a far cry from the 42 that it seeks to maintain, the IAF is hoping that the Narendra Modi government will move fast and take to its logical conclusion the IAF’s long-deferred requirement for 114 MMRCA aircraft if it is to effectively deal with two hostile fronts. The MMRCA 2.0 deal is worth an estimated $18-20 billion.