At least five Rafale fighter aircraft took off from Merignac in France on Monday to arrive in India Wednesday and, if required, these aircraft can also be operationally deployed within a week amid the India-China standoff in Ladakh, accoording the Indian media.
According to sources in the defense and security establishment, a total of 12 Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots have been fully trained on the fighter aircraft, which is considered a game-changer in the region with its unmatched fire power.
Several other pilots are completing their training in France — the contract stipulates that a total of 36 pilots will be trained by French authorities, including those who will undergo training in India.
French defense major Dassault Aviation, which is manufacturing the Rafale jets, had since October last year handed over a total of nine aircraft to the IAF. The 10th is undergoing acceptance trials by IAF pilots in France.
“The pilots have been on training mode till now. They now need to be in combat mode which takes time because they have to get used to the aircraft with multiple combat training flying. However, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. If need be, the aircraft can be operationally deployed within a week of arriving or actually the same day itself. But that is if need be,” he said.
From France to India
According to the plan, the Rafale fighters will take off from Merignac, where the production facility of Dassault Aviation is located.
They will fly straight to the French airbase in Al Dhafra near Abu Dhabi in the UAE for a night halt.
This would be a 10-hour-long journey and these fighters would be accompanied by two mid-air refuelers of the French Air Force.
Sources noted that there would be two rounds of refuelling mid-air, to complete the journey.
They added that the pilots have undergone specialised training for mid-air refuelling through the Airbus 330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft that the French use.
After the night halt, the jets will take off for Ambala in Haryana, where the IAF’s 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’ — home of the first Squadron of Rafale fighters — is based.
Initially, the aircraft was scheduled to arrive after layovers in multiple countries. However, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, this meant that the pilots would have to be quarantined at every base.
Furthermore, the increasing border tensions with China meant that the IAF could not wait for the fighters to be delayed.
India had approached France to expedite the delivery of the Rafale fighters, in light of the border tensions. The weapon system was initially scheduled to arrive only in October this year.
The missiles, which have already arrived at the Ambala base, include the Meteor air to air and HAMMER air-to-ground missile, manufactured by European firm MBDA.
Neither China nor Pakistan has a missile to counter this capability of the IAF.
The Rafale will not have to cross the Indian airspace to hit a target that is about 600 km in enemy territory and can be used in penetration, impact or airburst modes.
Considering the situation in Ladakh with China, the IAF has also directed emergency procurement of the HAMMER air-to-ground missile with a range of about 60 Kms.
The original plan was to integrate the Israeli Spice 2000 with the Rafale aircraft but with the focus on the early operational deployment of Rafale in mind, a decision was taken to buy the HAMMER, which the Rafale is already configured to fire.
The other missile that the Rafale would be carrying is the air-to-air MICA that has also been deployed on the Mirage 2000.
Straight to Ladakh
The planes are awaited with impatience by New Delhi, which is eager to update its ageing fighter jet force as tensions flare with both China and Pakistan.
Hand-to-hand fighting between Chinese and Indian forces in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh last month left 20 Indian soldiers dead. China has said it also suffered casualties but has not given figures.
Tensions are also running high with Islamabad after India scrapped the semi-autonomous status for the Muslim-majority region of Indian-administered Kashmir and imposed a major security clampdown.
The IAF said once the planes arrive in India, “efforts will focus on operationalisation of the aircraft at the earliest”.
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