The first five of a total order of 36 Dassault Rafale omnirole fighter aircraft were inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in an official ceremony at Air Force Station Ambala, on 10 September 2020. Heralded as a ‘game changer’ by IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, the Rafales represent a significant capability upgrade for the IAF and, from the Modi Government’s perspective, will go a long way towards its strategic objective of extending the IAF’s dominance against its Pakistani counterpart.
Termed a “4.5-generation” aircraft due to its radar-evading stealth profile, advanced weaponry including Meteor and SCALP missiles, and multi-directional radar capable of detecting 40 targets simultaneously over a range of 100 kilometres, for the IAF, the Rafale takes the fight back to the F-16 Fighting Falcons flown by the Pakistani Air Force.
Although they are single largest purchase of fighter aircraft in over two decades and form the core of the Modi Government’s modernisation of the IAF, the 36 Rafales – with a price tag of US$8.78 billion – will be supplemented by the acquisition of 21 Russian-made MiG-29 and 12 Sukhoi 30MKI fighters, at a cost of US$2.43 billion.
Ten Rafales have now been inducted into the IAF: the five now at AFS Ambala, with the other five aircraft remaining in France for the training of IAF pilots. All 36 aircraft are expected to be delivered to India by the end of 2021.
The Rafales are to be based at two strategically-sited air force stations: AFS Ambala, located some 200 kilometres from the India-Pakistan border, and AFS Hasimara in West Bengal, near the India-Bhutan border and in close proximity to Arunachal Pradesh state, parts of which are claimed by China.
Accompanied by a delegation of French diplomats and business leaders, including the head of Dassault Aviation, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly was hosted at AFS Ambala by her Indian counterpart, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, before travelling to New Delhi for further discussions with Mr Singh and a meeting with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
In a statement released by the French Embassy in New Delhi, the discussions with Singh and Doval covered:
‘… industrial and technological partnership in line with the “Make in India” programme, operational defence co-operation, particularly maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, modalities of continuing the armed forces’ joint exercises in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, counter-terrorism co-operation, as well as major regional and international strategic issues.’
The Rafale deal and the ministerial talks cement the importance placed on India by France as a likeminded partner with both the desire and the ability to contribute to the maintenance of the international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Given the description of India as France’s ‘foremost Asian strategic partner’, its support for a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council and the productive relationship enjoyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron, the scene is set for the Franco-Indian relationship to further deepen.