It was to be a secret take-off and landing. But that’s not how it turned out, as the Indian Embassy in France tweeted pictures of three Rafale jets departing from the Merignac Airbase in Bordeaux.
Rafales were refueled in-flight by UAE Air Force tankers. This marks yet another milestone in the strong relationship between the two Air Forces. Thank You UAE AF.@IndembAbuDhabi @Indian_Embassy pic.twitter.com/6gFwh0AnjR— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) March 31, 2021
Another batch of #Rafale take to the skies on non stop flight to India with mid air refueling by UAE. Indian Air power grows further!!#India #France #InFra@JawedAshraf5 @DrSJaishankar @harshvshringla @MEAIndia @PMOIndia pic.twitter.com/TyrYaNBQVG— India in France (@Indian_Embassy) March 31, 2021
But all’s well that ends well. The fourth batch of the three IAF Rafales landed at the Jamnagar base, on Indian soil, after a direct ferry from Istres Air Base in France.
The three jets have completed a 10-hour, 7000-km journey safely, with a little help from the UAE Air Force. Its Airbus 330 multi-role transport tanker refuelled the jets over the Gulf of Oman — a manoeuvre that is a sight to behold. The Air force was tight-lipped about the entire episode as its “strategic assets were on the move”.
The jets will be part of the 17 Golden Arrow Squadron based out of Ambala, which is currently home to 11 Rafales. Dassault has handed over 21 jets to India, but only 14 have made their way home so far. Seven are being used to train Indian Air Force pilots in France. The next, and the fourth, batch of nine jets will arrive in April. Four of them will go to Ambala to complete the squadron, and the remaining five will be based out of Hashimara in West Bengal, where the second Rafale squadron is based. One squadron comprises 18 planes. India bought 36 Rafales, or two squadrons, from France in September 2016 for Rs 59,000 crore.
Despite Covid-19, the delivery schedule is on track. France has assured India that all jets will be delivered by the end of 2022. The Rafale, the pride and joy of the Indian Air Force, has been the show-stopper at all air shows ever since it was inducted in July last year. But the first Squadron saw an abrupt change of guard when its commanding officer, Group Captain Harkirat Singh, was replaced by Group Captain Rohit Kataria. Group Captain Singh’s posting was termed routine by the Air Force.
The Rafales are not going to be an exclusive boys’ club. A lady officer, Flight Lieutenant Shivangi Singh, is undergoing training to fly the fighter jets.
While they are a powerful addition for the Air Force, 36 jets are not enough to arrest its falling squadron strength. Down to 32, the force needs at least 42 to deal with a two-front situation. A deal for 83 LCA Tejas Mark 1 A aircraft has been signed to replace the four squadrons of the mothballed Mig-21 fighters. Now, India is in the market for 114 more multi-role aircraft. Dassault, the maker of Rafale, is in the race, along with the American F-15, F-18 and F-21. The Russians are offering their Sukhois and MiG 35. The Swedes are pitching in with their Gripen fighters.
The Air Force is keeping fingers crossed that it doesn’t have to wait another 10 years for procurement, like it had to for the Rafales. The threat on the Northern front is as real and permanent as it gets.