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NEW DELHI: So, it’s finally jet, set, go! The first five Rafale fighters tore into the skies over France with sonic booms on Monday to begin their 7,000-km flight to India, which will include mid-air refueling and an overnight pit stop in UAE.
The three single-seat and two twin-seat omni-role fighters, flown by seven IAF pilots led by commanding officer Group Captain Harkirat Singh, will touch down in Ambala to launch the 17 `Golden Arrows’ squadron on Wednesday.
“After India’s ambassador Jawed Ashraf flagged off the five Rafales from the Merignac airbase in Bordeaux (France), they landed at the Al Dhafra airbase in UAE on Monday evening after flying for over seven hours,” said an IAF officer.
The imminent arrival of the five Rafales, out of the 36 contracted from France in the Rs 59,000 crore deal inked in September 2016, comes two decades after IAF first demanded such fighters, and an intense BJP-Congress political dogfight over corruption allegations in the last couple of years.
The fighters, dubbed “game-changers” by IAF, will of course touch down here bang in the middle of the ongoing military confrontation with China. But top IAF sources played down the “overhype”, stressing that new fighters take time to settle down and be properly integrated into the entire war-fighting machinery.
“No new weapon system, especially complex ones like fighters, can be deployed just like that. First the fighters have to be extensively flown in Indian conditions to develop tactics and other operational procedures,” said a source.
The new weapon, in effect, takes time to be weaponized. Moreover, the five Rafales do not constitute even half a squadron as of now. IAF has already deployed an adequate number of Sukhoi-30MKIs, MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s in forward areas along the Line of Actual Control with China to take care of any contingency.
“But yes, the effort will be to make the Rafales operational as fast as possible due to the border situation with China. It will probably take at least two months,” he added, in the backdrop of the military confrontation with China all set to stretch to the winter, or even beyond it.
Once the Rafales, with their `Meteor’ air-to-air missiles (120-150 km strike range), `Scalp’ air-to-ground cruise missiles (over 300 km) and other armaments, are fully-operational, they will certainly be a force to reckon with.
They will be able to outgun and outrun Pakistani F-16 and JF-17 as well as the Chinese Chengdu J-20 fighters. France has till now delivered 10 Rafales to India, with the other five being kept back at Merignac to train additional IAF pilots and technicians over the next nine months.
All the 36 Rafales, which can also deliver nuclear weapons, are slated to be delivered by end-2021. The Ambala and Hashimara airbases will house 18 each for the western and eastern fronts. The Rafales will significantly add to the qualitative and quantitative edge IAF already enjoys over the Chinese air force along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control.
As was earlier reported by TOI, the IAF has also projected the operational need to go in for another 36 Rafales in the backdrop of its depleting number of fighter squadrons as well as both Hasimara and Ambala having the requisite infrastructure to house two squadrons each. But that decision is yet to be taken.
The Meteor missiles are arguably the best in the world for air combat duels, with “a greater no-escape zone” for hostile fighters than any comparable BVR weapon. Pakistan and China do not currently have any missiles of this class in their combat inventories.
With a combat range of 780-km to 1,650-km depending on mission, the Rafales come armed with a deadly weapons package, advanced avionics, radars and electronic warfare systems to prevent jamming by adversaries and ensure superior survivability in hostile contested airspace. Each Rafale can also carry two fire-and-forget Scalp cruise missiles to hit high-value fortified targets well over 300-km away.
But the 13 India-Specific Enhancements (ISEs) or upgrades on the 36 Rafales will become fully operational only in 2022 after undergoing “software certification” after all the jets have arrived in India.
The upgrades range from radar enhancements, Israeli helmet-mounted displays and low-band jammers to towed decoy systems, 10-hour flight data recording and engine capability for “cold start” from high-altitude regions like Ladakh.
In Video:Five Rafale jets land in UAE on way to India

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