New Delhi: At least five Rafale fighter aircraft will take off from Merignac in France 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, ThePrint has learnt.
According to sources in the defence 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.
“The exact number of aircraft that will take off will be known only on Monday. The IAF has said that five would land on July 29 in India but this number could even be six,” a source said.
According to the contract signed in September 2016, 12 aircraft are supposed to be delivered every year.
French defence 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 source also added that the aircraft can be operationally deployed, if needed, “within a week”.
Under normal circumstances, it takes at least six months for full operational deployment.
However, according to a source, these are “extraordinary times”.
“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.
The flying plan: 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 refueling mid-air, to complete the journey.
They added that the pilots have undergone specialised training for mid-air refueling through the Airbus 330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft that the French use.
This was not originally part of the training module since the IAF uses the Russian aircraft IL-78 for mid-air refueling.
While the distance to the UAE can be covered by the Rafale in much shorter time, they will have to keep pace with the tankers.
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 were 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.
Missiles aboard Rafale aircraft
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 French government then diverted an initial lot of cutting edge missiles meant for its own air force to India.
The missiles, which have already arrived at the Ambala base, include the Meteor air to air missile, manufactured by European firm MBDA.
The Meteor costs about Rs 20 crore each, and is a very long-range rocket and ram-jet powered air-to-air missile. With a range of about 150 km, the missile can attack an enemy aircraft without even crossing the Indian air space.
Neither China nor Pakistan has a missile to counter this capability of the IAF.
Another key missile on board is the 1,300 kg and the 5.1 metre-long Scalp, which can be carried in either one missile or two missiles configuration on the Rafale.
The air-to-ground missile costs about Rs 40 crore each and is also manufactured by the MBDA. It has a 600-km range and is known for its precision.
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.
It is meant to strike deep even in areas with limited access and in an area denial scenario — which is meant to prevent the adversary from entering one’s territory.
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 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 have also been deployed on the Mirage 2000.
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