IAF may induct first Rafale fighter in 3rd week of September

France is likely to formally hand over to the Indian Air Force its first Rafale fighter jet around September 20, two IAF officials said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

The IAF has told the French government that the formal induction ceremony of the first of the 36 jets on order should be held in the third week of September in France.

“We have written to the French defence ministry that the first Rafale should be delivered between September 18 and 23. The induction is likely to happen on a mutually convenient date in this time frame,” said one of the officials cited above.

The request has been made to the French authorities through the General Directorate for Armament, or DGA, that is the coordinating entity for the IAF’s acquisition of the fighter jets manufactured by French plane maker Dassault Aviation, said the second official.

While the formal induction will happen in September, the first batch of four Rafale jets will fly to their home base in India only next April-May. All 36 fighter planes will arrive by September 2022, a small step on the long road towards building a stronger air force.

“The Rafale fighters, equipped with the Meteor beyond visual range missiles, will significantly enhance the IAF’s strike capabilities,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.

India ordered 36 Rafale jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore on September 23, 2016 — a deal that was at the centre of a political controversy in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The two Rafale squadrons will be based at Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in West Bengal, covering the northern and eastern fronts.

The Rafale will be the first imported fighter jet to be inducted into the IAF in 22 years after the Russian Sukhoi-30 fighters. The first Su-30 entered IAF service in June 1997.

IAF pilots and technicians are training on Rafale jets in Paris and it will be the responsibility of these crews to fly the jets to India in batches.

The 2016 Rafale deal was an emergency purchase to arrest the worrying slide in the IAF’s combat capabilities. The count of the IAF’s fighter squadrons has reduced to 31 compared to an optimum strength of 42-plus units required to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan.

The Indian fighters will be equipped with Meteor missiles built by European defence major MBDA Missile Systems. The Meteor’s no-escape zone is touted to be three times greater than that of current medium range air-to-air missiles.

The jets have been tailored for the IAF. India-specific enhancements include helmet-mounted sight, radar warning receivers, flight data recorders with enough storage for 10 hours of data, infrared search and track systems, jammers, cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases, and towed decoys to lure incoming missiles away.