A Rafale fighter at the Yelahanka Air Base in Bangalore during 2017 Aero India show

The French hailed the Rafale stopover as a symbol of the strategic relationship, but was it really such a big deal?

by Sujan Dutta

New Delhi: Trust the French to make a virtue out of a necessity. And India to play down an opportunity due to political exigencies.

Three French Rafale jets flew away from Gwalior this week after being hosted at the Indian Air Force’s Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) in the air force station.

The Rafales were staging back to France after they had participated in the largest multilateral air exercise hosted by Australia in end-August called ‘Pitch Black’. An Indian Air Force contingent with Sukhoi 30MKI fighter jets was also among those from nine nations that participated in the exercise.

The French hailed the Gwalior stopover as a symbol of the deep strategic relationship between the two countries.

But the Modi government, caught in a political slugfest over the purchase of 36 Rafale jets, asked the Indian Air Force to scale down any attempt to showcase the presence of the aircraft, it is learnt.

During the stopover of the three Rafales in Gwalior, pilots of IAF Sukhoi 30 MKIs took a close look inside the cockpits of the French aircraft. They also escorted the French in a couple of sorties.

The French Rafales had landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore before landing in Gwalior. Gwalior is a base for the IAF’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets, also made by France’s Dassault Aviation, the maker of the Rafale. “There are obvious compatibilities,” explained one IAF pilot.

The Rafales and the French crew needed the rest and recuperation. But the French Embassy in New Delhi released a press statement that described the R&R as “Mission Pegase” (Pegasus).

“This mission in India is yet another illustration of the depth of Indo-French strategic partnership which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and the great trust that prevails between our respective armed forces,” the statement said.

It is usual for friendly air forces on long-distance deployments to stop over at one another’s bases. Even if contingents fly with mid-air refuelers like this French one was, the endurance of the human body and mind gets tested.

When Indian Air Force contingents fly, for example to Alaska for exercises with the US, they too stop in Oman, France, Germany and Britain. The courtesy is not extended by and to Pakistan and China.

But the controversy and politics did not stop the Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal S.B. Deo, from saying on the sidelines of a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) seminar Wednesday that the Rafale “is a beautiful aircraft”.

The deputy chief of air staff, Air Marshal P. Nambiar, also outlined the opportunities that may be presented to the private sector for maintenance, repair and overhaul after the 36 Rafale, and possibly more, were inducted by the Indian Air Force.

The deal for the 36 Rafale aircraft worth Rs 59,000 crore involves not only the weapons package but also training capsules for IAF pilots and engineers – the first of whom are expected to leave for France next month – and also the setting up of facilities to host the two squadrons of the aircraft in Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in Bengal.