The first five of the 36 Rafale fighter jets India is procuring from the Dassault Aviation company of France took off from the Bordeaux-Merignac airbase in the West European country on Monday

The aircraft will reach the Indian Air Force (IAF) station in Ambala on Wednesday. With the new fighter aircraft being inducted to the IAF at a time when India is engaged in a military stand-off with China, New Delhi underlined that it was a significant step in “strengthening air power” and “defence preparedness” of the nation.

The long-awaited and the much-needed two squadrons of the Rafale fighter jets manufactured by the Dassault Aviation will add great strength to the IAF and the defence capabilities of India, New Delhi’s envoy to Paris, Jawed Ashraf, said at the Bordeaux-Merignac airbase in south-western France. “This marks a new milestone in the strong and growing India-France defence cooperation,” he said, adding: “The aircraft are extremely swift, versatile and very deadly. They are both beauty and beast.”

In view of China’s belligerence along its disputed boundary with India in eastern Ladakh, the IAF decided to immediately make the new aircraft deployable and hence opted to arm them with French HAMMER (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) air-to-ground precision-guided weapon systems, instead of the Israeli Spice 2000 bombs. Unlike the HAMMERs, which were already used on Rafale fighter jets in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the Spice 2000 would have required trials and the process of integration would have needed more time. The HAMMERs have a range of 60-70 kilometres.

The IAF’s Rafale fighter jets will also be armed with Meteor, Scalp and MICA missiles.

The first set of the five aircraft included three single-seaters and two twin-seaters. The fighter jets are being flown to the airbase at Ambala in Haryana by the IAF pilots, who were trained on the aircraft and the weapon systems by the Dassault Aviation and the French Air Force.

“In accordance with the contract, the IAF pilots and supporting personnel have been provided full training on aircraft and weapon systems by the Dassault Aviation. Further batches of Indian Air Force personnel will continue the training over the next nine months,” the Embassy of India in Paris stated.

The aircraft will fly nearly 7,000 kilometres from France to India with air-to-air refuelling and a single stop at the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. They will arrive at the military air base at Ambala in Haryana on Wednesday and will be inducted into the resurrected 17 “Golden Arrows” squadron of the IAF.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had ceremonially taken delivery of the first Rafale aircraft from the Dassault Aviation in a ceremony in France in October 2019.

The delivery of the first 10 aircraft, including the five flying from France to India, has been completed on schedule. Five will stay back in France for training of the IAF pilots and support personnel.

The delivery of all the 36 aircraft will be completed on schedule by the end of 2021, the Embassy of India in Paris stated in a statement issued on Monday.

New Delhi's Rs 59,000 crore government-to-government deal with Paris to procure 36 Rafale fighter jets “off the shelf” had turned into a major political controversy in India, with the BJP-led Government being accused by the opposition Congress of nudging the Dassault Aviation to choose Reliance Defence as its offset partner, brushing aside state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The Supreme Court, however, in December 2018 concluded that no irregularities were found in the deal. It also dismissed review petitions in November 2019.