The commanding officer (CO) of the first Rafale fighter squadron in the IAF has suddenly been transferred to the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command (EAC) at Shillong, in a move that has raised eyebrows within the force.

Group Captain Harkirat Singh will be replaced by Group Captain Rohit Kataria as the CO of the 17 ‘Golden Arrows’ Squadron at the Ambala airbase, as per the order issued by IAF on Wednesday, said sources.

“It’s highly unusual for a CO of a fighter squadron to be transferred out within six-seven months of the new jets — and that too the Rafales — being inducted in the IAF. Moreover, the 17 Squadron has only got 11 of its full complement of 18 Rafales till now,” said an officer.

Within a few hours of TOI sending a questionnaire to the IAF headquarters on Group Captain Singh’s sudden transfer, the force declared the second Rafale squadron would be raised at the Hasimara airbase (West Bengal) in the EAC in mid-April.

The IAF maintained Group Captain Singh’s posting to the EAC was “part of a regular changeover” in the force, emphasizing the officer’s “expertise with the Rafale induction at Ambala is planned to be utilized for a similar induction” in the EAC.

The 101 `Falcons’ Squadron at Hasimara airbase is slated to get the second lot of 18 Rafales under the Rs 59,000 crore deal inked with France for 36 of the omni-role jets in September 2016, as was reported earlier by TOI. Group Captain Singh, incidentally, was conferred the nation’s third-highest peacetime gallantry medal, the Shaurya Chakra, for displaying exceptional courage in landing a MiG-21 ‘Bison’ despite the critical emergency of “an engine flameout” during a practice interception sortie in September 2008.

Group Captain Singh had led the “main” Rafale induction team of pilots, flight engineers and technicians in France. Group Captains Singh and Kataria were also among the pilots who had flown the first five Rafales to Ambala in July last year. The Rafales were formally inducted into the IAF at a ceremony in Ambala the following September. Since then, 11 of the 36 Rafales have arrived in India, with another lot slated to touch down next month. All the 36 will be delivered by April 2022.

The 4.5-generation Rafales, which have a combat range of 780-km to 1,650-km depending on the nature of the mission without mid-air refuelling, have added a much-needed offensive punch to the IAF. The Rafales, which can also deliver nuclear bombs, are armed with long stand-off weapons like the over 300-km range ‘Scalp’ air-to-ground cruise missiles. They are also being equipped with the top-notch Meteor air-to-air missiles, which with a strike range of 120 to 150-km can outgun any missile that can currently be unleashed by Pakistani or Chinese jets. IAF has also ordered the “Hammer” air-to-ground precision-guided munitions for the Rafales, in a deal that came last year amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh.