The six Rafale warplanes were earlier scheduled to fly to India on April 28 but the event was advanced by a week to coincide with IAF chief Rakesh Bhadauria’s visit

Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria will flag off six Rafale fighter jets from Merignac-Bordeaux airbase in south-western France on April 21, setting the stage for activating the second Rafale squadron at Hasimara in West Bengal, people familiar with the matter said.

The IAF chief is scheduled to visit France from April 20, and will be in the country till April 23. The six warplanes were earlier scheduled to fly to India on April 28 but the event was advanced by a week to coincide with his visit.

It is understood that during his France visit, Air Chief Bhadauria will visit a French Rafale squadron, meet his counterpart Phillippe Lavigne and visit the newly-established Space Command in Paris.

The arrival of the six Rafale jets flagged by IAF chief Rakesh Bhadauria will raise the number of the Omni-role fighters with the IAF to 20 of the 36 contracted Rafale jets to India. This will enable the air force to complete the 117 Golden Arrows Squadron in Ambala with 18 aircraft and start the second squadron with 2 fourth-generation-plus fighter jets.

“The six fighters will fly to Ambala airbase, from where the fighters will be repurposed for the formation of a second squadron at Hasimara, “ said a senior air force officer.

The formation of a second Rafale squadron at Hasimara will add teeth to India’s aerial capability with Hercules C-130 J airlift squadron based in Panagarh in the northern part of West Bengal. Given the location of both the squadrons on the gates of Siliguri corridor, the IAF will have the power to counter any offensive from the north in the eastern sector, particularly in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

According to Dassault Aviation officials, another batch of four Rafale jets will fly to India in May. In addition to these 24 which will be with the IAF in India, the aviation giant has handed over seven more Rafale fighters that are used for training IAF officers in France. By May-end, only five more fighters are to be handed over by Dassault to complete the full package of 36 aircraft.

India and France inked the government-to-government deal for the 36 aircraft in 2016 that has also contributed to the two countries deepening bilateral ties including defence cooperation. Indian officials said the two countries have decided that future military hardware purchases would also be finalised on a government-to-government basis to keep out middlemen and lobbyists.

There is a huge potential to strengthen defence cooperation between India and France since Paris does not impose any condition to any military sales or joint development with India.

It is also in this context that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to travel to France after wrapping up the India-European Union Summit in Portugal on May 7. French President Emmanuelle Macron is expected to be in Portugal for the summit on May 7 and returns to Paris the next day.

To add to India’s comfort, France is the only country with a well-developed military industry that has no defence dealings with Pakistan or China and has bilateral convergence in Indo-Pacific and space cooperation. Pakistan is completely reliant on Chinese military technology, which is based on Russian design and aircraft engines.

France’s relations with Pakistan, which have been on a slide for more than a year, has hit a new low with Islamists groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) seeking retribution for statements made by President Macron that they consider to be “blasphemy”. There have been suggestions that the increasing belligerence of Islamists in Pakistan can force Paris to downgrade diplomatic ties with Islamabad. On Thursday, French diplomats in Islamabad confirmed to news channel Al Jazeera that it had asked French nationals and companies to temporarily leave Pakistan in view of the “serious threats to French interests” to leave Pakistan.