A six-member Indian Air Force crew is on its way to France to train on Rafale fighter planes, amid politics over the controversial Rs 59,000-crore deal showing no signs of dying down in the country.
A fighter pilot, an engineer and four technicians form the first batch of a hand-picked crew that will train on the Rafale jets as the IAF prepares the ground for inducting the first lot of its new planes from September 2019, two persons familiar with the development said. The crew, which left for France on Sunday, will be trained at the Saint-Dizier air base in eastern France.
“The IAF will send more pilots and technicians to France for Rafale training in the coming months in batches. It will be the responsibility of these crews to fly the jets to India,” said one of the officials cited above. 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.
India and France signed the deal for two Rafale squadrons (36 planes) in September 2016 as an emergency purchase to arrest the worrying slide in the IAF’s capabilities. The squadrons will be based at Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in West Bengal, covering the northern and eastern fronts.
All 36 fighter planes will arrive by September 2022, a small step on the long road towards building a stronger air force. 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 Rafale jets are 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, infra-red search and track systems, jammers, cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases and towed decoys to lure incoming missiles away.
The fighters will be equipped with Meteor beyond visual range 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.
While the UPA has alleged that India paid Rs 351 crore more for each jet than other Rafale customers, the NDA government has asserted that the basic aircraft price is 20% cheaper under the NDA than what was on offer under the UPA in 2007.
The IAF has defended the deal saying the Rafale brings tremendous capabilities at a reasonable price.
The government has said the prices are not comparable because of several factors: the fighter numbers, the time since the previous negotiations; the fact that the previous deal was not viable and couldn’t have been closed; and the weaponisation and customization of the warplanes.
The NDA has also said that it cannot disclose the price on two counts: a confidentiality agreement with France, and the strategic reason of not showing its hand to India’s enemies. The opposition has claimed the confidentiality agreement doesn’t apply to this deal.
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