French Rafale fighter jets head to India amid tension with China, Pakistan

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The first five of 36 Rafale fighter jets purchased by New Delhi have left an airbase in southern France on an accelerated delivery schedule. India’s military said they would be deployed at an airbase some 200 kilometres from the borders China and Pakistan.

The five jets, built by Dassault Aviation, took off from Merignac in southwest France on Monday, piloted by officers from the Indian Air Force (IAF).

After several midair refuellings and a stopover at a French airbase in Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, the jets were to arrive at Ambala airbase in northern India, some 200 kilometres from the borders with Pakistan and China, by Wednesday.

Indian pilots trained in France

After many years of negotiations clouded by corruption allegations denied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, France and India signed a deal worth an estimated 7.87 billion euros for 36 Rafale fighter jets in September 2016.

Delivery began in October, with the planes staying in France for training of the pilots and mechanics, and should be completed in 2022.

“I am strongly impressed by the amazing efficiency and determination of the Indian Air Force and Indian Ministry of Defence,” Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier said in a statement.

Despite the Covid-19 epidemic, the pilots were able to “master rapidly all aspects of the Rafale for comforting Indian sovereignty and contributing to the protection and security of Indian people”, Trappier said.

Operational as early as possible

The IAF has said that “efforts will focus on operationalisation of the aircraft at the earliest”, following the planes’ arrival in India.

Indian military officials told RFI last week they were expediting the deliveries of the jets.

India purchased the jets to update its ageing fleet at a time of high tensions with both China and Pakistan.

Fighting with Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh last month left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

Tensions are also high with Islamabad after New Delhi scrapped the semi-autonomous status for the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and imposed a major security clampdown last year.

(with AFP)