Five French-made jet fighters arrived in India on Wednesday, the first of 36 New Dehli ordered as it moves to upgrade its air force amid a spike in tensions with China.
“The Birds have landed safely in Ambala,” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted. “The touchdown of Rafale combat aircrafts in India marks the beginning of a new era in our military history.”
Singh said the twin-engine, multirole fighters would “revolutionize” the Indian Air Force (IAF). Ordered in 2016, they come in one-seat or two-seat versions and can be armed with air-to-air, air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles as well as a 30mm cannon, according to the manufacturer, Dassault Aviation.
Dassault also touts the Rafale’s Flight Control System, which includes the ability for it to fly on autopilot in a terrain-following mode in all weather conditions.
“This aircraft has very good flying performance and its weapons, radar and other sensors and electronic warfare capabilities are among the best in the world. Its arrival in India will make the IAF much stronger to deter any threat that may be posed on our country,” Singh is quoted as saying in a government press release.
The arrival of the jets in India comes about six weeks after Indian troops fought with Chinese soldiers along the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border between the two powers high in the Himalayas. Twenty Indians were killed in hand-to-hand combat, and fears linger of further hostilities.
Singh made reference to the dispute on Wednesday.
“If it is anyone who should be worried about, or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity,” he tweeted.
Indian media has been filled with glowing expert reviews of the Rafale jets compared to what China could bring to bear in any aerial conflict, including China’s new J-20 stealth fighters. The Rafale is not a stealth jet, but it is touted for for having a low profile that is not easy to detect on radar.
How the two aircraft may face off is an open debate, but the Rafale may have one distinct advantage – combat experience.
Flown by French forces, the Rafale has been used in operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria, Dassault Aviation says on its website.
India officially accepted delivery of the first batch of jets at the French plant where they are manufactured last October.
Indian pilots trained on the aircraft and flew them on the 8,500-kilometer (5,280-mile) trip from France to India. The trip included a stop at Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, with a French Air Force tanker aircraft providing inflight refueling, the Indian government said in press release.
Two Indian Su-30 fighters escorted the Rafales as they entered Indian airspace, the government said.
Along with the Su-30s, other fighters in the Indian fleet include the Mirage 2000, the LCA Tejas, the MiG-27, the MiG-29 and the Jaguar.