The first batch of five Rafale fighter aircraft on Monday took off from France for India, nearly four years after the two countries inked an inter-governmental agreement to supply 36 of the multi-role jets to the Indian Air Force under a Rs 59,000-crore deal.
The aircraft flew out from the Merignac airbase in French port city of Bordeaux and will cover a distance of nearly 7,000 km with air-to-air refuelling and a single stop in the United Arab Emirates before arriving at Ambala airbase on Wednesday, officials said.
"You can call them (Rafale) both beauty and the beast," said Indian Ambassador to France Jawed Ashraf after interacting with the IAF pilots at the airbase before they set off for India.
In the evening, officials said all five Rafales landed safely in Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE after a sortie in excess of seven hours.
The fleet, comprising three single seater and two twin seater aircraft, is scheduled to arrive at Ambala airbase on Wednesday when they will be officially inducted into the Indian Air Force as part of its No 17 Squadron, also known as the Golden Arrows, said an IAF official.
"Delivery of 10 aircraft has been completed on schedule. Five will stay back in France for training mission. The delivery of all 36 aircraft will be completed on schedule by the end of 2021," the Indian embassy in Paris said in a statement.
The IAF official said the air-to-air refuelling of the aircraft will be undertaken with dedicated tanker support from the French Air Force.
"The aircraft are likely to arrive at Air Force Station, Ambala, on July 29 subject to weather (condition)," the IAF said in a statement.
The aircraft are expected to significantly boost the Indian Air Force's combat capabilities at a time India is locked in a tense border row with China in eastern Ladakh.
The first Rafale jet was handed over to the IAF in October last year during a visit to France by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
"Our air force pilots tell us that these are extremely swift, nimble, versatile and very deadly aircraft," said Ashraf while congratulating the IAF pilots on becoming the first ones to fly one of the world's most advanced fighter aircraft.
The envoy thanked Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of the aircraft, for delivering the fleet on time, the French government and the French Air Force for extending all required support.
"This (the fleet) is going to add a great deal of air power to our defence preparedness. This is also a powerful symbol of the strategic partnership between India and France," he added.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Dassault Aviation Eric Trappier said the "new milestone" illustrated once again the "exemplary" cooperation between his company and the Indian Air Force that started in 1953.
He said it testifies that the programme is running smoothly and that deliveries are on time notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I am strongly impressed by the amazing efficiency and determination of the IAF and Indian Ministry of Defence, despite this unprecedented world health crisis, to master rapidly all aspects of the Rafale for comforting Indian sovereignty and contributing to the protection and security of Indian people," the Dassault Aviation quoted him in a statement.
The first squadron of the Rafale jets will be stationed in Ambala air base.
In a statement, the Indian embassy said IAF pilots and supporting personnel have been provided full training on the aircraft and weapon systems by Dassault. Further batches of IAF personnel will continue the training over the next nine months.
"India and France have a long history of cooperation in fighter aircraft, which includes India's acquisition of French Toofanis in 1953, then Mystere, Jaguars and the Mirages," it said.
Official sources said the Rafale jets are likely to be deployed in the Ladakh sector as part of IAF's efforts to enhance its operational capabilities along Line of Actual Control with China in view of the border row with the country.
The aircraft is capable of carrying a range of potent weapons. European missile maker MBDA's Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile and Scalp cruise missile will be the mainstay of the weapons package of the Rafale jets
Meteor is the next generation of BVR air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) designed to revolutionise air-to-air combat. The weapon has been developed by MBDA to combat common threats facing the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden.
The Meteor is powered by a unique rocket-ramjet motor that gives it far more engine power for much longer than any other missile, said an official.
Besides the missile systems, the Rafale jets will come with various India-specific modifications, including Israeli helmet-mounted displays, radar warning receivers, low-band jammers, 10-hour flight data recording, infra-red search and tracking systems among others
The IAF has already completed preparations, including readying required infrastructure and training of pilots, to welcome the fighter aircraft.
The second squadron of Rafale will be stationed at Hasimara base in West Bengal. The IAF spent around Rs 400 crore to develop required infrastructure like shelters, hangars and maintenance facilities at the two bases
Out of 36 Rafale jets, 30 will be fighter jets and six will be trainers. The trainer jets will be twin-seater and they will have almost all the features of the fighter jets.
India began the process to buy a fleet of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in 2007 after the defence ministry, headed then by Congress leader AK Antony, cleared the proposal from the IAF.
The contenders for the mega deal were Lockheed Martin's F-16s, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia's MiG-35, Sweden's Gripen, Boeing's F/A-18s and Dassault Aviation's Rafale.
After a long-drawn process, bids were opened in December 2012 and Dassault Aviation emerged as L-1 (lowest bidder).
There were lengthy negotiations between the then UPA government and Dassault on prices and transfer of technology. The final negotiations continued till early 2014 but the deal could not go through.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Paris in April 2015, both sides announced that they agreed to conclude an inter-governmental agreement for supply of 36 Rafale jets to India.
India and France signed an Euro 7.87-billion (Rs 59,000 crore approximately) deal on September 23, 2016 for 36 Rafale jets.
The Ambala base is considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF as the Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from it.
Currently, the base has two squadrons of the Jaguar combat aircraft and one squadron of the MiG-21 Bison.
Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh was the first commander of the Ambala base in independent India.