The Rafale multi-role fighter jets will boost India's air dominance exponentially, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday as he formally took delivery of the first of the 36 long-awaited French-made aircraft acquired by the Indian Air Force at a ceremony in Merignac, southwestern France.
Singh attended the handover ceremony along with his French counterpart Florence Parly at aircraft maker Dassault Aviation facility in Merignac, southwestern France.
The minister performed a Shastra Puja on the new aircraft as he emblazoned it with an 'Om' tilak and laid flowers and a coconut, just before he was to take off in it for a sortie in the newly-acquired two-seater jet.
Singh, who changed into combat flight gear for the sortie after Puja, said the aircraft will enhance the Indian Air Force combat capability massively -- intended only for self-defence.
"We do not purchase arms and other defence equipments to threaten any country but to increase our capabilities and strengthen our defences," 68-year-old Singh said.
"I had never imagined that I would be flown at supersonic speed; a very comfortable and smooth flight during which I was able to observe the many capabilities of the jet, its air-to-air and air-to-ground combat capabilities," he said, describing his sortie as a memorable and once in a lifetime experience.
On September 19, Singh flew in the Tejas fighter aircraft from the HAL airport in Bengaluru, becoming the first defence minister to fly in the indigenously-built light combat aircraft.
"Our Air Force is the fourth-largest in the world and I believe that the Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft will make us even stronger and will give a boost to India's air dominance exponentially to ensure peace and security in the region," Singh said, addressing the gathering in Hindi.
"I have been told that the French word Rafale means andhi in Hindi or gust of wind. I am sure that the aircraft will live up to its name,” he said.
The RB001 Rafale, denoting the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria who played a key role in striking the deal for the jets in his previous role as IAF deputy chief, was unveiled with the Indian tricolour as its backdrop.
"Today marks a new milestone in the Indo-French strategic partnership and indeed a new high in the bilateral defence cooperation. Such achievements encourage us to do more and that will be on my agenda when I meet minister Parly today," Singh said, in reference to the annual Indo-French Defence Dialgoue scheduled for Tuesday evening.
"This is a historic and landmark day for the Indian Armed forces, which reflects the depth of strategic partnership between India and France. Today marks Vijayadashami -- the victory of good over evil -- as also the 87th Indian Air Force Day. And therefore a symbolic day in so many ways," he added.
Singh said the strong cooperation between India and France will continue to grow and contribute to global peace, prosperity and environmental sustainability.
He also said that a large number of IAF officers and airmen are being trained in France for flying, maintenance support and logistics for handling Rafale and hoped the training will help them in acquiring knowledge and professional expertise required for performing their task in India.
Parly described the Rafale as a symbol of the best France has to offer India to protect its sovereignty and also of the French commitment to the 'Make in India' initiative.
"It is no coincidence that this ceremony falls on Dussehra and also the Indian Air Force's 87th anniversary. It is a reflection of the paramount importance we give to our cooperation with India,” said Parly.
"This is just the first step of a long journey, as we are committed to meet all needs of the Indian Army. It marks a big day in the history of our industrial cooperation and we remain fully committed to the Make in India initiative,” she said.
This range of Rafale fighter jets have been specially designed to meet the needs of the IAF, which its manufacturer described as a new step in the company's long-standing relationship with India.
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 history of our relationship started in 1953 with delivery of Toofani for the Indian Air Force and since then we have had a continuous and unfailing commitment to this country, supported by successive French governments," said Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation.
It was revealed that an Indian Rafale project monitoring team has been based in France since August 2017 to ensure the smooth implementation of the project, aimed at considerably enhancing India's air combat fleet.
India had ordered 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in September 2016.
The Rafale became a controversial issue during the 2019 Lok Sabha election after the Opposition Congress party alleged corruption in the mega defence deal, a charge refuted by the government.
While the formal handover ceremony takes place this week, the first batch of four Rafale jets will fly to their home base in India by May 2020. All 36 jets are expected to arrive in India by September 2022, for which the IAF has been reportedly undertaking preparations, including readying required infrastructure and training of pilots.