Five French-made multirole Rafale jets were inducted into the Indian Air Force on Thursday at a glittering ceremony in Ambala, in a major boost to the country's air power at a time it is engaged in an escalating border dispute with China.
Using the occasion to send a signal to China over the border row in eastern Ladakh, defence minister Rajnath Singh said the induction was crucial considering the atmosphere being created along the frontier and called it is a "big and stern" message to those eyeing India's sovereignty.
Singh said Rafale is considered one of the best combat aircraft globally and the deal to procure the jets was a "game changer" for India's national security.
A traditional 'sarva dharma puja', a ceremonial water cannon salute to the Rafale fighter jets and an aerial drill featuring breathtaking manoeuvres by the aircraft marked their induction into the IAF's 'Golden Arrows' squadron at the Ambala Air Force station.
"The induction of Rafale jets is a big and stern message to the entire world, especially to those eyeing our sovereignty. This kind of induction is very important for the kind of atmosphere that has been created on our borders," the defence minister said.
"We understand very well that with changing times, we also have to prepare ourselves. I feel proud to say that our national security has been a big priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi," he said.
Besides Singh, the nearly two-hour ceremony was attended by French Defence Minister Florence Parly, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria and top executives of major French defence firms involved in the Rafale deal.
Bhadauria said the induction of Rafale jets could not have happened at a more opportune time, considering the security scenario.
He said the Golden Arrows squadron has already flown the aircraft and undergone intense integrated training with other combat fleets, including firing advanced weapons.
“So this formal induction today also marks the operational induction of this aircraft into the IAF. We are good to go and deliver,” he said.
In her address, Parly said France is fully committed to integrate the Indian defence industry with France's global military supply chain, and called Rafale's induction into the IAF a new chapter in bilateral defence ties.
SEE: Rafale flying at low-speed during an air display at IAF base in Ambala
She said India will have an edge over the entire region to defend its people with the induction of the fighter jets.
At the ceremony, a fleet of indigenously-developed combat jets Tejas, and the Sarang helicopter aerobatic team too displayed a range of aerial manoeuvres.
In a tweet, the IAF welcomed the "new bird" into its arsenal.
The multirole Rafale jets, built by French aerospace major Dassault Aviation, are known for air-superiority and precision strikes.
The first batch of five Rafale jets arrived in India on July 29, nearly four years after India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France to procure 36 of them at a cost of Rs 59,000 crore.
The French delegation at the ceremony included French envoy Emmanuel Lenain, Air General Eric Autellet, Vice Chief of French Air Force, Chairman and Chief Executive of Dassault Aviation Eric Trappier, and CEO of missile maker MBDA Eric Beranger.
"We are very proud to be equipping the IAF's Rafales with a full comprehensive weapon package that includes the game-changing Meteor and MICA air-to-air missiles and the SCALP cruise missile to conduct deep strike missions in a complex and severe environment,” Beranger said later.
Ten Rafale jets have been delivered to India so far and five of them are held back in France for imparting training to IAF pilots.
The delivery of all 36 aircraft is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021.
A second batch of four to five Rafale jets is likely to arrive by November.
The Rafale aircraft are India's first major acquisition of fighter planes in 23 year after the Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia.
The Rafale jets are capable of carrying a range of potent weapons. European missile maker MBDA's Meteor air-to-air missile and Scalp cruise missile will be the mainstay of their weapons package.
Meteor is a next generation beyond visual range 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.
Out of 36 Rafale jets, 30 will be fighter jets and six trainers.
The trainer jets will be twin-seaters and have almost all features of the fighters.
While the first squadron of the Rafale jets will be stationed at the Ambala airbase, the second one will be at Hasimara in West Bengal.
"Induction of Rafale in Ambala is important as the fleet can rapidly access all areas of interest from the airbase,” Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria said, in an apparent reference to both the Pakistan and China fronts.
The 17 Squadron of the IAF was resurrected on September 10 last year.
It was originally raised at Air Force Station, Ambala on Oct 1, 1951.
In 1955, it was equipped with the first jet fighter, the legendary De Havilland Vampire.