Though the Rafale jet deal has been caught in a political firestorm, the Indian Air Force is quietly readying infrastructure for the new fleet and training its fighter pilots to fly the aircraft.
Official sources said the IAF was sending a batch of pilots to France by the year-end. A team has already undergone training and it will go for another round, sources said.
A number of IAF teams have visited France to help Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale, incorporate India-specific enhancements on board the aircraft.
India had inked an inter-governmental agreement with France in September 2016 for procurement of 36 of these jets at a cost of around Rs. 58,000 crore. The delivery of the jets — capable of carrying a range of potent weapons and missiles — is scheduled to begin from September 2019.
According to sources, Dassault Aviation has started test flight of the jets to be supplied to India, and the company has been told to strictly adhere to the timeline for delivery. 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, infrared search and tracking systems and so on.
First squadron at Ambala
Sources said the first squadron of the aircraft will be deployed at the Air Force Station in Ambala, considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF. The India-Pakistan border is around 220 km from there. The second squadron will be stationed in the Hasimara base in West Bengal.
Officials said the government had already sanctioned around Rs. 400 crore to build shelters, hangars and maintenance facilities in the two bases.
In July 2017, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, during his visit to France, flew a Rafale jet at the Saint-Dizier airbase to gain first-hand experience.