The formal induction of the first batch of five Rafale multirole fighter jets into the 17 Squadron at Ambala air base marks a new chapter for the Indian Air Force — the first imported fighter to be operationalised since the Russian Sukhoi-30s in the late 1990s. The jets had landed in the country in July-end, nearly four years after the signing of an inter-governmental agreement with France to buy 36 jets for Rs 59,000 crore. The entire fleet is expected to be in India by 2021-end, going some way toward filling the country’s larger requirement of 126 such jets. It has taken almost 19 years to acquire the new generation fighter jets, a pointer to the painfully slow defence procurement and planning processes.
Amid the unprecedented border faceoff with China, the arrival of the fighters does provide a boost for military capability, but is it enough to alter the balance of power or signal a clear strategic shift in India’s favour? For the IAF, the depleting strength of fighter jets remains a huge challenge, and any possible collusion between the Pakistani and Chinese air forces only adds to the concerns. The Ministry of Defence recently approved the purchase of 21 Russian MiG-29 and 12 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft as replacements. However, against an authorisation of 42 squadrons, the IAF is expected to have only 29 in 2023.
At the ceremony, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described the acquisition as a game-changer, while his French counterpart said in military terms, Rafale — which literally means a ‘gust of wind’ or a ‘burst of fire’ — lends India a world class capability and its Air Force an incredible sovereign tool. India’s military prowess and commitment is unquestioned. While a loud and unabashed reminder to the enemy of the price to pay for any misadventure is normal in these times, a toned-down grandstanding is not a sign of weakness. To the contrary, a country that sees itself as a major player in global politics should practise sobriety by saying less and doing more.
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