1st Rafale Fighter Jet for India starts flight-test in France in IAF colours

New Delhi September 8 As the Rafale deal continues to be at the centre of a political maelstrom, The Indian Express has learnt that only one of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft will be supplied from France to India until the end of the contract period in April 2022 with India-Specific Enhancements.

The balance 35 aircraft will start being delivered to India beginning September 2019 but they will be incorporated with these enhancements in India itself after the contract period at the rate of seven aircraft per month.

In a reply given in Rajya Sabha in July, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the “delivery of 36 Rafale aircraft in a fly-away condition along with associated equipment and weapons will commence from September 2019 and will be completed by April 2022.”

However, it will be only in September 2022 that the full complement of 36 Rafale aircraft will be available with IAF with the India-Specific Enhancements in place.

Government sources have often claimed that by negotiating a deal where the supply of 36 French jets would be completed by April 2022, it has saved five months off the UPA-era negotiations to meet the urgent operational requirements of the IAF.

Sources said one of the 36 Rafale aircraft to be supplied to India had commenced test-flying in France last month. India-Specific Enhancements are being flight-tested on this fighter jet, sources added, which is a two-seater Rafale aircraft (RB008).

The testing of this aircraft will continue until April 2022, sources said, when it will be ready to be delivered to India.

Indian Air Force (IAF) and French pilots are jointly undertaking the testing of this aircraft which will lead to certification of India-Specific Enhancements. An IAF team of four officers has been in France since August 2017 for testing India-Specific Enhancements and monitoring the production of 36 Rafale aircraft.

Questions sent by The Indian Express to the Ministry of Defence, an Indian Air Force spokesperson and a spokesperson for Dassault Aviation went unanswered.

“The flight test and certification of the India-Specific Enhancements on one Rafale will be complete within 67 months (until April 2022) of signing of the contract. All the aircraft cannot be equipped with India-Specific Enhancements unless the flight test is complete and the aircraft is certified to the new capabilities. This is the reason the last aircraft to be delivered is the first to be manufactured,” sources told The Indian Express.

“By the time the first Rafale is certified with India-Specific Enhancements, 35 Rafale aircraft would have already been delivered to India. The 35 aircraft would be modified in India in the next five months. This is a simple plug-and-play process,” sources said.

As per the requirements given by the IAF for the 126-aircraft MMRCA deal during the UPA government, there are 13 India-Specific Enhancements demanded by India. These include radar enhancement, Helmet Mounted Display, towed decoy system, Low band jammer, radio altimeter and ability to start and operate from High Altitude Airfields.

These additional capabilities are not present in Rafale aircraft in service with the French Air Force. When the BJP government signed an inter-government agreement for 36 Rafale aircraft in 2016, it did not make any changes to the list of India-Specific Enhancements.

Meanwhile, sources said, four of the balance 35 Rafale fighter aircraft will be in the production line at Dassault’s plant in Bordeaux at the beginning of next year. This, sources said, is as per schedule and will lead to delivery of the first French fighter jet to IAF in September 2019. The last Rafale would join the IAF from France by April 2022.