The first five Rafale fighters bought from France in a multibillion-dollar deal landed in India on Wednesday, and the nation’s defense minister used their arrival to launch a veiled warning to China over territorial tensions.
A water cannon guard of honor greeted the five jets when they landed at the Ambala Air Base Station in Haryana state.
India has bought 36 Rafale fighters from France in a deal estimated to be worth US$9.4 billion. All are scheduled to be delivered by the end of next year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the jets on Twitter in Sanskrit: “There is no sacrifice like the national defense; there is no good deed like the national defense; there is no practice like national defense.”
Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh said that the arrival of the fighters marked “the beginning of a new era in our military history,” adding that they would make the Indian Air Force “much stronger to deter any threat that may be posed on our country.”
“If it is anyone who should be worried about or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity,” Singh said.
Security was tight around the air base for the jets’ arrival, with local residents warned not to stand on their roofs to take photographs or shoot video, local media reported.
Sameer Patil, an international security studies expert at the Gateway House think tank in Mumbai, said the jets were a “much needed capacity booster.”
“It will help India to deal with the heightened nature of the Chinese threat, as it becomes clear that the current territorial stand-off in Ladakh will stretch into the winter months,” he said.
The purchase of the French jets marked a significant shift in India’s traditional preference for Russian defense equipment.
French firm Dassault Aviation is in competition to sell more of the jets to India, which has said it would need more than 150 additional combat aircraft for its navy and air force.
Meanwhile, India is positioning an additional 35,000 troops along its disputed Himalayan border with China in a move that would change the “status quo” along the contested 3,488km Line of Actual Control and stretch the nation’s tight military budget, senior officials said on condition of anonymity.
Twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in an ugly skirmish on June 15 and since then, both sides have rushed thousands of soldiers, guns and tanks to the region.
“The nature of the Line of Control, at least in Ladakh, has changed forever,” said B.K. Sharma, director of Delhi-based think tank The United Service Institution of India and a retired major general. “Additional troops rushed by either side will not move back, unless there is a rapprochement at the highest political level.”
For now, the skirmishes have stopped and after several rounds of high-level military talks, Beijing said that troops were disengaging in most locations.
The extra deployment to eastern Ladakh comes as the Indian Army is heavily committed protecting its 742km disputed border with Pakistan, countering insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, and monitoring every ingress point along its border with China.
Positioning more troops where temperatures drop to minus-30°C in the winter would severely test the army’s logistics capabilities.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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