The delivery schedule of Rafale fighter jets ordered by the Indian Air Force from France could get affected if lockdown measures in France to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) are extended beyond March-end, two people tracking the aircraft acquisition said on Sunday on the condition of anonymity.
Confinement measures announced by France to battle the outbreak until March 31 have temporarily halted production at aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation’s Merignac facility, said one of the persons cited above.
India ordered 36 Rafale jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in September 2016 as an emergency purchase to arrest the worrying slide in the air force’s combat capabilities.
France handed over to India its first Rafale fighter during a ceremony attended by defence minister Rajnath Singh and his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in Merignac on October 8, 2019, which coincided with the IAF’s 87th founding day and the Hindu festival of Dussehra.
The first batch of four Rafale jets was supposed to fly to their home base in India in May 2020, but the plan faces uncertainty due to the swift spread of Covid-19. Subsequent deliveries are also likely to be delayed if lockdown measures are in force for longer, said the second person cited above.
The first 18 jets (including the four in the first batch) were supposed to be delivered to the IAF by February 2021, with the remainder 18 expected in April-May 2022. Experts said the IAF would have to come up with a plan and delay the phasing out of older aircraft in these extraordinary times.
“The likely delay in Rafale induction is beyond anyone’s control and would have to be factored in in the phasing out plan of older aircraft. I am sure the IAF would be up to the task,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
The jets have been specially tailored for IAF. India-specific enhancements on the Rafales include a helmet-mounted sight, radar warning receivers, flight data recorders with storage for 10 hours of data, infrared search and track systems, jammers, cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases and towed decoys to ward off incoming missiles.
The Indian fighters will be equipped with Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles built by European defence major MBDA Missile Systems. The Meteor’s no-escape zone is touted to be three times greater than that of current medium range air-to-air missiles.
The twin-engine jet is capable of carrying out a variety of missions --- ground and sea attack, air defence and air superiority, reconnaissance and nuclear strike deterrence. It can carry nine tonnes of weapons on as many as 14 hard-points.