Three French Air Force Rafale jets departed the Gwalior air base in central India yesterday after a conspicuously low-key three days in country. Amidst a raging political storm over the 2016 deal for 36 of the French-built jets, traditional publicity for the arrival of the three jets in Gwalior was given a pass. Unlike most military diplomatic visits of the kind, not a single photograph was made public from the base, with the IAF controlling access and keeping the visit as silent as possible. The only photograph to emerge from Gwalior during the stop-over by the Rafales was this one of French Ambassador to India Alexandre Ziegler with French Air Force crews:
Indian Su-30 pilots flew drills with the same three Rafales last month over Australia during Exercise Pitch Black 2018. This week in Gwalior, IAF Mirage 2000 pilots flew joint sorties with the Rafales. Livefist has reported before on how the Gwalior base will plug into the Rafale training and mission planning infrastructure coming up at the Ambala base in the north and Hasimara base in the east.
The compulsion to play down the visit by the Rafales appears to have had an impact on planned activities by the flying crews too. French journalist Emmanuel Huberdeau of Air & Cosmos told Livefist, “I just came back from Gwalior. I was supposed to follow the French Air Force during their stay there. But I was never granted access to the base… Lots of planed activities have also been canceled like the Taj Mahal fly by.”
While the Rafales made their stop at Gwalior, three other French aircraft, an Airbus A400M transporter, an A310 cargo aircraft and a C-135 mid-air refueller visited the IAF’s Agra air base. An officer familiar with proceedings told Livefist that a Taj Mahal fly-by was ‘planned’, but didn’t ‘work out’, but wouldn’t say if this was because of logistics/weather/other reasons or because the IAF felt such a photo-op would have been a jarring flourish amidst the political war over the aircraft. If the plan had worked out, it would likely have involved a pair of Rafales with a pair of Mirage 2000s, making the 100 km dash to Agra.
Another source said the Taj Mahal fly-by was planned separately for the Rafales and the Airbus A400M. The same source also indicated that a demo flight by the French Ambassador in a Rafale didn’t work out either.
The Indian Air Force declined to comment on specific activities being impacted by the political controversy raging in India’s national capital, where the opposition Congress Party has embarked on a nationwide series of press conference to call attention to what they say is a procurement scam. The distinct lack of information flow from Gwalior, however, is almost certainly a result of the bruising political brinkmanship currently on between the ruling BJP government and opposition Congress. In that light, cancellations of otherwise routine photo opportunities is understandable, though it has probably only served to amplify the cloud.
However, shortly after the Rafales departed from Gwalior, senior officers of the Indian Air Force had glowing praise for the jet, even criticising the current scandal as borne out of ‘lack of understanding’ of India’s defence procurement procedure.
The IAF’s Vice Chief Air Marshal S.B. Deo said today at a conference, “I shouldn’t comment but I can tell you all this discussion going on Rafale, because we know a lot about how everything went, we find people don’t have information. We’re waiting for the aircraft. Rafale is beautiful & capable aircraft.”
The three Rafales were in India as part of France’s Mission PEGASE, a force projection mission that involved stop-overs in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. The three Rafales that departed India yesterday will make stops in other countries before returning to France.