India will base its first squadron of Rafale fighter jets, which are also capable of delivering nuclear weapons, in the eastern sector as part of the overall policy to gradually build nuclear as well as conventional deterrence against China.
With Sukhoi-30MKI fighters already operating from Tezpur and Chabua in Assam, the IAF has now also finalized plans for the first 18 Rafale jets to be stationed at the Hasimara airbase in West Bengal from late-2019 onwards.
This comes at a time when India is also conducting the final trials of the nuclear-capable Agni-IV (4,000 km range) and Agni-V (over 5,000 km) ballistic missiles after the Strategic Forces Command inducted the Agni-III (3,000 km) a couple of years ago.
Under the Rs.59,000 crore deal inked with France in September last year, IAF will get 36 Rafales in batches by mid-2022 or so. With 14 India-specific requirements, including the capability for “cold start“ from high-altitude regions, the Rafale packs quite a punch with its ability to carry 9.3-tonne of weapons and simultaneously perform both air defence and ground attack missions.
The Hasimara airbase currently has MiG-27s that will be retired over the next two-three years. They will be replaced by the Rafales there. A team from Dassault Aviation has already visited Hasimara to review the maintenance and other infrastructure required there. The Sarsawa airbase (Uttar Pradesh), among other places, is being considered for the second Rafale squadron. Under the contract, Dassault has to ensure minimum 75% availability for the jets at all times under the performance-based logistics support for the first seven years, which can be extended by another five years.
The IAF also activated the advance landing ground (ALG) at Tuting, in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, just 10 days ago, apart from the ones at Daulat Beg Oldi, Nyoma and Fukche in eastern Ladakh, all done with an eye firmly on China.
Moreover, the Panagarh airbase in West Bengal is also set to get its six C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.
Panagarh, of course, is also going to be the headquarter of the Army's new 17 Mountain Strike Corps being raised with two high-altitude infantry divisions, apart from other armoured, artillery , air defence and engineer brigades spread from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.