IAF to raise Rafale squadron at strategic Hasimara air base

As the tensions with China at the Ladakh border are far from over with no signs of complete disengagement, the Indian Air Force has strengthened itself with a Rafale squadron on the Indo-China border.

The IAF has raised the second Rafale squadron at Hasimara in West Bengal. Hasimara airbase, also known as the Wing 16 or the ‘Lethal 16’ was established with Toofani aircraft after the 1962 India-China war.

The newly raised squadron named 101 Squadron only has five Rafale jets. The remaining 13 jets will arrive early next year. The first Rafale jets squadron – the ’17 Golden Arrows’ – is fully operational at Ambala with 18 warplanes and is carrying out regular sorties over skies of Ladakh in the last few months amid the military standoff between India and China.

101 Squadron, also known as the ‘Falcons of the Chhamb and Akhnoor’ participated in the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971 and was operational till 2011. MiG 21 squadron is now being resurrected with omni-role Rafale jets.

Group Captain Neeraj Jhamb is appointed as commanding officer of the 101 squadrons, which will be formally raised in July. Though the raising was planned for April, it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier, in a surprising move, the IAF headquarters moved the first commanding officer of Ambala-based Rafale squadron, Group Captain Harkirat Singh, to eastern command, within six months (of the raising of the squadron). The IAF defended the move by saying his transfer was to oversee raising of the second squadron.

Located on the crucial Siliguri corridor close to the Indo-Bhutan border, Hasimara air force station is the closest airbase to Chumbi Valley, the tri-junction between India’s Sikkim, Bhutan, and China.

And, induction of Rafale jets further sharpen the IAF’s capabilities on the eastern front, as multirole air superiority fighter Sukhoi-30MKIs at Tezpur and Chabua in Assam are already deployed there.

The IAF is learnt to have spent over Rs 400 crore to develop shelters, hangars, and other maintenance facilities for the Rafale jets.   

The last time that India had acquired a new type of foreign-made fighter jet was in 1997, with the Russian Sukhoi-30. Since then, India’s indigenous LCA Tejas joined the fleet but has yet to prove its combat ability.

Touted as an “omnirole” fighter, the 4.5 generation Rafale can take up several missions during a single flight including air defence, air superiority, anti-access and area-denial, recon, close-air support, dynamic targeting, air-to-ground precision strikes, anti-ship attacks, nuclear deterrence, and buddy-to-buddy refuelling. The Rafale can reach almost twice the speed of sound with a top speed of 1.8 Mach. Its weapon package, radars, and avionics make it a “game-changer” in the region if pitted against China’s J-20 and Pakistan’s F-16. While the Rafale has already proven its combat potential in missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Mali, the J-20 has not experienced any combat mission so far.

The Rafale’s cold engine start capability allows it to operate from high-altitude airbases including Leh. Its weapons package, provided by MBDA, is what makes it a “game-changer” in the region—Meteor BVR air-to-air missiles, SCALP cruise missiles, and MICA will together give India an edge India over its adversaries, an air force officer explained.

India finalised the order of 36 Rafale jets from France, with India-specific enhancements, for Rs 59,000 crores in September 2017 as an emergency purchase given the declining combat strength of the IAF. The IAF is down with 31 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 43—the number deemed sufficient to meet a two-front (China and Pakistan) challenge. The delivery of 36 Rafale jets is expected to be completed by May 2022.

 

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