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India inducts Rafale jets amid rising tensions with China

New Delhi says move sends 'stern message' to those eyeing its sovereignty

NEW DELHI -- India said Thursday the induction of the first batch of five French-made fighter jets into service in its air force will enhance its defense capabilities immensely and send "a big and stern" message to those eyeing its sovereignty, an obvious reference to China with which it is engaged in a tense border standoff.

"[The Rafale induction] is an important and historic moment," Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said at a ceremony at the Ambala Air Force Station in northern Haryana state on Thursday, also attended by his French counterpart Florence Parly.

Calling the Rafale deal a "game changer" for India, Singh said the fighter jet with its long range, high speed and other multirole capabilities has given a "technological edge" to the Indian Air Force.

"This induction is a big and stern message to the whole world, especially to those eyeing our sovereignty," he said in a speech delivered in Hindi.

His strong words come amid a flare-up in tensions along the Line of Actual Control or LAC, which serves as a de facto border between India and China in the absence of a mutually agreed boundary, with the two countries accusing each other's troops of firing shots in the air on Monday night.

This was the first time in over four decades that shots were fired along the disputed Himalayan border, with troops of the two sides remaining in eyeball-to-eyeball positions. On June 15, a fist fight that broke out between the troops left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties.

Parly said the deal for the 36 jets will give India world-class capability in military terms, while "in strategic terms, it means India will have an edge over the entire region to defend itself and protect its people."

The Rafale induction "could not have happened at a more opportune time considering the security scenario today," said RKS Bhadauria, Indian Air Force chief, as the five fighter jets joined the force's 17 Squadron, also known as the Golden Arrows.

India concluded the landmark 590-billion-rupee (worth $8.8 billion then) deal with France in 2016 for the purchase of 36 Dassault Aviation Rafale fighter planes to modernize its aging fleet of military jets and keep pace with China and Pakistan.

"Our responsibility is not just limited to our territorial boundaries," Singh said at the induction ceremony, expressing India's commitment to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions -- where too China is becoming increasingly assertive.

Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe met in Moscow last week on the sidelines of a meeting of defense ministers of the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in the first high-level Sino-India ministerial contact aimed at reducing border tensions.

However, no major progress was made. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is likely to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi later Thursday in the Russian capital, where the SCO foreign ministers are meeting.

Meanwhile, analysts said the Rafale jets will definitely boost India's air power, but the country still needs to do more to strengthen its military fleet.

"Weapons such as the Meteor, the Scalp and the MICA missiles from the European [manufacturer] MBDA stable provide Rafale with beyond visual range, air-to-air and ground attack capabilities," N.C. Bipindra, founder and editor of defense news portal Defence. Capital, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Coupled with its electronic warfare suite, Rafale brings the added advantage of deep, strategic strike capabilities."

"In [case of] an air battle over the Himalayas, China may have to deploy five to 10 aircraft to each Rafale due to the obsolescence in its fleet," he said, adding Beijing may still have the numbers for such a large deployment, "but it is ultimately the capabilities that matter in a net centric air battle." 

Rafale does provide India an edge in terms of air capability but the hype over the single aircraft "seems excessive," strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney told a local news channel, pointing out that China also has advanced fighter jets.

"Even when the induction of [all] 36 fully built Rafales happen in the months to come, India will still have to face a strong Chinese capability, a capability that will demand India [to] further enhance its air force capabilities," he said in the program.

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