Paris: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who is in France for an official handover ceremony of the first Rafale fighter jet acquired by the Indian Air Force (IAF), discussed stronger India-France defence and strategic ties at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron here on Tuesday.
During the meeting at Elysee Palace, the official base of the French President, minister Singh welcomed France as an "important strategic partner" of India. "We have a multi-dimensional relationship with France and the ties are progressing on all fronts. The talks today are part of a comprehensive defence dialogue between the two countries," said defence secretary Ajay Kumar, who is part of the ministerial delegation to France.
Ahead of his talks with Macron, Singh held discussions with France's Armed Forces minister Florence Parly. Also present at the meeting was Admiral Bernard Rogel, Defence Advisor to the French President. After the talks, Singh will be flown to Merignac, a suburb of the south-western French town of Bordeaux, where he will participate in a tour of the facility of Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation before a symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first Rafale combat jet.
Arrangements have also been made for a traditional Indian Shastra Puja, or weapons' worship which forms part of Dussehra celebrations and this year also marks Air Force Day - IAF's 87th anniversary. "Greetings to all IAF personnel and their families on the 87th IAF Day," Singh said in a tweet.
"The IAF is the shining example of exemplary courage, fortitude, determination and impeccable service to our nation. These men and women in Blue have the ability to touch the sky with grit and glory," he said.
The ministerial delegation to France also includes Vinay Mohan Kawatra, India's ambassador to France, as well as Armed Forces personnel including Air Marshall Harjit Singh Arora, Voice Chief of Air Staff; Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, Vice Chief of Naval Staff; and Lt Gen. Rajeev Sabherwal, Vice Chief of Army Staff.
After the handover ceremony, the minister is scheduled to fly a sortie in the Rafale jet following a brief Shastra Puja conducted by him, which will conclude with the traditional breaking of a coconut before the new aircraft. "Raksha Mantri will participate in the Rafale fighter aircraft handing over ceremony at Merignac along with French minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly," said a spokesperson of defence ministry.
"He will also perform the Shastra Puja on the auspicious occasion of Vijayadashami and fly a sortie in the Rafale fighter aircraft," the spokesperson said. Members of the top military brass of France as well as senior officials of Dassault Aviation will also be present at the ceremony.
India had ordered 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore in September 2016. While the formal handover ceremony takes place this week, the first batch of four Rafale jets will fly to their home base in India by May 2020. All 36 jets are expected to arrive in India by September 2022, for which the IAF has been reportedly undertaking preparations, including readying required infrastructure and training of pilots.
The Rafale is a twin-jet fighter aircraft able to operate from both an aircraft carrier and a shore base. The manufacturers describe it as a fully versatile aircraft which can carry out all combat aviation missions to achieve air superiority and air defence, close air support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence.
"In the defence sector, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is our longest standing export customer and has been flying Dassault aircraft since 1953. The acquisition contract for 36 Rafale - signed in 2016 - and the modernisation of the Mirage 2000 I/TI are a continuation of this historic partnership," Dassault Aviation said in a statement.
The Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2004 and with the French Air Force in 2006 and is said to have proven its worth in combat in war zones such as Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria. The Rafale jets intended for India are expected to come with certain bespoke modifications for the IAF and have been awaited as a crucial enhancement to India's Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft fleet.
The first Rafale jet will come with tail number RB 001, with RB denoting the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria who played a key role in striking the deal for the jets in his previous role as IAF deputy chief. The handover ceremony will be followed by the annual Indo-French Defence Dialogue between Singh and French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly back in Paris on Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday, the minister is scheduled to address CEOs representing leading French defence industry enterprises. As part of a wider 'Make in India' message, Singh will invite them to participate in the DefExpo to be held in Lucknow from February 5 to 8 next year.
The minister landed in Paris on Monday night for a three-day official visit, which he said is aimed at expanding the existing strategic partnership between both the countries. In his statement on arrival, Singh noted that India's "special relationship" with France goes far beyond the realm of formal ties.
(By Aditi Khanna)