AMBALA: The Indian Air Force airbase here, one of IAF`s oldest, is getting a slew of upgrades, including new hangars, tarmac and simulator for flight training, as it prepares to welcome the country`s newest fighters, the French Rafale -- the first new combat jet to be inducted in close to 20 years.
A French team has already visited the airbase and a preliminary study has been completed. While some of the existing infrastructure will be used for the new Rafale squadron, additional infrastructure in the form of at least 14 new shelters, new hangars, new operating surfaces, a de-briefing room and a facility for simulator training will be created, for which Rs 227 crore ($35 million) has been sanctioned.
"The construction work for the new infrastructure will start in January or February 2018. The French team has given its requirements and the preliminary work has been completed," the Commanding Officer of the Ambala airbase, Air Commodore L.K. Chawla, told IANS, adding that the upgraded infrastructure is expected to last at least 40 to 50 years.
The French team has promised a 70 percent serviceability factor for the Rafales and there is also a long-term contract for the supply of spares.
Golden Arrows, 17 Squadron, will initially comprise four Rafales that are likely to arrive in September 2019, with the number being gradually ramped up to a full-strength of 18 by 2022. The squadron had seen action during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan when it flew MiG-21s under the command of the present Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, then a Wing Commander.
The frontline Ambala airbase, under the Western Air Command, is the principal guardian of the airspace over the national capital, a five minute flying distance away. The Pakistan border is just over 200 km away.
Currently two squadrons of Jaguar fighter jets, and one squadron of MiG-21 Bisons are based in Ambala. The MiG-21s will be shifted to the Nal airbase in Rajasthan before the Rafales arrive.
The second squadron of Rafales will begin arriving once Ambala is at full strength and these aircraft will be stationed at Hashimara in the east, close to the China border.
India and France signed a 7.8 billion euros (Rs 59,000 crore/$8.7 billion) inter-government agreement for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters, off the shelf, on September 23 last year. This was after prolonged negotiations over the price and other aspects of the deal, which was agreed upon during Prime Minister Narendra Modi`s visit to France in April 2015.
The deal includes an offset clause of 50 percent of the value of the aircraft and its weapons package will be discharged by the manufacturer through purchase from Indian firms.