Indian Air Force personnel march past a Rafale jet during its induction ceremony into the Indian Air Force at the Ambala Air Force Station in Ambala on September 10, 2020. Photo: AFP

India on Thursday acquired Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter jets to boost its air defenses against any Chinese threats from its northern borders. Five battle-ready Rafale jets joined the fleet of Indian Air Force fighters even as the foreign ministers of India and China discussed ways to de-escalate the standoff caused by China’s intrusion into Indian territories in Ladakh in May.

Capable of carrying nuclear and conventional missiles and payload of armaments equal to its 10-ton weight, the Rafale jets add to India’s firepower at a crucial juncture in case its skirmishes with China escalate. Seen as a game-changer, it is described by defense experts as far superior to China’s main J-20 and the F-16s being used by Pakistan.

“In strategic terms, it means India will have an edge over the entire region,’’ said Florence Parly, France’s defense minister, at the induction ceremony at India’s most critical air base in Ambala, which is roughly 250 km from the borders of both Pakistan and China. The 101-year old air base was Pakistan’s prime target during the 1965 and 1971 wars.

Unlike China’s lead Chengdu J-20 fighter jets, the fifth-generation made-at-home Chinese “stealth” aircraft, Rafales have the advantage of being fully battle-tested. The Rafale jet was used for international military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, flying long distances from their base to strike distant targets with surgical precision. The French Air Force too used them in a lead role in operations in Mali.

Its ability to fly 3,700 km fully loaded and fire with precision from as far as 150 km gives it a critical edge over all other jets in China or Pakistan, India’s immediate and belligerent neighbors. The jet has been upgraded with specific requests from India, which gives it a longer shelf life and makes it more useful during operations.

“The induction of Rafale is a strong message for the world and especially for those who challenge India’s sovereignty,’’ said Rajnath Singh, India’s defense minister. “Rafale, with its multi-role capabilities, can perform a variety of tasks including air superiority missions and precision strikes against enemies.’’

The 4.5 Generation Rafale jet can fly at double the speed of sound, with a maximum sped of 1.8 Mach. Experts say the game changer is the Meteor air-to-air missile, which can fire up to 150 km, a capability that neither China nor Pakistan possesses, and the 1,300kg, 5.1-meter-long Scalp long-range air-to-ground stand-off cruise missile, with a 600km range and precision.

After the initial arrival in India in July along with an array of pilots trained in France for more than a year, the jets were tested in dry and hot Rajasthan and cold and arid Ladakh to be better acclimatized in advance. Rafale in French means “gust of wind” or “burst of fire,” both expressing strength.

Following the induction today they are now battle ready, joining India’s fleet of Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Sukhoi, MiG-21, 27 and 29s advance fighters. A set of another five Rafales will be joining next month, adding to a total of 36 by 2022. Reports suggest India may acquire an equal number of Rafale multi-role fighter jets for their unique suitability for Indian conditions.

This is where India may need to worry.

Even after all Rafale jets join its fleet of about 1,725 aircraft, of which 900 are combat-capable fighter aircraft, India may still fall short of the air power needed to match the eventuality of both China and Pakistan attacking from either side.

Pakistan is estimated to have 75 F-16s as its main strike fighters. It also has vintage French Mirage and Chinese Chengdu F-7 to back them up, and is in the process of acquiring the latest jets. It is estimated to have about 870 aircraft to attack, defend and transport along its 3,323 km border with India.

For India, China remains a potent threat along its 3,488km border, most of which is mountainous, with north-eastern areas under heavy greenery.

China’s combined aviation force is the third largest in the world with 2,500 total aircraft and 2,000 combat aircraft including fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers, multi-emission tactical, and attack aircraft, according to the US Department of Defense 2020 report to the Congress. China has the world’s biggest army and navy.

China has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems, including Russian-built S-400s and S-300s, and domestically produced systems. The number of warheads on China’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to about 200 in the next five years, said the US report.

Rafales will add to the quality of India’s firepower, and could be a game changer, especially against China, if used effectively. Indian forces have better experience and co-ordination battling it out in freezing Kashmir and Ladakh regions than the China forces.

A key element in any India-China conflict would also be long-range missiles that both nuclear-armed countries possess. India too is on par, having the hypersonic capability to send long-range missiles to most continents.