Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inspected a Rafale fighter jet at Dassault Aviation's plant in France’s Merignac on Tuesday for the handover ceremony of the first combat jet acquired by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The minister, who had landed at Merignac Airport in the southwestern French town of Bordeaux on Tuesday and held wide-ranging talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, said his visit was aimed at "expanding the strategic partnership" between India and France.
In Bordeaux, Singh will begin with a tour of Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation's plant 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.
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," a ministry of defence spokesperson said.
"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 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.
(With PTI inputs)