Ten Sukhoi-30 MKIs (Su-30MKI), the frontline multirole fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF), are matching their skills against Rafale warplanes of French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) on the skies over Mont de Marsan base. The exercises that began on Monday (July 1) and will conclude until July 14 will see the top fighters of the two countries validate defence strategies and fine-tune capabilities.

IAF has flown in 10 Su-30 MKIs, Ilyushin IL-76 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane and Il-78 aerial refuelling tanker for the exercise. An IAF contingent of 120 air-warriors reached France during the last week of last month. The FAF will deploy Rafale, Alpha Jet, Mirage 2000, C135, E3F, C130, and Casa.

The exercise is important for the IAF because it will be getting its first operation-ready Rafale in two months. Rafale will be operating alongside Su 30-MKIs and their operational integration needs to be seamless, according to reports.

IAF’s official Twitter handle has shared a video showing the preparations and behind-the-scenes action. “Team IAF is all set & geared up for undertaking operations from AF Base Mont-De-Marsan, France.Happy Landings to IAF & FAF Garuda contingent.” An earlier tweet had said: “#Garuda-VI: Indian Air Force will be participating in its biggest joint air exercise of 2019, with the French Air Force (FAF) in France from 01-14 July 19. The IAF contingent will set course for the exercise tomorrow.”

Sources say the Rafale jets taking part in the exercises will be of the same configuration as the 36 Rafale jets that India has contracted to buy from Dassault Aviation in fly-away condition. They will form two IAF Squadrons, the first of which is the Golden Arrows 17 Squadron, according to a report in the News 18 website. The second squadron of the fighter aircraft will be based out of Hashimara in Bengal to strengthen the China front.

The first Rafale will be handed over to the IAF in September 2019 after an intensive 1,500 hours of testing to validate the India Specific Enhancements on it, the report said. Therefore, the first batch will be ready to be inducted at Ambala around May 2020.

India’s $8.8-billion deal with France for buying 36 medium multirole combat aircraft had led to much political controversy in India during the first stint of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. As defence minister then, the present Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had a tough time defending the government against opposition attack inside and outside Parliament, even though the deal was signed during the tenure of Manohar Parikkar at the helm of the defence ministry. Though there was no dispute over the calibre of the fighter planes, the controversy surrounded the reduction of the number of aircraft to 36 from the earlier proposed 146 and the involvement of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as the offset partner.