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India’s Tactical Shift: Rafale Jets Emerge as New Frontline Warriors, Replacing Sukhoi Fighters

India dispatches Rafale jets to France for an international drill, signaling a shift in its fighter jet lineup. The Rafale is now India’s principal combat aircraft. The Rafale, a French-origin nuclear platform, has become India’s authentic frontline fighter, supplanting the Russian-made Su-30MKIs. For the past 15 years, only Sukhoi fighter jets have engaged in India’s bi- and multi-lateral war exercises.

This move indicates a transformation in India’s fighter jet assortment against its primary adversaries, China and Pakistan. Four versatile Rafale have journeyed to Mont-de-Marsan airbase in France as part of the Indian Air Force (IAF) contingent to participate in “Exercise Orion 2023”.

IAF spokesperson, Wing Commander Ashish Moghe, declared that this would be the inaugural overseas drill for IAF Rafale planes and would enhance the Indian Air Force’s operational strategy by learning from the best practices of other air forces.

NATO Exercise Orion 2023

Orion 2023, a NATO drill commencing on April 17 and continuing until May 5, will concentrate on defensive operations across land, air, sea, and cyberspace. The IAF has dispatched a contingent of 165 airmen, officers, and cargo and air refueling planes to back up the Rafale jets.

The drill involves roughly 12,000 soldiers from NATO nations and is grounded on a scenario formulated by NATO to tackle the various stages of a modern conflict. The primary aim is to instruct the armed forces within a framework of multinational joint forces and coordinate resources and impacts across the spectrum of operations to confront hybrid strategies.

Rafale in the Indian Air Force

India purchased 36 4.5-generation fighters from France in 2016 at a cost of nearly $8 billion. The initial Rafales landed at Ambala Airbase in October 2019 and joined an IAF squadron in September 2020.

In 2022, Dassault Aviation completed the delivery of all 36 Rafale fighter jets, which have been organized into two IAF squadrons. These squadrons will safeguard the Indian airspace in various regions of the nation.

During the ongoing military dispute with China in eastern Ladakh since April 2020, India has utilized its Rafale jets to perform patrol duties along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), testing the aircraft’s capabilities in an operational situation for the first time.

The Significance of Rafale in the IAF

Wing Commander Moghe also emphasized that the Rafale is currently India’s frontline fighter, replacing the Su-30MKI jets. The last occasion Russian-made Su-30MKIs participated in an overseas air exercise was in January 2023 at “Veer Guardian 2023” with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

In 2019, during the airstrikes on Balakot, India had deployed the Su-30MKI solely in a support role, while the main attack was conducted by the Mirage-2000, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, the sister of Rafale.

Of the seven types of fighter jets in the IAF inventory, only the Mirage 2000, Su-30MKI, and Rafale can deliver a nuclear weapon, a vital element of the nuclear triad India possesses to bolster its second strike capability under its 2003 nuclear doctrine.


India’s decision to dispatch Rafale fighters to France for Exercise Orion 2023 symbolizes a significant transformation in its combat aircraft fleet. It highlights the expanding role of the Rafale in the Indian Air Force. Participation in this drill will enable India to learn from the superior practices of other air forces and boost its preparedness to confront modern conflicts in the future

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