Five Rafale fighter jets were formally inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) on September 10 at the Ambala Air Force Station, marking yet another tryst with military aviation history for the garrison town in Haryana, 200 kms from the national capital.
The country’s oldest airbase at the Ambala Air Force Station, witness to a century of amazing transformation, will now house the 'new bird' in IAF's arsenal as the multi-role French-made fighter became part of its 17 Squadron 'Golden Arrows'.
The air base is situated adjacent to the Chandigarh-Delhi Highway in Haryana and north of Ambala Cantonment, the oldest cantonment in the country (established in 1843), according to the official history of Ambala district.
The history of airbase goes back to September 1919, soon after World War 1, when the 99 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was stationed at the camp, then known as 'Camp Umballa'.
“Ambala's tryst with military aviation dates back to 1919 when 'Camp Umballa' was created and 99 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), equipped with Bristol fighters, was located here. Ambala's next 'avatar' was as headquarters of the RAF India Command in 1922,” reads a plaque at the air force station that boasts “a century of excellence and pride.”
The station was India’s first IAF base after Independence. Since then it has been associated with many historic chapters of Indian military. Today, it houses the No 7 Wing of the IAF, two squadrons of Jaguar aircraft and one MIG-21 Bison aircraft. The 17 Squadron of Rafales will be the fourth Squadron at the station.
With the Indo-Pak border around 220 km away, the air base is considered one of the most strategically located bases of the air force. Experts say its significance comes from its strategic location as it is equidistant from the western and northern frontiers.
“The base is located at an adequate depth from the enemy to attack. So, assets and other infrastructure kept here can be protected. Also, the fighters stationed here can be put into use anytime anywhere without having to move anywhere else,” Air Vice-Marshal Sunil Nanodkar (Retd), who had a stint at the Ambala air base as commanding officer of a Jaguar squadron, told MoneyControl.
From the 1947-48 war against Pakistan to the Kargil war of 1999 and the Balakot strikes of 2019, the Ambala air base has taken part in many historical events.
In the 1947-48 Indo-Pak war, for example, the Spitfires and Harvards flown by pilots from the Advanced Flying Training School based at Ambala took part in operations at Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. The airbase had a role to play in Operation Safed Sagar, during the Kargil war and Operation Parakram, the Indo-Pak military stand-off in and the 2001-02. It came under attack from Pakistan’s B-57 bombers in the 1965 war, but the damage was not much.
Not just wartime, the airbase is significant during peacetime, too.
“The major activity in peacetime is training requirements. For that you require adequate depth, which is available at Ambala. It is also very easy to deploy in the Northern region of J&K, Ladakh, Akshai Chin and in Western sector as far as Pakistan is concerned. It can also cover a major portion of Rajasthan. So strategically, Ambala is one of the ideal places for us,” he said.
For over many decades now, the infrastructure at Ambala has developed enough to induct any new aircraft without requiring any additional money.
“We also got the first of the Jaguar aircrafts at Ambala, which is a deep penetration strike aircraft (DPSA). It implies we have a long range which we can cover, do the job and come back to our base or land at a secondary base. So, it suited the Jaguar aircrafts. Two squadrons were formed at Ambala,” former Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal PK Barbora (retd) had said in July when the Rafale jets touched down on Indian soil. Air Marshal Barbora (retd) served at the airbase and witnessed the induction of first Jaguar aircrafts in 1979.
Among many achievements, Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon of the 18 Squadron, which was stationed at Ambala Air base initially, was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously for helping repel a Pakistan Air Force attack on the Srinagar airfield in December 1971.
“The Air Force Station was to have more ‘firsts’ to its credit. The first Distinguished Flying Cross awardees of the IAF – Engineer and Majumdar – were decorated here at an investiture in 1942. Group Captain Arjan Singh assumed command of the station on August 15, 1947 and on the same day aircraft from Ambala, after a fly-past over Ambala, flew on to Delhi for a similar fly-past,” Lt General (retd) NS Brar, former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff wrote on a website in August.
Aircrafts such as De Havilland 9A and Bristol F2B have also flown out of Ambala. With an increase in air operations, more officers were transferred to Ambala and it was made a permanent air force base in July 1938.
The induction of Rafale jets comes at a time when India is involved in a border dispute with China in Ladakh.
"This induction couldn't have come at a better time given the security situation," IAF Chief RKS Bhadauria said at the induction ceremony in Ambala on September 10.
"Intense integrated training and firing of weapons of Rafale has been done. They are good to go," he said
Built by French aerospace firm Dassault Aviation, Rafale jets are known for air-superiority and precision strikes on ground targets, making them truly multi-role jets.
"This induction is crucial for our current situation. It is important for our current regional situation. Our national security is top priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And those who tried to stall acquisitions, have failed because of the firm resolve of PM Modi." Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at the induction event.