Paris police have begun an investigation into a break-in at the office of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Rafale project management team in the suburb of Saint-Cloud in the French capital, two people familiar with the development said on condition of anonymity.
Unidentified persons may have attempted to steal data relating to the fighter jet project on Sunday night, said one of the officials cited above. News agency AFP quoted an unnamed source in a local French prosecutor’s office as saying that “documents and money” had been taken. HT could not verify the statement.
French plane-maker Dassault Aviation has an office complex in Saint-Cloud and the five-member Indian project management team, headed by a group captain, operates from the same premises. Defence ministry spokesperson, Colonel Aman Anand, declined to comment on the incident. IAF and the French embassy in Delhi also declined comments.
The official cited above said IAF had briefed the defence ministry on the incident.
“Some unidentified persons broke into the first floor office of the project management team but details are sketchy. Let’s see what the police investigation reveals,” said the second person. The job of the Indian team in France is to monitor the overall progress of the project, oversee training of Indian air and ground crews and ensure that timelines are met.
India has ordered 36 Rafale jets from France in a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore, which is at the centre of a political controversy in the country. The first Rafale jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, is expected to be handed over to IAF in France in September, before the first batch of four fighter jets fly to India next April.
The incident took place weeks ahead of a crucial biannual project review meeting to be held in France on July 1, the second person added. An IAF official said no documents appeared to be missing from the administrative office. “In any case, sensitive documents are not stored in an administrative office,” added the official who asked not to be named.
Experts said the motive for the break-in appeared to be obtaining documents relating to the Rafale fighter project.
“The break-in clearly doesn’t have a financial angle. It seems that someone wanted to steal documents,” said military affairs expert Air Marshal PS Ahluwalia (retd), who was closely associated with the induction of Mirage fighter jets bought from France in the mid-1980s.
Hand-picked pilots and technicians are training on the Rafale warplanes at the Saint-Dizier air base in eastern France as IAF prepares the ground for inducting its latest fighter jets. The Rafale will be the first imported fighter to be inducted into IAF in 22 years after the Russian Sukhoi-30 fighters. The first Su-30 entered service in June 1997.
India and France signed the deal for two Rafale squadrons (36 planes) in September 2016 as an emergency purchase to arrest a worrying slide in IAF’s capabilities. The squadrons will be based at Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in West Bengal, covering the northern and eastern fronts. All 36 fighter planes will arrive by September 2022.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision to enter into a government-to-government deal with France to buy the fighters was announced in April 2015. This replaced the United Progressive Alliance’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, using parts imported from France.
The Rafale jets are tailored for IAF’s India-specific enhancements, including a helmet-mounted sight, radar warning receivers, flight data recorders with enough storage for 10 hours of data, infrared search and track systems, jammers, cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases and towed decoys to lure incoming missiles away.
The fighters will be equipped with Meteor beyond visual range missiles that will provide a significant edge to the IAF over the Pakistan Air Force. The Meteor’s no escape zone is touted to be three times greater than that of current medium range air-to-air missiles.