The Indian Air Force was on Thursday asked by the Union government to seek a clarification from Dassault Aviation on the news report that Pakistani pilots had received training on Rafale fighter jets.
“First of all, we want to know whether the pilots were Pakistanis and, if it is true, what level of training they were given,” a defence ministry official said.
A report published by the US-based aviation industry news website ainonline.com had said the first batch of pilots to be trained on the Rafale for Qatar, which received its first aircraft in February, were Pakistani exchange officers. They received the training in November 2017, it said.
Pakistani pilots flying Rafale aircraft before India receives its first jet from Dassault Aviation would bring under pressure the Narendra Modi government’s insistence on secrecy on the deal and its argument that rivals (Pakistan) could exploit the sensitive information.
The French ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, denied the reports. “I can confirm that it is fake news,” Ziegler tweeted in response to several posts on the subject.
Neither India’s air force nor its defence ministry has yet denied the US-based defence portal’s February report, which a Pakistani defence website highlighted on Wednesday.
Qatar had signed a deal for 24 Rafale aircraft in May 2015 and ordered an additional 12 in December 2017.
“If the (ainonline.com) report is true, it raises serious doubts about the secrecy claim by the Modi government,” the defence ministry official said.
“The bigger question is, did India know that Pakistani pilots were flying Rafale aircraft well before India’s air force is to receive its first jet? If India knew, why did it not stop it?”
A retired Indian Air Force official, however, played the controversy down, saying that Qatar’s Rafale jets would be available to Pakistani pilots during exchange programmes, anyway.
“It’s no big deal. Many pilots doing joint training or exchange programmes with foreign air forces fly their planes,” he said.
The controversy coincides with the Supreme Court’s rejection on Wednesday of the Centre’s argument that the classified documents the Indian media had published on the Rafale deal could not be admitted as evidence. The top court also agreed to review its December order that had dismissed pleas seeking a probe into the deal.
Congress veteran P. Chidambaram tweeted: “The order of the Supreme Court in the Rafale review petition case is a huge rebuff to the central government which raised the specious plea of ‘stolen documents’….”