Chandigarh: France, which delivered the first five of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters to the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Wednesday amidst a frenzy of media publicity, has been one of India’s steadfast materiel suppliers for decades.
In the process, it has notched up sales worth billions, which other than combat aircraft include light utility helicopters, submarines and missile systems. French defence companies have also forged lucrative collaborative ventures with Indian public sector undertakings to develop and manufacture a range of engines, to successfully power an assortment of locally designed helicopters.
“The pragmatism, flexibility and professionalism of France’s defence trade practises have ensured their commercial success, not only with India, but with other countries as well over many years,” said a senior Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) official, declining to be named. The French government and their military vendors work in unison, he added, to ensure effective project completion, which is certainly not the case in India.
Flying under the radar
Flying under the radar, several French defence vendors operating under Paris’ direction have frequently participated in classified Indian strategic programmes, one of which involved Dassault engineers quietly assisting the IAF in re-jigging its Mirage-2000H fighters to deliver precision guided munitions (PGMs) during the 1999 Kargil War.
This swiftly provided French support proved decisive in turning the tide of the 11-week long Kargil War, after the deadly PGMs blasted Pakistan Army bunkers in the Batalik and Drass heights, hastening the enemy’s withdrawal from Indian territory, back across the disputed line of control.
These precision Mirage strikes also created aviation warfare history, in that they were the first to have been executed in the world’s highest and most arduous terrain that is not only difficult to navigate but also highly challenging to effectively attack.
Earlier, 1953 onwards France’s Dassault Aviation supplied India 100-odd M.D. 450 Ouragan (Hurricane) fighter-bombers-nicknamed Toofani by the IAF, followed by Mystere IVAs a few years later, that ably executed themselves in the 1965 war with Pakistan.
Thereafter, in July 1979, the IAF inducted the ground-attack SEPECAT Jaguars, built jointly by France’s Brequet and UK’s British Aircraft Corporation, of which the IAF still operates around 118, principally in a strategic role.
And in a magnanimous gesture in July 2018 to an established customer, France gifted the IAF 31 Jaguar airframes to support the ageing platforms. The niggling UK, for its part, opted to sell the IAF two twin-seat Jaguar frames and 619 lines of rotables for Rs 28 million, when it could easily have followed France’s example and secured the IAF’s goodwill by supplying them free.
Subsequently, in the mid-1980s Dassault was once again shortlisted to supply the IAF some three squadrons of around 51 single and dual-seat Mirage 2000H’s that presently constitute the force’s ‘sword’ arm. Currently, these platforms are being upgraded jointly by Dassault and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to Mirage 2000-5 levels, to provide the fighters greater lethality and agility and to extend their operational life by an additional 20-25 years.
These will be succeeded by the 36 Rafales, of which four will be twin-seat trainers. Dassault also remains in contention for the IAF’s putative tender for 114 medium multi-role fighters to make up depleting fighter squadron numbers that have sharply dropped from a sanctioned strength of 42 to 28 squadrons. Its maritime variant is also under consideration for the Indian Navy’s long-pending requirement for 57 carrier-based fighters.
Licenced and indigenous productions
In the early 1960’s France also approved the licenced production of Chetak (Aerospatiale Alouette III) and Cheetah (Aerospatiale SA-315B Lama) light utility helicopters initially for the IAF, and later for the Army Aviation Corps after its formation in 1986.
Six decades later, the upgraded versions of both helicopter types remain in service and continue to sustain army formations deployed in Himalayan regions, like the 17,000 feet high Siachen Glacier and surrounding areas. Both these helicopters also perform assorted training, transport, casualty evacuation, communications and liaison roles and limited interdiction tasks.
In 1961, France’s Turbomeca had granted HAL a manufacturing licence for its Artouste turboshaft engine to power the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters. Some 40 years later, this collaboration jointly developed the more powerful Shakti engine, whose variants power an assortment of locally designed and series built rotorcraft. These include the Dhruv advanced light helicopter, its combat variant Rudra and the under-development light utility helicopter, amongst others.
Even the Russian Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ light multirole helicopter, of which India plans on indigenously licence building 140, is each powered by two French Turbomeca Arrius 2G engines. In short, France’s monopoly in supplying engines to power all of India’s indigenously developed or licence-built rotorcraft. is unrivalled.
Defence analysts told The Wire that French ‘nimbleness’ had progressed indigenous engine development, a field in which India badly lacked technological expertise and proficiency, despite years of application. In comparison, other global engine makers were too hidebound to effect apposite collaborations.
And, in 1983, India’s public sector Bharat Dynamics Limited began licence-building the French Milan anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), while in late 2005, India signed a $3.5 billion deal with France’s DCNS to build six Scorpene conventional diesel-electric submarines at Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited in Mumbai. The submarine Project-75 continues to be plagued by delays of over six years.
Joint military exercises
Meanwhile, Indian and French air forces and navies conduct joint exercises frequently, and in early 2018, the two sides signed a slew of agreements to augment bilateral strategic and defence ties. This included a logistics support pact to provide supplies and services to their respective militaries on ‘authorised’ port visits, joint conduct of exercises and during training.
At the time the two sides also concluded a confidentiality agreement, succeeding the one inked in 2008, restricting either side from divulging details of military purchases that included the import of 36 Rafale fighters which became a major political controversy during India’s 2019 general elections.
Both sides also decided to hold an annual dialogue between the two defence ministers to further enhance strategic and military ties, and concluded the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Co-operation in the Indian Ocean Region to curb over-flights and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the area, a thinly veiled measure aimed at China’s hegemonic designs.
Earlier, in 2009, a 400-strong contingent of the Indian military participated in the Bastille Day parade for which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the guest of honour. This was the first time ever that Indian troops had taken part in another country’s national day parade.
Even before, France – one of the P5 members of the UN Security Council – did not condemn India’s five underground nuclear tests in 1998 that were conducted by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist BJP-led administration out of distrust of Chinese territorial ambitions. This support eventually stood Paris in good stead in the award of defence contracts later.
As the French saying goes, rien ne réussit comme le succès or nothing succeeds like success.