French Fire: Diplomacy eased the challenges Rafale faced to qualify for the MMRCA commercial bid
Amb Kanwal Sibal

The concept of a strategic partnership between India and France emerged politically after our nuclear tests in 1998. France adopted a much more accommodating position on India’s decision to test than any other western country. Instead of punishing India with sanctions, a policy that the US supported, the French advocated a dialogue with India to find common ground between India’s security imperatives and preserving the non-proliferation regime. The French position was important given its status as a permanent member of the Security Council and a nuclear weapon state. Moreover, It was most helpful in preventing the US from forging a common western stand on India’s nuclear defiance and subjecting India to political and economic retribution. Indeed, France imposed no sanctions of its own and let it be known that it will be business as usual in so far Indo-French bilateral relations were concerned.

The French had taken note of several unilateral statements India had made in the non-proliferation domain, to set at rest western anxieties that it intended to cause the collapse of the NPT. The French felt these could form the basis of a “strategic dialogue” between the two countries, and, accordingly, the first such dialogue was instituted between France and India. The content of the dialogue was veritably strategic as it focused on nuclear policy matters of interest to India and France, flowing from India’s decision to break into the nuclear club.

In the course of these discussions, the possibility of France helping to open the doors for international civilian nuclear cooperation with India was discussed. President Chirac understood the logic of India securing its future energy security by the expansion of its nuclear power grid, primarily for environmental reasons. The French are, of course, leaders in nuclear energy production, with established expertise in the area. Their commercial interest in cooperating with India was all too clear, but they were averse to violating their international obligations that prevented cooperation with non-NPT countries, and preferred to put their weight in creating a consensus within the western countries to lift restrictions on cooperation with India. The eventual India-US nuclear deal owes meaningfully to these efforts made by France over the years. In obtaining the NSG exception for India, the US effort, of course, had strong backing from France.

India’s nuclear tests came at a time of unipolarity in international relations, which the French were uncomfortable with, advocating quite openly a multi-polar global configuration. In their view India, along with the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and China were the future poles in a multi-polar world order. India had also begun in 1991 the process of opening up its economy, which drew increasing attention to the potential of its vast market. India thus fitted very well into the French strategy of opening a dialogue with the various emerging poles. French support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council was integral to the logic of multi-polarity and the emergence of a more politically confident and economically attractive India.

Defence ties are constitutive of any strategic partnership. Indo-French defence ties have been quite prolific over the years, even in the absence of any strategic underpinning. The considerations were political, between a non-aligned country looking for a western supplier it could trust, and a western country attached to its independence and seeking to carve out autonomous space for itself within the Anglo-Saxon dominated world. In the 50s India acquired major equipment from France: 71 Ouragan aircraft, 110 Mystere fighters, 164 AMX 13 tanks, 12 Alize anti-submarine aircraft, 50 air to surface missiles and several thousand anti-tank misiles. The 1960s saw India purchasing French helicopters in large numbers, signing a deal to produce under licence 330 Alouette helicopters. More helicopters were bought in the 70’s: 230 Lama helicopters- in addition to 40 ordered earlier- for high altitude operations. (The French helicopters have played a vital role in our Siachen operations. With a solid record of this nature, the French should have been privileged partners in supplying helicopters for this need or collaborating with us in producing them, but this has not been the case in reality). The Anglo-French Jaguar aircraft was acquired in 1979, besides 1000 R-550 Magic1 short range air to air missiles and 40 PA-6 diesel engines for its offshore patrol vessels. The Mirage aircraft were delivered by France in 1985-86. A transfer of technology agreement was signed in 1983 for 30 TRS surveillance radars and another 7 PSM surveillance radars in 1988. To give an institutional framework to defence cooperation a Defense MOU was signed in 1982 and an Indo-French Defense Cooperation Working Group set-up.

In the late 1980s the French side proposed a comprehensive defence partnership with India based on joint R&D, manufacturing and export. The French feared the progressive squeezing out of their industry by US competition. Partnership with a country like India. one of the few ones in the developing world with a relatively competent defence technology base, could, besides helping to cut down costs of production, also assure an increased share of the Indian defence market to French origin supplies. The French were attracted to India also because of its independent-minded policies and its resistance to the US world view. India was not responsive to an overture of such scope In the absence of a strategic understanding with France solidified over the years, and doubtful if it would get the requisite technology transfers. Nevertheless, attempts to explore the possibilities of an enhanced Indo-French defence partnership continued, with a decision in 1995 to revive the Indo-French Defense Cooperation Working Group with the aim of promoting high level visits, joint training and exercises, R&D programmes and arms procurement.

India’s nuclear tests in 1998 tangibly changed the political backdrop of Indo-French defense ties. Defence cooperation began to be viewed in a larger context, rather than an earlier transactional one. In May 2000 the French Defence Minister expressed his country’s keenness “to forge an alliance at different levels of military-industrial cooperation and to share technology and expertise”, with particular interest in defence R&D projects. As French military supplies to Pakistan have raised Indian hackles in the past, France announced that it had now “taken a very careful and conscious decision not to supply military hardware to Pakistan or propose joint ventures with her”, although military contracts already signed would be honoured.

The Strategic Dialogue instituted with India in 1998 was complemented with the settting up a High Committee on Defense Cooperation, headed by representatives of the respective Defence Ministers, to deal with military cooperation, including joint exercises, as well as defence equipment. From 1998 onwards a steady exchange of high level visits between Defence Ministers, Chiefs of Defence Staff, Air, Army and Naval Chiefs has been maintained, with the High Level Defence Committee meeting regularly. During the visit of the then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to France in 2006, a Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed between the two countries. Regular naval exercises(Varuna), with the participation of the nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle, and air exercises(Garuda) has become a feature of the defence relationship. Naval cooperation is especially important as India and France are important stakeholders in the safety and security of maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean, more so with the resurgence of piracy in the area.

The French sought a major naval deal with India as a building block of the strategic partnership, and the effort culminated in the $3 billion Scorpene deal signed in December 15, 2005. The construction programme has been delayed, leading to some recrimination over responsibility for this, but the contentious issues have now been resolved. The French are naturally eyeing India’s plans to acquire additional six submarines, but this time India is likely to go in for international tendering. In the area of R&D, projects with France included aero-engines for the Advanced Light Helicopter by Snecma, the Kaveri engine for the Light Combat Aircraft, the Shakti engine for Dhruv, the transfer of technology to DRDO by MBDA for missile development etc. Separately, France was also involved in the upgradation of Mig 21s. A major project under active negotiation is the joint development and manufacturing of the Maitri, the Short Range Surface to Air Missile (SR-SAM), with the MBDA, BDL and DRDO as partners. The French, as the lowest bidders, expect the Kaveri engine project to be finalized in their favour in the near furure.

The shorlisting of the French Rafale as one of the two contenders for the $10 billion Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition has put a renewed spotlight on the Indo-French strategic partnership, especially as the two US aircraft have been excluded. The French, who have felt pressured by US competition in India, would have felt especially gratified at their aircraft bettering the American ones in a gruelling technical evaluation. India’s experience with French aircraft has, in fact, been very satisfactory, with general recognition that the 52 Mirage 2000 have rendered excellent service over the years, testifying to their reliability and high levels of serviceability. In the 1999 Kargil operation they proved their effectiveness in dislodging the Pakistanis from the heights they had occcupied. India has decided to extend their service life by comprehensively upgrading them and arming them with new missiles. The prolonged, suspenseful negotiations for this $2.5 billion contract seem to have been finally concluded. If, along with this substantial contract, the Rafale were to win the 126 aircraft deal, the size and scope of Indo-French defense relationship will expand dramatically in the years ahead, as the $10 billion MMRCA deal will build a relationship lasting 40 years, during which upgrades and supply of spare parts etc will add several billion dollars more to its value. The accompanying offset obligations- 50% for the MMRCA- would require big investments in India’s defense sector, leading to much needed expansion of India’s indigenous defence manufacturing capacity.

India’s new policy to resort to competitive international bidding for mega defence contracts excludes any advantage that may be derived by a participating country from its strategic partnership with us. The French have sought government to government defence deals, with limited success of late. The absence of a strong nexus between the fact of a strategic partnership and defence contracts is best illustrated by set backs the French have suffered in some recent deals. The December 2007 cancellation of the $500 million 197 helicopter deal after selection of the AS 550 Fennec over the Bell 407 in February 2007 has left sore feelings on the French side. President Sarkozy himself had expressed his vexation over this during his visit to India. The French are competing in the fresh tender and are confident about winning against the Russian and Italian bids. The French received another blow with the decision in 2009 to cancel the acquisition of 6 A330 Refuelling Aircraft worth $1 billion in competition with the Russian IL-78, after the negotiations had been completed. In a fresh calls for bids, with the life cycle costs of acquisition to be taken into consideration this time, the French are hopeful of winning, but lower Russian prices will present a problem, especially as the French prices are known from the earlier abortive tender.

As part of the strategic partnership between the two countries, the French government at the highest level is promising to build a genuine defence partnership with India, with access to advanced technologies India seeks. Under competitive pressure from its western partners in external markets, with limited domestic orders because of reduced defence budgets and peace prevailing in Europe, and with the Chinese market closed for the time being because of an arms embargo (which the French advocate lifting but do not want to take any unilateral step), the attractiveness of the large Indian defence market for the French defence industry is evident. India now wants to develop an indigenous defence base, going beyond a mere buyer-seller relationship. While giving openings to France in its defence sector, India has not done so within the optic of a long term strategic partnership. With France we have the assurance that defence supplies will not be interrupted for political reasons. Concerns about sanctions are absent. France therefore is a reliable and trustworthy partner. At the cutting edge of the negotiators, however, the relationship is not always smooth. The Indian side complains about high prices, commercial cupidity, political leveraging etc, while the French side is frustrated by slow decision making, lack of transparency, bureaucratic apathy and arbitrariness. The political importance of our relations with France should be felt within the system, which is not sufficiently the case.

France as a major European power, the pillar of the European Union along with Germany, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear weapon state, the fifth largest economy in the world, possessing advanced nuclear, space and defence technologies, with its cultural influence, with common bonds of democracy and secularism with us, has all the attributes of a country with which forging a veritable strategic partnership on an equal basis would be in our national interest.

Published in Force Magazine, Issue July, 2011

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