Media Hysteria and Defense Deals: India-France Strategic Partnership

Between promises and silence, India's defence acquisitions from France leave room for speculation

3 mins read
French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Elysee Palace, in Paris. [ Photo: Office of Prime Minister of India]

The media went hysterical about defence contracts with France, a time-tested strategic partner this month when India was honoured on Bastille Day in Paris. But mystery surrounds the confusion over joint statements after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron, which excluded agreements to acquire 26 Rafale M, three Scorpene submarines, and Safran jet engine technology from the corrected joint statement. For days and weeks before the visit, the media went delirious over intended defence acquisitions from France to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the India-France Strategic Partnership in a joint vision document, Horizon 2047, which lays out a roadmap for bilateral relations till 2047. The omission of big-ticket items from the joint statement was a dampener.

On July 13, as Modi was flying to Paris, the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh approved two key defence contracts with France – Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for 26 Rafale Marine aircraft and three more Scorpene Class diesel-electric submarines, six of which are already with the Navy. This AoN heightened expectations on defence deals during the visit. The choice of Rafale M ended the competition with the US F18 Hornet. Making this decision politically comfortable for the government, CNS Admiral Hari Kumar said both aircraft were acceptable to the Navy. In both (some say three) versions of joint statements, the mention of Rafale M was missing, while the other two items were there.

In the initial version of the joint statement, both countries had declared defence cooperation in advanced aeronautical technologies in the joint development of a combat aircraft engine between French Safran and DRDO, and that they would produce a roadmap for it before year-end. It also included the building of three Scorpenes under Project 75 – a Make in India program. What explains this slip between cup and lip in the exclusion of intended defence contracts?

The technical reason given was that there was a premature uploading of the joint statement on the MEA website as negotiations on these items could not be concluded in time. Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra clarified in Paris that the Horizon 24 joint statement was a macro picture of defence cooperation and not about procurement and transactions. In Paris, Dassault Aviation announced that the Indian government had selected Rafale M for its Navy after an international competition.

In a joint statement, India and France said they will give utmost attention and extend cooperation to the Indo-Pacific, where France is a resident power. According to a 16 July report in The Hindustan Times, DPSUs in India and France signed two MoUs to construct submarines, surface combatants, and their parts in Mumbai and Kolkata, respectively, for export to third countries. These will be fabricated for countries in the Indo-Pacific under threat and coercion by China. This JV was also missing from the joint statement.

Why did someone in the Modi delegation have an afterthought in Paris about announcing the intent to buy Rafale M, jointly build three Scorpenes, and collaborate with Safran over engine technology? Rafale M was missing altogether from both/all the joint statements. While in the first statement, collaboration with Safran and the construction of Scorpene were mentioned, in the final version, both were excluded. But Dassault announced separately the selection of Rafale M for the Indian Navy. According to Eurasia Times, on 14 July, three official joint statements were sequentially issued.

Under somewhat similar circumstances, India-US Inter-Governmental Agreements on the acquisition of armed drones, GE 414 engine technology, and other areas of cooperation were signed with technical and commercial negotiations to be concluded later. A similar approach was not adopted in Paris. Probably Modi did not wish to revive the ghost of Rafale when he announced in 2015 in Paris the intent to buy off-the-shelf 36 Rafales, which created a storm among opposition parties in India that has still not fully subsided.

Similarly, on Safran engine technology transfer for the fifth-generation AMCA from France, a single-vendor basis could have proved problematic as Rolls Royce has also joined the fray, though some doubt exists over the latter’s eligibility. At this rate, soon, it will be jet engines raining in India with competing offers in the quantity of technology transfer – Safran 100 per cent, GE 80 per cent, and Rolls Royce 100 per cent plus! Since reports have emanated that Safran and Rolls Royce may collaborate on AMCA engine production. Meanwhile, Dassault, with 49 per cent share in JV with Reliance Defence, a 51 per cent shareholder, has decided to buy out Reliance Aerospace Nagpur, which under the offset deal manufactures Rafale parts. Once the Rafale M procurement deal is finalized, Reliance Aerospace will continue production of parts and spare parts for Rafale.

On 11 July, Congress had stoked the Rafale issue in anticipation of the acquisition of more Rafales from France, by raising the old issue that while India paid USD 8.7bn for 36 Rafales, Indonesia had paid USD 8.1 bn for 42 Rafales, forgetting that Rafales made for India had additional IAF requirements. With elections around the corner, and Rafale now a household word, the government has decided to act cautiously. Incidentally, Mediapart, the French online journal, is continuing its investigations into allegations of kickbacks paid by Dassault Aviation and sought India’s help. In this melee, political expediency and ad hoc selection of weapon platforms have hampered defence modernization.

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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