Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How India and France are stepping up their defence partnership

Over the past decade, France has emerged as India's second largest arms supplier after Russia. From jets to submarines and helicopters, the two countries are now gearing up for more

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jul 14, 2023 03:53:39 PM IST
Updated: Jul 14, 2023 04:07:05 PM IST

How India and France are stepping up their defence partnershipIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and France's President Emmanuel Macron. Image: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For long, France has been India’s tested partner in the West. Even before the famed Rafale aircraft deal brought the countries significantly closer, France and India had struck a deal in 1998 for a strategic partnership in areas such as defence, space cooperation, and civil nuclear cooperation. That deal had come amidst a US sanction on India after the country tested nuclear weapons.

In fact, over the past decade, France has also emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier, after Russia, while also publicly supporting India’s claim for permanent membership of the Security Council and the reforms of the United Nations.

Now, India and France are gearing up for more. On July 13, India’s defence ministry said in a statement that it has given initial approval for the purchase of 26 Rafale fighter jets for its navy and three new Scorpène class submarines. “The price and other terms of purchase will be negotiated with the French Government after taking into account all relevant aspects, including comparative procurement price of similar aircraft by other countries,” India’s defence ministry said in a statement.

The deals are expected to be signed during the Indian prime minister’s visit to France where he is the guest of honour at the annual Bastille Day Parade, where a 269-member Indian contingent will be marching. Modi is also expected to hold talks with President Emmanuel Macron where the deals could be announced.

India already has 36 Rafale jets made by Dassault Aviation in its air force, and six Scorpène submarines manufactured by French Naval Group, earlier known as DCNS. Before that, in the 1980s India bought Mirage jets, which continue to be in service and comprise two squadrons of the air force. In 2005, India bought six Scorpene-class diesel submarines from France for $2.29 billion, the last of which will be commissioned next year.

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India is also looking to continue with the practice of participating in the manufacturing of submarines. In 2005, India had struck a deal with French defence manufacturer DCNS to manufacture Scorpene at the Mazagaon Dock.

“The DAC also granted the AoN for procurement of three additional Scorpene submarines under the Buy (Indian) category which will be constructed by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL),” the defence ministry said in a statement. “The procurement of additional submarines, with higher indigenous content, will not only help in maintaining the required force level and operational readiness of the Indian Navy but also create significant employment opportunities in the domestic sector. It will also help the MDL in further enhancing its capability and expertise in submarine construction.”

The deal to purchase Rafale aircraft from France comes at a time when India has already struck a deal with the US to jointly manufacture an engine for India’s homegrown fighter aircraft programme, in India. The deal was then seen as a precursor to India striking a deal with the US for inducting US fighter jets into the Indian defence forces. But, the Rafale M seems to have edged out the American F/A-18 Super Hornet in the latest round. 

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Earlier this year, India and France also held their maiden Joint Military Exercise, FRINJEX-23, in what’s a show of defence cooperation between the countries. That apart, French engine manufacturer Safran has already struck a deal with the government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics to manufacture engines for its helicopter programme.

HAL is also currently looking to manufacture the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH), a medium-lift helicopter, that can effectively replace the aging Mi-17 helicopters and can be used for air assault, air-attack, anti-submarine, anti-surface, military transport, and VIP transport roles. The company has already signed a workshare agreement for the joint development of engines with France-based Safran.

Already, in 2015, India signed a deal worth Rs 59,000 crore to Rafale, which has since been delivered. All that means India and France are now gearing up for more.

“If we look at the broad scope of defence cooperation between India and France, you will find that there are several key aspects of it—there are joint military exercises between the militaries of the two countries; there is logistic support cooperation between the armed forces of both countries; co-production in the defence sector in various areas; there are aspects related to research and design processes in the defence sector; there is a cooperation between the navies of both countries to address maritime security challenges in the Indian Ocean region and the larger Indo-Pacific region,” India’s foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra said ahead of Modi’s visit to France.