If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Under new President Emmanuel Macron, France will continue to beef up the Indian military arsenal with fighter jets and submarines. French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation and state-owned shipbuilder DCNS are in fact negotiating new deals with the Indian government for the sale of their Rafale multi-role aircraft and diesel-electric attack Scorpene-class submarine respectively.
Last Sunday, coinciding with Macron’s inauguration, Dassault Aviation chief executive Eric Trappier revealed to French daily Sud-Ouest that its company was talking to India about the sale of a further 57 Rafales.
Last September, Dassault Aviation secured an US$8.8 billion contract to supply the Indian Air Force with 36 Rafale jets. It is said that, once inducted, they will form two squadrons. One will be stationed in the state of Haryana, near the Pakistani border, and the other in West Bengal to face possible threats posed by China on the eastern front.
The new batch of 57 Rafale aircraft is intended for the Indian Navy, which must still develop the aviation complex for its domestically built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. The Indian government says the new flattop will be delivered in December 2018, but a national auditor reported last year that it might not be combat-ready before 2023. New Delhi has weighed other options for a new fighter platform for its aircraft-carrier force, including Sweden’s Saab Gripen, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Russia’s MiG-29K.
India’s air force needs new warplanes to replace its aging fleet of 670 fighter jets, made up in large part of Russian-built Su-30MKI, MiG-21 and MiG-27 planes. In response, US defense giant Lockheed Martin is ready to transfer the production line of its F-16 combat aircraft to India, as Saab points to setting up a production platform in the South Asian country for its Gripen-E.
India is still mulling whether to finalize a deal with Russia to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft based on the stealthy Sukhoi PAK FA – which is completing development and testing – and upgrade its existing Su-30MKI fighters, according to recent Indian media reports.
New Scorpene subs
In addition to carrier-capable Rafales, New Delhi plans to strengthen its naval capabilities with the acquisition of three more Scorpene submarines. The Indian Navy is expected to commission two French-designed Scorpenes – the Kalvari and the Khanderi – by the end of the year. They have been constructed by Mumbai-based Mazagon Dock Ltd in cooperation with DCNS as part of a $3.5 billion deal signed in 2005 to build jointly six Scorpene-class submarines.
It is worth noting that India’s Scorpenes will be equipped with BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles. In March, the Indian Navy successfully tested this kind of supersonic projectile from the Kalvari submarine.
The purchase of Scorpenes will help India increase its asymmetric capabilities vis-à-vis China. In numerical and qualitative terms, New Delhi’s submarine fleet cannot compete with that of Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army Navy can deploy 67 submarines, of which nine are nuclear-powered. In contrast, the Indian Navy now has 13 conventionally powered and two nuclear-powered submarines, according to data from Global Firepower 2017 and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
For its part, France is trying to snatch ever-larger shares of the Indian defense market, challenging in particular Russia’s traditional role as New Delhi’s top arms supplier. Over the past decade, Russian arms transfers to India have totaled $22 billion, while France’s military-related deliveries to the Asian giant have reached $550 million, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports.
The French-Russian competition to expand presence in the high-growth Asian-Pacific defense market is not only focused on India, but also on Southeast Asian countries. For instance, Dassault Aviation is in talks with Malaysia over the delivery of 18 Rafales in a deal valued at about $2 billion.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force aims to replace its outdated fleet of Russian MiG-29 combat aircraft. The Russian Su-35 is also a contender in the bidding process, as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen.
Many competitors for France
France and India are forging a solid industrial defense partnership that suits both nations’ interests. Paris is keen to become a prominent arms provider in the Indo-Pacific region, while New Delhi is committed to modernizing its weaponry to counter potential challenges from China and Pakistan.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Rafale and Scorpene programs will meet the expectations of Paris and New Delhi in the near future, given that French defense producers have to deal with many competitors in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian rearmament scheme lags behind that of China, both financially and conceptually.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly put the value of France’s military-related deliveries to India at US$550 billion. The correct value is $550 million.