France has been one of India’s closest strategic partners, and among the biggest military suppliers to Indian military throughout its modern history. French Ambassador to India Alexandre Ziegler responded to questions from The Hindu against the backdrop of DefExpo 2018 under way in Chennai.
DefExpo 2018’s tagline is ‘India: The Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub’. How are the French government and companies hoping to be active participants in Indian efforts?
For a long time now, the French industry has been much more than just a supplier of India. Make in India has been a reality for France with regard to armaments since many years. Thus, the Indian missile manufacturer, BDL, has manufactured more than 10,000 anti-tank Milan missiles under licence. Another example is HAL, which has produced and is still producing under licence the light helicopters, Cheetah and Chetak, which are derived from French choppers. And I consider the construction of six Scorpène submarines in India under the P-75 contract to be the most emblematic of the French tradition of Make in India. Numerous joint ventures have been launched over the past few years. At DefExpo, I have also noticed the privileged positioning of some of these Indo-French companies.
What are the key highlights of French participation in DefExpo? What technologies and platforms do you hope Indian agencies would be interested in, or benefit from?
The French defence industry is turning out in force at this expo, just as it did in the past years. Around 20 land and naval equipment companies are there, most of them at the French pavilion, such as Nexter, Safran, Thales and many MSMEs. Naval Group will also be there, near its Indian partner, Mazagon Docks Shipbuilders Ltd.; MBDA is next to its partner, Larsen & Toubro; so will Airbus.
All these companies will, of course, showcase their best high-performance products, most of which are equipment used by the French armed forces themselves and have already been or will soon be used at theatres of operation. French companies are keen on offering proven defence equipment that are perfectly suited to the requirements of the Indian armed forces.
Historically, France has been known to be a provider of important and sensitive technologies to India, and has always played a key role in supporting India’s strategic ambitions. Has France lost out, or India ignored it, in the new strategic paradigm and in recent years?
You’re quite right to stress this — France is India’s oldest strategic partner and a historic one for defence equipment. Our relations in this matter date back to India’s Independence. Dassault Aviation, for instance, is a historic supplier of the Indian Air Force with the Ouragan — rechristened as Toofani in India. Then came the Mystère IV, the Mirage 2000 in the 1980s, and the latest is the Rafale. I could go on citing many such examples. This partnership has been constantly strengthening. Today, it is the strongest and closest we have in the region, as reflected in the state visit of President Emmanuel Macron last month.
As for armaments, three major contracts have been signed over the past decade, with the contract for building six Scorpène submarines in India, the contract for upgrading the 51 Mirage 2000s in India’s fleet, including new weapons, and, of course, the inter-governmental agreement for the supply of 36 Rafale and their weapons, signed in September 2016.
The expo comes against the backdrop of the government issuing the RFI for 110 fighter jets, in which the Rafale is going to be a key contender. Will it make better financial and technical sense for India to go in for increasing the present order for Rafale than years of processing a new global tender?
We have taken due note of this RFI and are in the process of analysing it in detail. It is up to the Indian authorities, and them alone, to decide on their acquisition strategy and what is preferable for India. Whatever be their decision, the Indian government knows that France will always be there to meet to its needs — as it has always done.
India is looking at a major submarine acquisition programme. Has the French side formally proposed to New Delhi about the possibility of increasing the order for Scorpene submarines to avoid time delays? And if so, what broadly is your offer?
India’s Scorpene submarine programme is a true industrial and technological success. Thanks to this programme, Mumbai’s Mazagon Docks Shipbuilders Ltd. (MDL), which had not built submarines for many years, could become once again the shipyard of reference and was able to absorb extremely advanced transfers of technology. Submarines are among defence systems that are the most complex to design and manufacture. Further, they navigate in an extremely hostile environment that leaves no margin for technical flaw. It is in this backdrop that MDL has been building six submarines with cutting-edge technology in India, right from the first batch – something that has not been attempted before by any country. The first, the INS Kalvari, was commissioned last year, the second is expected to wrap up its sea trials soon, and the third was launched earlier this year. For the follow-up programme, Naval Group gave a positive reply to the P-75(I) RFI issued last year, with a product even more evolved than the Scorpenes under construction, perfectly meeting the very stringent requirements of the Indian Navy and equipped with the latest technologies developed for French Navy submarines, including a naval cruise missile and a latest-generation torpedo. As for MDL building a further six Scorpene submarines, this is certainly a possible option, but again it is up to the Indian authorities to decide on their strategy on this matter.
Safran and DRDO are in the final stages of signing up on collaborating on fighter engines. How soon could the agreement be concluded, and what are the broad parameters of it?
This subject has been under discussion for several years, but we have surely never been as close to concluding it as now. In their Joint Statement last month, our two leaders expressed their keenness to see this negotiation conclude soon. This project aims at co-developing and co-producing in India a new-generation combat jet engine for the LCA, over which India would have full control. Thus, this engine will largely be Indian in design and production. The aim of this project is to have the partners of the two countries join forces, i.e. Safran, DRDO and the Indian industry with a view to establishing a long-term partnership.
Corruption has always remained a key issue of concern in Indian defence contracts, and you must have seen that the Indian Opposition has made several allegations regarding the Rafale deal, too. Could you comment on it?
It is certainly not my place to comment on a domestic political controversy. All I can say is that this negotiation has been conducted in a very transparent manner and is in full compliance with India’s very strict regulations on defence procurement. Our chief concern, now, is supplying the aircraft ordered within the deadline along with the entire weapons package required. It’s our strategic commitment to the Indian government, and we will adhere to it.