Strategic lift in Rafale tailwind

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on December 6, 2010   | Photo Credit: Manish Swarup

As the dejected consortium of four European countries scales down its operations here after losing the biggest-ever single Indian military tender to a France-dominated grouping, Paris will now be looking to enter into a new era of relationship with New Delhi encompassing intelligence sharing, nuclear enrichment and reprocessing and even joint production of sub-theatre range missiles.

Senior officials in South Block, however, discounted any direct correlation between the fighter order and these issues. Each will be dealt with by the two countries on its own merit and it would be immature to conclude that both sides will plunge headlong into enduring partnerships in all these areas because of the fighter tender going France's way. But the deal, they feel, will give momentum to France's interest in working with India on key global issues including changes in the international nuclear order.

Fighter trials

From India's self-interest, it was fortuitous that the gap in the prices between the fighters offered by the French and the four-nation European consortium was large enough for other factors such as the contentious and subjective lifecycle costs not to come into play. It was also fortuitous that the canopy of the Russian fighter (MiG-35) came off during the trials, enabling National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon to inform the Kremlin about the technical unsuitability of its offering, thus removing another major pressure point.

The Americans, of course, knew their onerous and politically weighted sting in the tail in the form of inspection requirements and Saudi utilisation of the F-16 variant offered to India for a role not suiting the Indian Air Force's list of requirements allowed New Delhi to knock Lockheed Martin out of the reckoning. The second American offer, from Boeing (F-18), was easy to reject because India had not sought the product and it was included among the six contenders under pressure from Washington. The last contender, from Sweden (Gripen), was also easy to eliminate because of its light weight characteristics.

These factors helped the Ministry of Defence continue with its stand that the technical characteristics of the fighter and the price were the only two criteria at play while selecting the winner for the order, which will swell in value with New Delhi planning to add 60 fighters to the originally tendered 126.

For over a decade, since the controversial and exciting days of India's second series of nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil war of 1999, South Block has recognised the steadfastness of France in standing by India. It was perhaps the only country that did not cancel its maritime exercises after the Pokhran tests as compared with some others that happily went beyond the requirements of sovereignty by seizing Indian defence equipment to appease another country, which had sold components for that military system, that had decided to punish India by imposing sanctions.

Long-term ties

A year later, France stood solidly behind India — along with Russia and Israel — when the conflict over the Kargil heights erupted. Going to war with minimal war reserves, field level commanders at that time, who are now general rank officers, recall how the IAF's Mirage fighters blasted bunkers in seemingly impregnable positions after the MiGs had not performed up to expectations.

With Dassault's factory saved from being mothballed, New Delhi would now expect France to standby the commitment made by its President Nicholas Sarkozy for a ``complete'' civil nuclear partnership with India that would include enrichment and reprocessing (ENR), which is sought to be denied by the cartel of nuclear technology suppliers to countries like India that they think do not conform to their norms.

Unknown to the public at large, France and India joined hands in the civil nuclear field two years after Independence. That agreement to extract thorium from monazite sand didn't work out but France opened its doors to the young Turks of the Indian civil nuclear establishment leading to cooperation in setting up a fast breeder reactor. This partnership was to continue despite the 1974 nuclear test that led to the transAtlantic cartel to put the squeeze on India lasting for over three decades.

It is also not known that the 1998 visit of Jacques Chirac led to talks on French company Areva opening talks for setting up six nuclear power plants, the second country after Russia to do so, while the rest of Europe and the U.S. were plotting to emasculate the Indian nuclear industry by placing technology transfer restrictions and blacklisting Indian companies. It is natural that after Russia, Indian nuclear scientists have developed confidence in the French ability to stand by their word on civil nuclear matters.

With the character of the French mission here changing into one where intelligence sharing is given importance, officials expect an impetus to revive the relationship that existed earlier on observing the Indian Ocean. France had set up two listening stations on the western coast that were manned by India's intelligence personnel. These were to be linked with the ones planned by Iran and France in what was to be a trilateral partnership. But the overthrow of the Shah of Iran put paid to these moves. Although Iran is now out of the picture, the France-India alliance would not want a third partner because surveillance capabilities have since been boosted by greater potency of spy satellites.

More intimate alliances in the nuclear, military and intelligence fields would also allow India to spread its influence in western Africa, known as France's backyard. India has already started expanding its diplomatic presence in these countries and a helping hand from France would add to its stand-alone exertions.

Just like in the nuclear field, what is not known to the public is that the Cheetah and the Chetak — the wasp-like helicopters seen flitting across snow encrusted mountains to service Indian soldiers perched on the heights of the Siachen and the Himalayas — are of French origin. So are the new submarines currently being assembled in Mumbai. France has already been allocated land to set up six nuclear power reactors. But it has always complained that India remains an Anglo-Saxon zone of influence. The order for fighters (and the earlier Rs.10,000-crore deal for modernising the existing IAF fleet of 50-odd Mirage fighters) would help substantially disabuse this notion and set the stage where both countries, which have always professed respect for each other's national security interests and shared the quest for strategic autonomy, could help further democratise global politics as well as help each other.

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