Military & Aerospace

Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-II
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Issue Vol 23.1 Jan-Mar 2008 | Date : 04 Dec , 2010

French Naval Ships in IOR

Phase 2: 1971-1990: The Office of the Historian of the US State Department which has recently released the declassified documents of the Nixon Administration terms the policy of the US President as “The Tilt”. While Washington tilted heavily towards Karachi during the Bangladesh Liberation War, Paris’ position was more balanced.

During the debate in the UN Security Council, the French Representative declared: “We appreciate the fact that India cannot feel satisfied with a superficial solution when it has millions of refugees under its care”. The Indian Official Report of the 1971 war stated that although the UK and France were both allies of the United States, “they did not toe the American line”.

During this period, France remained India’s ‘friend’. This translated into moderate arms sales during the next twenty years. From 1971 till its collapse in 1989, the Soviet Union supplied $ 33,622 million dollars of armament to India, while France was only the third exporter with $ 2,113 million (after the United Kingdom $ 7,001 million).13 One thousand short range air-to-air missiles R-550 Magic-1 and 40 PA-6 diesel engines for offshore patrol vessels were ordered in 1979 as well as thousands of Milan anti-tank missiles in 1981.Although the purchase of 150 Mirages, 2000 was announced in December 1981 to counter the American F16s ordered by Pakistan, the final agreement was for 40 planes only. A preferential credit rate of 9.25 percent was offered to India.14 Since India needed the fighter aircraft quickly, the first part of an initial batch of 26 single-seaters and 4 two-seaters was shipped in 1985.15

Also read: Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-I

The second part of this initial batch consisted of 10 more single-seaters with the M53-P2 engine, with these aircraft designated Mirage 2000H. A second batch of six Mirage 2000H single-seaters and three Mirage 2000TH two-seaters was shipped in 1987-1988. En 1986, 9 more planes were ordered.16

France keeping equidistance between India and Pakistan will remain a serious bone of contention between Delhi and Paris during the two decades.

By the end of 198217, India received its first Milans, the reputed Franco-German anti-tank guided missile. The Bharat Dynamics Limited started manufacturing them in January 1985 under a French license.18

Before President Mitterrand’s visit in February 1989, France concluded a contract for the feasibility study of the construction of an aircraft-carrier in the dockyards of Cochin for the Indian Navy; this project never fructified.

It is necessary to mention some events which (directly or indirectly) played a role in the Indo-French relations during these two decades. The contacts between India and France could be said to be cloudless (except for Paris’ propensity to equate Delhi and Islamabad), but lacking dynamism (some watchers called them ‘lethargic’).

  • In May 1974, India tested a plutonium bomb in Pokhran in the desert of Rajasthan. During the following eight years, French collaboration for civilian use of the atom was discontinued.
  • In the mid-seventies, Indian and French intelligence had a very friendly rapport. It is said that the R&AW Chief, RN Kao traveled to Paris to meet his counterpart, Alexandre de Marenches to set up a tripartite collaboration between the R&AW, the SDECE and the Iranian SAVAC.

In the mid-seventies, Indian and French intelligence had a very friendly rapport.

  • The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reinforced the position of Pakistan as the favourite partner of the United States in the region, creating at a same time an arms race in the region. It was difficult to convince Delhi that the US supplies were against the Russian presence in Afghanistan only. In these circumstances, Paris could have been an alternative to the Soviet Union in defence collaboration with India. It did not fructify.
  • In 1982, an India-France Defence Memorandum of Understanding was signed.19Later the creation of an armament committee and an Indo-French Defence Cooperation Working Group helped to start institutionalising the relations in the field of defence, in fact mainly in armament transfer.
  • With India spending more than 3% of its GDP on defence expenditure, Delhi became the world’s largest importer of armaments. For the period between 1972 and 1991, France’s share remained below 5 percent of the total import bill, while the Soviet Union cornered 72 percent.

In 1982, an India-France Defence Memorandum of Understanding was signed. Later the creation of an armament committee and an Indo-French Defence Cooperation Working Group helped to start institutionalising the relations in the field of defence”¦

  • A few months after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, a “spy scandal,20the most serious ever”, as per Rajiv Gandhi, made the front page of the media. French intelligence officers used to visit the PMO, select thousands of documents and take photocopies of whatever files interested them. The French Ambassador was eventually declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country. The Hindustan Times wrote that the extent of the scam “staggered the imagination of investigating officials… The security system and our vital papers have been stripped clean.” This did not hamper India’s collaboration with France (particularly for the Mirage deal). Le Monde in an article before the State visit of President Mitterrand in 1989 stated that Rajiv Gandhi ‘had forgiven’ France.
  • In 1984, the Siachen became the highest battlefield in the world. Though the high altitude forbids the use of heavy weapons, small equipment became in demand. One should point out the extraordinary service of the Cheetah and the Chetak (ex-Allouette) helicopters.
  • Another scam which had indirect ramifications for France is the Bofors arms deal which has remained in the news for the past twenty years. After his retirement, the former Army Chief General K. Sundarji affirmed: “In 1982, talks were going on with the French government for 300-odd pieces of Sofma self-propelled guns. I then suggested the French gun because the army decided that the performance and trials held in India could be the basis of selection. And the Sofma fitted into the category.”The rest of the story is known.
  • What India considered as one of the most damaging aspect for the bilateral relations was Paris’ ambivalent relation with Pakistan. France keeping equidistance between India and Pakistan will remain a serious bone of contention between Delhi and Paris during the two decades.21

These are some of the events which influenced, in one way or another, the bilateral relations in the field of defence between the two nations during this period.

Phase 1991-2007: India becomes a power to reckon

It is obviously arbitrary to divide the bilateral rapport in phases which may correspond to important stages in one of the country’s history, but not automatically the other.

French_Navy_Ship_in_IORYear 1991 witnessed a new birth for India. After more than 40 years of planned economy patterned on the Soviet model, Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister had the courage to open up the economy with the results witnessed by everyone today. It was as if the genius of the Indian race, bottled up for all those decades, had suddenly sprung again forth. On the international stage, this period corresponded to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos in Afghanistan, which eventually led to the advent of the Taliban regime.

Despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the world turning unipolar, the Russian Republic remained India’s main armament supplier during the period 1992-2006 with $ 13,751 dollars. France was fifth ($ 797 million) after the Netherlands ($ 1,004 million), UK ($ 801 million) and Germany ($ 898 million). With the economic liberalization in India, all efforts were focused to make the local economy vibrant; the percentage of defence expenditure came down from a maximum of 4% in the 1980’s to less than 3% in the nineties (2.6% in 1996 and 2004).

The most interesting aspect of the 90’s was the tremendous boost in bilateral relations given by the visits of President Chirac in January 1998 and Prime Minister Vajpayee’s trip to Paris later in the year.

Year 1991 witnessed a new birth for India. After more than 40 years of planned economy patterned on the Soviet model, Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister had the courage to open up the economy with the results witnessed by everyone today. It was as if the genius of the Indian race, bottled up for all those decades, had suddenly sprung again forth.

The most striking feature was the setting up of a framework for a strategic partnership. Before reaching Delhi, the French President had declared that he was keen on an “ambitious partnership”. Using a de Gaulle-like language, Jacques Chirac saluted India, “a nation which has affirmed its personality on the world stage”. He said that he had come to show that “France wanted to accompany India in its potent march [towards the future].”

Inaugurating a seminar in Vigyan Bhavan, the French President elaborated on the nuclear deal. Reminding that “certain conditions are to be met”,22 he however suggested to: “reflect, together with those of our partners involved, on the ways to reconcile our common will to co-operate and the necessary respect for the rules the international community has set itself”. Nine years later, a similar language could be used by President Sarkozy when he visits Delhi in January 2008.

Chirac’s words were not mere political niceties. When India conducted its nuclear tests in Pokhran in May, France was one of the few countries which did not condemned Delhi (or impose sanction). This was greatly appreciated in Delhi and when Prime Minister Vajpayee returned Chirac’s visit in October, the new strategic dialogue could take its first concrete steps.23

These events set in motion a closer collaboration. From the friendship mentioned by de Gaulle, the relation had become a partnership. By putting proper structures in place, the dialogue was institutionalized:

  • A Strategic Dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors provides both sides an opportunity to review the evolution of the overall global security situation and emerging challenges in various parts of the world (17 rounds have been held so far).
  • A High Level Committee for Defence at the level of Defence Secretaries, works through its three specialized sub-committees, dealing with issues related to defence co-operation.
  • A Joint Working Group on Terrorism has been established to co-operate in the fight against terrorism.
  • Annual consultations between the two foreign ministries are held at the level of Foreign Secretaries.
  • A Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Cooperation at the level of Ministers of Commerce
Illus-19-Allouette-sur-SiacThe bilateral relations have benefited in several ways:

  • Increase in the number of high-level civilian and defence personnel visits. Just a glimpse at the website of the French Embassy in India24will show the drastic improvement in this field. Mr. Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister visited Delhi on December 20 and 21. The regular reciprocal visits of a large number of senior serving defence officers have enabled a deeper sharing of views and experience.25
  • Defence Personnel Exchanges. Exchanges have not been too successful so far. According to General Alain Lamballe (Retd), a former military attaché and expert in the Indo-French relations: “Both nations have not sufficiently explored the possibility to send young officers for training. It is the only guarantee to have a good reciprocal knowledge in the long term. India hesitates to put its officers in contact with foreigners, fearing compromises.26″ If trust between the armed forces of the two countries increases, one can hope that there will be an improvement in this field.
  • Joint Naval Exercises. In 2006, the Indian Navy called these exercises: “A Significant Indicator”. Explaining the background of the successful Varuna joint naval exercises, the Indian Ministry of Defence said: “In recent times the Indian Navy laid great emphasis on enhancing bilateral ties and interoperability with navies of developed countries through professional and operational interactions.” Varuna 07, a sea and air military exercise was held from the September 11 to 19, 2007, off the Somali coasts and in the Gulf of Aden in continuation of the exercises organized in March and April 2006 off the coast of Goa. The French contribution was then centered on the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.
  • Aerial Exercises: From 12 to 23 February 2007, the French and Indian Air Forces carried out the third edition of the Garuda series of air force exercises. Organised for the second time in India, this year exercise took place at Kalaikunda Air Force Station. The French Air Force participated with one Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, four Mirage 2000-D Air-to-Ground fighters and four Mirage 2000-5 Air-Defence fighters. It was the first time that a French AWACS Aircraft came to India.
  • Joint Research and Development: One of the many examples which could be given is the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), a missile research laboratory under the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and the leading European company, MBDA Missile Systems, planning to jointly develop a new-generation low-level, quick-reaction missile (LLQRM). The $500 million project is aimed at developing the 35-kilometer Maitri quick-reaction missile, a blend of the French Mica and DRDO Trishul. MBDA will develop an active homing head, thrust-vector controls and missiles. DRDL will handle software, command-and-control, and integration.

Though President Chirac’s visit to India in February 2006 was marred by the Clémenceau controversy, it further cemented the close relations between the two nations. On the eve of the visit, France’s ambassador Dominique Girard had summed up the relations: “Our two nations, now more than ever before, have a major responsibility in relation to the rest of the international community and the promotion of peace and development. The strategic partnership that they have forged with one another must be based on sound and co-ordinated defence systems”.

Continued…: Indo-French Friendship to Partnership-III

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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