Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France on 13-14 July was undoubtedly rich in symbolism and burnished visually by the presence of an Indian military contingent at the annual Bastille Day parade.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron conferred his country’s highest civilian award on PM Modi – the Legion of Honor – and described India in lofty terms as “a giant in the history of the world that will have a determining role in our future.” He further added that France sees India as a strategic partner and friend for bilateral cooperation in the future.
Potential of Indo-French Strategic Partnership
The Horizon 2047 joint statement issued by both nations is comprehensive at 5320 words and is predictably wide-spectrum in identifying different domains from the regional (Indo-Pacific) to global issues (climate change); and multi-sector, ranging from military inventory to nuclear reactors and space. Such aspirational rhetoric is par for the course during summit visits.
It is instructive that the opening paragraph of the joint statement refers to the Indo-Pacific (IP) region and the shared objectives of the two nations have been presented as “India and France intend to work together in the interest of international peace and stability and reaffirm their commitment to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. They agree to work within the framework of a partnership between equals, in consonance with their respective sovereign and strategic interests, as they have done since 1998.”
The IP reference is the sub-text for a shared concern about a revisionist China and Beijing’s attempt to interpret prevailing global norms and laws in the maritime domain in a selective manner to advance its own interests.
This is a complex and contentious issue that places India among a larger group of nations led by the USA that are currently objecting to the Chinese claims – an issue that also came into focus at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta on 14 July.
Navy Rafale & Other Acquisitions in the Pipeline
On the substantive side, post-visit, a press release from Paris by Dassault Aviation which manufactures the aircraft stated that the “Indian Government announced the selection of the Navy Rafale to equip the Indian Navy with a latest-generation fighter.”
There was considerable speculation prior to the Modi visit that major deals would be concluded and announced for the acquisition of Rafale M fighter jets for the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier and additional Scorpene class submarines.
While no deals were mentioned during the visit, the Rafale M decision has since been announced and this acquisition will be a valuable addition for the Indian Navy and the credibility of its aircraft carriers.
However, the acquisition of the submarines has only been alluded to as both nations “are ready to explore more ambitious projects to develop the Indian submarine fleet and its performance.” Hence, the additional Scorpene submarine acquisition will have to be seen as a case of 'work in progress’ and there is good reason for this pause.
The more significant takeaway of the Modi visit in the Aviation sector is the French commitment to support India in its chequered indigenous jet engine (Kaveri) endeavour – one that has been languishing for almost three decades.
The joint statement notes: “In the future, India and France will extend their ground-breaking defence cooperation in advanced aeronautical technologies by supporting the joint development of a combat aircraft engine. They also support industrial cooperation for the motorisation of heavy-lift helicopters under the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter [IMRH] programme with Safran Helicopter Engine, France.”
India Needs To Gear Up on the Manufacturing Front
Acquiring new platforms and major inventory items for the Indian military is a periodic activity as well as time-consuming. Especially, when the final decision is a distillation of a number of political and techno-strategic factors apart from the operational desirability of such acquisition.
Specific to France, India acquired the Toofani fighter jet (Ouragan) in 1953, and over the last six decades, India has acquired military aircraft from the UK, former USSR (now Russia), and France.
However, despite such long years of import experience, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the lead PSU, has not been able to invest in the required Human Resources and acquire appropriate indigenous manufacturing capability in the aero-engine domain. This has been a major gap in the Indian 'atmanirbhar’ endeavour.
Recent attempts to engage in such cooperation with the USA are still a case of 'work in progress’ and the primary challenge for Delhi is that the more technologically advanced nations that have invested large resources for decades in high-tech R&D and related manufacturing are very reluctant to share such know-how.
Whether India will be able to arrive at a mutually acceptable level of partnership with a foreign entity that also allows for deep manufacturing technology and design transfer remains moot.
On The Submarines
India’s current absorption index for hi-tech skills is below the global median and this is a structural deficiency that merits national resolve and dedication. However, this steely focus to succeed has eluded the Indian defence manufacturing domain largely dominated by the public sector and this is a reflection of inadequate high-level political and professional management of long-term national security imperatives.
The Scorpene submarine is a similar story where India has already concluded an agreement with France for six boats wherein Mazagon Docks, Mumbai is the lead agency, and the additional three being speculated upon will hopefully have better contractual clauses for technology transfer.
India in the past has taken feckless policy decisions at the highest levels in relation to submarine building in India (the HDW contract with then West Germany in the 1980s) and closed a whole indigenous manufacturing line with valuable resources going down the fiscal drain.
More recently, the Scorpene deal was concluded but here again, the degree of manufacturing know-how and technology transfer has been unsatisfactory from the Indian perspective.
Therefore, the pause in the Scorpene decision is prudent, if it enables greater technology transfer for the indigenous effort.
Thus, while the Modi visit was successful in laying the foundation for a more productive bilateral relationship with France in the defence sector, harnessing this potential will call for India to identify the structural deficiencies in its ecosystem and redress them swiftly.
Learning from the costly mistakes of the past in the aero-engine and submarine manufacturing domains objectively would be a desirable first step in realising the Modi vision of Horizon 2047 with France.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)