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PM Modi's France Visit: There's more beyond the Marine Rafale and Scorpene

The collaboration extends beyond immediate procurement deals, with the involvement of French companies in India's indigenous nuclear attack submarine program and the TEDBF program for a carrier-based fighter aircraft. These partnerships aim to enhance defence capabilities, foster technological cooperation, and establish a long-term strategic relationship. Girish Linganna reports

PM Modi's France Visit: There's more beyond the Marine Rafale and Scorpene
First Published Jul 12, 2023, 3:48 PM IST

India and France are on the cusp of a deal for three Scorpène submarines and 26 Rafale aircraft for the Indian Navy. According to reports, an official announcement is expected during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's diplomatic visit to France. As the special guest for the Bastille Day celebrations, Modi is expected to arrive in France on Thursday. On Friday, he is scheduled to have dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron.

If the defence deal goes through, this order will be in addition to the first order for 36 'off-the-shelf' (French-made) Rafale planes that India placed with the aircraft manufacturer in 2016. At the beginning of this year, Dassault Aviation Chief Executive Officer Eric Trappier had stated that the selection of their aircraft by the Indian government would be a logical choice.

Explained: Why Rafale-M is best suited for India's aircraft carriers

Dassault Aviation's order backlog for the Rafale as of the end of 2022 consisted of 164 units, with 39 aircraft destined for France and 125 for export. This year, the company intends to produce 15 jets, 14 of which will go to France while the remaining one will go to Greece. Dassault Aviation is increasing its production capacity, and potential new orders could make it possible for the company to maintain a greater production rate over time. Dassault Aviation, similar to other aircraft manufacturers, is experiencing difficulties in its production chain.

"The ongoing impact of COVID and supply shortages related to the conflict in Ukraine have put constraints on many logistics and supply chains, so our supply chain is facing challenges," Eric Trappier emphasised in March. Dassault Aviation aims to increase its production rate to three Rafale jets per month.

Regarding orders, there may still be other prospects for the Rafale. Colombia had preselected the fighter jet for a potential order of 16 aircraft, but the two parties could not reach an agreement by the end of 2022. It remains to be seen if this will be postponed to this year. On the other hand, Indonesia could activate the remaining part of its order for 42 aircraft since Dassault Aviation has only received a firm contract for six aircraft. 

Support for TEDBF and Nuclear Attack Submarine

Nonetheless, the implications of military and industrial cooperation between New Delhi and Paris may extend beyond these spectacular and widely publicised announcements.

Everything indicates that the Naval Group and the French naval industrial base will actively support the development of India's first indigenous nuclear attack submarine (SSN) programme, with significant technology transfers to make these vessels as capable and stealthy as possible, concurrent with acquiring three additional Scorpene submarines.

The potential future collaboration of engine manufacturer Safran in the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) programme, which is the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization's (DRDO) programme to develop a new twin-engine carrier-based fighter aircraft, is a second hypothesis that is increasingly being discussed. 

This partnership seeks to create a new turbojet engine capable of producing 12 tonnes of thrust for a 26-ton aircraft. These initiatives emphasise strengthening defence ties between India and France, which go beyond immediate procurement deals and include long-term strategic cooperation in defence technology and innovation.

The TEDBF is anticipated to enter service in 2035, replacing the MiG-29 aircraft presently deployed on the INS Vikramaditya, a 45,000-ton aircraft carrier acquired from Russia and refurbished by Indian shipyards to enter service in 2014. The TEDBF is also anticipated to equip a third potential aircraft carrier, which was disclosed several months ago.

Nevertheless, Safran may not be the only French enterprise in the TEDBF programme. Dassault Aviation could also collaborate with the Indian aerospace industry to develop this aircraft, similar to the Naval Group's prospective participation in the Indian SSN programme.

This emphasises the potential for increased collaboration between French and Indian defence companies, utilising their expertise to develop and improve India's indigenous defence capabilities jointly. These partnerships can combine both nations' technological prowess and experience to produce cutting-edge defence systems.

Nonetheless, a partnership with Dassault alongside the acquisition of 26 Rafale-M aircraft, which are also designed to operate from Indian aircraft carriers, would be a logical choice for both India and the French aircraft manufacturer.

Effectively replacing the MiG-29s on the Vikramaditya by 2035 is vital for the Indian Navy. This implies that the TEDBF programme must be developed efficiently and without technological or programmatic obstacles.

In these circumstances, and in light of the difficulties encountered by the Indian aerospace industry during the development of the Tejas programme, the presence of an aircraft manufacturer and an engine manufacturer with extensive experience in this field would unquestionably be a significant added value and assure that the programme will meet its schedule and performance objectives.

This participation would enable technology transfers for the French industry, establish a strong industrial and technological bond between the two nations, and increase the presence of French industry in India.

Dassault Aviation and Safran would be in a favourable position to expand their collaborations with the Indian industrial ecosystem, both to meet immediate needs, such as the MMRCA 2 programme and to participate in future programmes, such as the AMCA fighter aircraft that will replace the Su-30MKI.

Both companies had significant ambitions in India at the beginning of the 2010s, initially through the MRCA programme, which was ultimately replaced by an order for 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force.

By participating in the SSN and TEDBF carrier-based fighter programmes, French industries would be a part of two of India's most important and strategic ongoing defence programmes. This would position France as a critical partner for New Delhi and vice versa.

The precise nature and scope of this cooperation have yet to be determined. All indications, however, suggest that it has now adopted a path that will be mutually advantageous for both countries, their defence industries, and their armed forces.

This collaboration is a significant step towards strengthening France and India's defence ties and represents a fortification of their partnership. It paves the way for increased technological cooperation, collaborative development, and establishing a long-term strategic relationship in defence matters.

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