France May Emerge Second Largest Arms Exporter in Next Three Years

Defence Industry

New Delhi: The recent initial approval by Indian government for an order of six Scorpène submarines and 26 Rafale jets for the Indian Navy and Qatar considering to add another 24 Rafale to their stockpile, the share of France’s in the global arms trade is well poised to increase.

According to an annual Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report published in March this year, between 2018 and 2022, France’s share of the global arms trade increased to 11 percent compared with 7.1 percent over the previous four-year period. During the same period, the Russian share of the international arms trade declined from 22 to 16 percent.

“The trends are very clear for France,” said Pieter Wezeman, the author of the SIPRI report. A review of late 2022 orders and in 2023 indicates this pattern is set to continue. SIPRI’s assessment suggests that France was making gains on Russia’s market share.

“For France, we have a total number of 210 combat aircraft [currently on order] and for Russia we only have 84,” Wezeman said. “These numbers can change, of course, but they do indicate that for sure France will remain a major arms exporter.”

Last few years have seen decline in Russian arms sales due to varied reasons. These are – the war in Ukraine, emerging trend of many countries aiming to diversify their suppliers, multiple rounds of international sanctions, Russia’s focus on arms supplies to the front line, holding on to certain arms systems and replacing weapons destroyed in battle, adverse effect on Russia’s ability to secure the materials it needs for arms production, undermining its export capacity. Additionally, reports from the front lines in Ukraine have also damaged the reputation of Russia-built armaments to an extent with some clients being disappointed with Russian products in recent years.

According to Wezeman, India which has  the world’s largest arms importer, India has a decades-long relationship with Russian arms suppliers is not particularly happy with what they have received, in technical terms, from Russia, so they have turned to France. Political considerations are also important. Since the beginning of the war [in Ukraine] India has been reluctant to increase or sustain military relations on a high level with Moscow.

Despite recent setbacks, like Indonesia abandoning a Russian aircraft purchase in 2021, Russia still holds the lion’s share of arms deals in Africa and with countries like Iran and China.

The recent success of France can be attributed to a vital role played by Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter jets. In service as early as 2002, it took until 2015 before the Rafale was first exported. Since then, the aircraft has proved itself to be a “quality” and “versatile” fighter jet that corresponds to the needs of pilots, which is quite rare among its competitors.  The twin-engine jets are now owned and operated by Greece, Qatar, India and Egypt and are soon expected to land in Croatia, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates – which ordered 80 Standard F4 Rafales in 2021. Rafale deliveries and orders globally have reached nearly 500, around half those of its main American competitor, Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Other orders are also potentially in the pipeline. Colombia is closing in on a deal for 16 planes while Serbia is eyeing up 12 planes.

Another major contributor to France’s success in the global arms race is Naval Group which signed the three defence and intervention frigates contract with Greece in 2022. Yet, France has been unable to make substantial gains in the European arms market despite the continent’s arms imports rising significantly since the start of the war in Ukraine. Among European members of NATO, there is a strong preference for the Lockheed Martin F-35 because of its capacity to drop US-made nuclear bombs.

Though the French arms industry may have benefited from the war in Ukraine, the increase in French arms deals is the result of France’s long-standing policy as it overtook China as the world’s third-largest arms exporter in 2021. The 2022 SIPRI report documented France increasing its sales by 59 percent over the previous 10 years – more than any other country.

According to Wezeman, there is very real possibility that France between 2024-2026 becomes equal to – or surpasses – Russian arms exports. For the time being, it remains uncertain whether France will surpass Russia as the world’s number 2 arms exporter considering significant growth of South Korea as a arms exporter.