New Delhi: As part of French move to strengthen Indo-French defence ties, the French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu visited India last week end and was on board aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on November 27.
The visit comes at a time when France is offering more Rafale fighter jets to the Indian Air Force (IAF) at a reduced cost than before, and higher indigenous content besides the naval version of the aircraft to the Indian Navy.
According to sources in the defence establishment, Lecornu, who is just 35 and was named France’s defence minister in May. Sources said the main agenda for Lecornu’s visit is Indo-Pacific cooperation and partnership between the two countries, further adding, that it was the French side that proposed a visit to the INS Vikrant. India is also keen to work with France on the development of the jet engine and this is a priority project for the Narendra Modi government.
Earlier this month, a defence strategy report published by the French government focused on being a “balancing power” in the Indo-Pacific and the need to bolster ties with its long-time ally India.
“To this end, France is committed to building partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, notably India, Australia and Japan, as well as Indonesia and Singapore,” the 2022 France’s National Strategic Review report said. Over the last few years, partnerships between the two countries have deepened and the French have been keen to strengthen defence and strategic cooperation with India.
While defence deals continue to be a major factor in the growth of bilateral ties, the French government has also been backing India at international forums. Historically, the French have stood by India on a number of contentious issues, such as backing the 1998 Pokhran tests and being among the first countries to sign a civil nuclear pact with New Delhi — the deal was signed between former PM Manmohan Singh and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. France was the only country among the P-5 nations that stood by India to defy the US-led sanctions after the nuclear tests in Pokhran.
Asked about the projects that would come under discussion, sources said that for India the priority was the jet engine technology, for which the price negotiations are on. The French are keen to supply more Rafale fighters to India. The IAF is keen to get another 114 new fighters besides the indigenous Tejas Mk 1A to make up for its depleting squadron strength.
However, the French have said that they would need a committed order for a minimum of 100 fighters to set up a production line in India. Any future purchase of Rafale aircraft will be cheaper than the 36 already bought. As reported earlier, this is because a significant component of the €1,700 million paid for India-Specific Enhancements in Rafale will come down as the majority of the cost was for research and development, modification and certification.
The cost will further come down because there will be no additional expenditure on setting up the base and training since New Delhi had paid for setting up two bases for just 36 aircraft. These bases can easily accommodate more squadrons of Rafale without any additional cost. Additionally, the price for any future Rafale deal will come with no ‘offsets’ under the new policy of the Modi government.
The other project the French are keen on is the naval programme to procure at least 27 new fighters. The French firm, Dassault Aviation which manufactures Rafale, is in direct competition with American company Boeing for the naval contract.
The French Defence Minister met his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh on November 28. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh co-chaired the 4th India-France annual defence dialogue with French minister for the armed forces Sebastien Lecornu. During the annual defence dialogue in New Delhi, Singh and Lecornu discussed various bilateral, regional and defence industrial cooperation issues. He is also expected to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a tweet, Emmanuel Lenain, French ambassador to India, said that Rajnath Singh and Sebastien Lecornu discussed various issues, including Indo-Pacific, Make In India projects and joint drills. Lenain stressed that the two sides agreed to strengthen the defence ties between India and France and tackle common challenges.
French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu was accorded the Guard of Honour in New Delhi after he was received by his Indian counterpart in the national capital on November 28. Lecornu also laid a wreath at National War Memorial, as he began the Delhi leg of his visit. He also held a meeting with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. According to the French envoy, Lecornu and Doval shared close assessments of global and regional security concerns as well as agreed to intensify counter-terrorism cooperation.
“India and France have close and friendly relations. In 1998, the two countries entered into Strategic Partnership, marking the convergence of their views on a range of international issues apart from a close and growing bilateral relationship,” the Ministry of Defence in the press release noted. India and France are partners in defence and armaments and through industrial cooperation contribute to India’s policy of strategic autonomy in the defence sector.