THE red carpet rolled out for PM Narendra Modi during his visit to Washington last month is not just a US signal to the world that India is its key partner in the 21st century. The White House gave its long-awaited nod for the GE F-414 fighter jet engines with 80 per cent transfer of technology (ToT) for use in India’s Tejas-2 fighter aircraft and the sale of the lethal 31 MQ-9B long-endurance drones.
But even then, there is cautious optimism in the Indian establishment about the much-acclaimed F-414 jet engines. These could still be subjected to a sudden cancellation — as India’s past experience has shown — if the US Congress enacts a legislation tomorrow to stall or cancel it. This was one major reason for the long delays in the production of the Indian-made light combat aircraft (LCA) Mark-I fighter jets.
The Americans are still seen to be transactional in their approach, whereas the French offers to India show that Paris wants to be a partner in India’s growth story, apart from publicly parading Indian troops at its Bastille Day parade on the Champs Elysees, with PM Modi as the guest of honour to mark 25 years of the Indo-French strategic partnership. The French have chosen to go one step further than the US.
They have offered 100 per cent ToT to co-develop a new fighter jet, 110kN, plus a high-thrust engine to power the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) fifth-generation stealth aircraft for the Indian Air Force. India has been in talks for years with some global firms to make a futuristic fifth-generation fighter jet for the IAF, but the French offer, in strategic terms, is a big first for India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Moreover, this could eventually lead even to the export of these fighter jets jointly made in India with French aerospace major Safran. Additionally, France will support India’s quest for a heavy lift helicopter with a Safran engine to make 13-tonne helicopters that would replace the Russian warhorses, the ageing Mi-17s, in a decade to support combat air operations and logistics.
In the past few years, France has edged past the US in the share of defence supplies to India, with the 36 Rafale fighter jet deal and the delivery of six Scorpene submarines for the Navy’s P75I project.
And though there is some confusion about what was in the India-France joint statement — about the Indian decision to purchase 26 French Rafale-M fighters for the new Indian aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, and the newer variant of the Scorpene submarines for the Navy — those in the know confirm that these will eventually be purchased.
And it will be a big deal for the Navy. Two reasons, perhaps, had led to the removal of their announcement from the joint statement at Paris: one, the reality that we are still far from a final agreement — regarding pricing, delivery dates, etc. — on the Rafale-M and the new lot of Scorpene submarines; and two, their announcement so close to the 2024 elections would have given the Opposition parties an issue to make noises. Military purchases, especially in the case of these items, are done on a government-to-government basis under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process and hence there is no room for middlemen and bribes, etc. Even then, the finalisation of such contracts does take time, sometimes years!
So, even though the go-ahead for the purchase was given only recently by the Defence Acquisition Council, which includes the representatives of the three services and the MoD bureaucracy and is headed by the Raksha Mantri, it wasn’t announced. We are, in any case, taking in the last of the six French Scorpene subs as part of the earlier agreed P-75I deal with France. And the Rafale-M has come out on top after years of transparent trials by the Indian Navy to choose the best option for its aircraft carrier; these extensive trials have examined every possibility of flying them at sea in war and peace and have included the F-18 Super Hornet being pushed by Boeing and the Russian MiG-29s that are currently being flown off India’s aircraft carriers.
In fact, in the past few years, France has edged past the US in the share of defence supplies to India, with the 36 Rafale fighter jet deal and the delivery of six Scorpene submarines for the Navy’s P75I project. And with both being mid-level military powers, their strategic partnership and vision could effectively counter the Chinese maritime agenda in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), since the French have territories and bases in the IOR that India could benefit from. India’s comfort level with France is much higher than with the US.
Moreover, the American establishment still shares too many skeletons in the cupboard with Pakistan. Despite America’s best efforts, India has refused to abandon its military dependence on Russian platforms. Even then, the US has steadily become a popular choice as an arms supplier to India, upsetting the latter’s traditional supplier, Russia, with deals on big-ticket items — the Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, the C-17 and C-130 heavy lift aircraft, and now the deadly MQ-9 Reaper drones for India’s three services.
But even then, India cannot wean itself off Russian military platforms easily for various reasons. One, India has a large inventory of Russian military items, platforms, tanks, infantry combat vehicles, naval submarines, ships and fighter jets. To replace all that would cost India hundreds of billions of dollars, which the country would rather spend on buying new equipment from western countries or building its own. Two, Russian platforms have been made in DPSU (defence public sector undertaking) factories across India for years and that ensures a steady supply of ammunition and parts, especially in a military crisis. Three, Indian troops, particularly in the Army, have become used to the simple and hardy Russian stuff. Finally, the platforms provided by the US may be superior, but they do require a lot of logistical support to be effective in India’s heat and dust.
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