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March 2, 2000


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India takes 'a great step ahead' with the French navy

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Josy Joseph

The first advance naval exercise between India and France -- also India's first with a western nation after the Pokhran nuclear tests -- ended Tuesday evening in the Arabian Sea.

The two-day operation saw manoeuvres and mock strikes involving several fighters, an aircraft carrier and other warships of the two nations.

The advance exercise took place off the stretch between Goa and Bombay.

The Indo-French war game, called IN-FN-Passex, is the first advanced exercise after India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, in the wake of which several western nations had declared military sanctions.

French aircraft carrier F S Foch, destroyer Duquesne, Indian frigates Godavari and Ganga, and destroyer Ranvijay participated. Super Etendard fighters, helicopters including the Puma and Alouette of the French navy and the Indian navy's Sea Harrier fighters and Sea King helicopters were the other participants.

"The joint exercise was meant to carry out air defence and night encounter exercises," Vice Admiral Madhvendra Singh, flag officer commanding-in-chief of the Western Naval Command, told in Goa Sunday.

Navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar told reporters in Goa that the "exercise is a great step ahead, and we are also talking to the US to commence joint exercises."

He said the Indian navy would be evaluating certain tactical concepts and the inter-operability level of the two participants.

The first bilateral naval exercise between India and France was in May 1993 in Bombay. In May 1997 there was yet another exercise in Goa. A third followed in April 1999.

"But such an advanced exercise is happening for the first time," a senior Indian naval officer said.

On Monday, French bombers Super Etendard Modenise put up a show of manoeuvring capabilities and tactical efficiency. Throughout the day several takeoffs and landings took place on Foch, the French navy's only aircraft carrier.

The fighters -- Super Etendard Modenise bombers and Etendard IV P reconnaissance planes -- take off and landed with the assistance of catapults and brakes. The steam-operated catapults push the fighters to a speed of several hundred meters per hour within a fraction of a second, giving them the necessary momentum to lift off.

For landing, the fighters come at maximum speed and hit the deck at the tail end where four brakes made of strong iron ropes are tied from one end to the other across the board. The fighters have a loop, which descends as it lands on board, and it gets hooked on to one of the brakes. If the pilot misses all the four loops, he would take off again due to the high speed he maintains.

The Indian navy does not use the catapult-and-brake system. "We don't have it. But navies such as the French and American still use it. It has its own advantages and drawbacks," an Indian naval officer said.

He pointed out that the Sea Harrier fighters on I N S Viraat carry out vertical landing, but "that is a lot of strain on the engine and has its own risks."

Indian Sea Harrier fighters and the Super Etendard Modenise bombers engaged themselves over the sea in an advanced interception game Tuesday noon. The Harriers hovered over Foch in a mock attempt to bomb the aircraft carrier. The aircraft that took off from the French ship engaged the Indian plane.

The mock bombing exercise "gave both the sides a chance to test the capabilities of their fighters and detection systems," an Indian commander aboard one of the naval frigates said.

The dog-fight that followed was a brilliant show of tactical capabilities of the pilots. The Harrier, winding and swirling its way through the clouds, followed a few meters away by the Etendard jets, left a trail around Foch, the legendary French aircraft carrier that took part in NATO's Kosovo bombings.

The Harrier pilots, operating from their base in Goa, were fed the location of the French carrier from their base. They locked on to it within seconds of taking off. Foch was over a 100 miles away.

"We are testing out the air defence capabilities of the Etendard aircraft aboard Foch. Tactically, the aircraft should be providing a complete air cover and protection to the huge carrier, which essentially will operate as a floating air base and launching platform in a war," a senior Indian navy officer said.

In fact, Foch had proved its capabilities during its only participation in a real operation in Kosovo last year, says Contre-Amiral [Rear Admiral] Francois Cluzel, the chief of the Task Force 473 of the French navy. He commands a naval fleet comprising Foch, destroyer Duquesne, supply ship Meuse, anti-submarine ship Tourville and repair ship Jules Verne.

In Kosovo, over 700 bombing missions were carried out by the French navy's attack squadron from Foch, says Admiral Cluzel. As soon as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle joins service later this year, Foch will be decommissioned.

"This aircraft carrier and its fighters are the mainstay of our navy above water. Our fighters can deliver all sorts of weapons including nuclear ones," says Cluzel.

He would not confirm or deny if his ship was carrying nuclear weapons while in Indian waters. "The government instructions are very clear to us. We are supposed to neither confirm nor deny that," he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the French destroyer Duquesne joined the Indian ships in a firing exercise. A ship towed a small wooden piece with a metal fork some 100 metres behind it. Seawater sprang up as it lapped against the metal piece, making it possible to be located by radars.

The 57 mm guns of the I N S Godavari F22 fires five rounds, none of which hit the target. Godavari, which was commissioned in 1983, has two 57-mm guns with 90-degree elevation. The gun, which fires more rounds in shorter duration, is not reputed for its accuracy.

I N S Ganga, which too belongs to the Godvari class, could not either hit the target precisely.

I N S Ranvijay, which was the guide ship and on which the fleet commander was stationed, hit the bull's eye. Its 76mm gun with 80 degree elevation hit the target once. And several of its shots were very close to the target.

French destroyer Duquesne was no better than her Indian counterparts. "Indian navy is a competent force, and its weaponry is not second to us," admitted Admiral Cluzel.

Says EV1 [Lieutenant] Christophe Le Tallec, one of the officers on Foch, "We find that the Indian navy is highly progressive looking. Throughout the exercise their performance has been impressive."

As Tuesday afternoon sank into the Indian Ocean, the Foch, Duquesne, Godavari, Ganga and Ranvijay began their manoeuvres for the photo exercise -- a splendid attempt at various formations that provide some great visuals from the sky.

The ships first formed a column, moving in a single line across the ocean. A Puma and an Alouette helicopter hovered over, filming the show. The ships then moved apart, to come together to form a diamond formation.

The diamond formation has the ships dotting the four-corners of an imaginary diamond. Flag ship Ranvijay is in the front, Duquesne at the back, and Ganga and Godavari on the sides. The formation looked like a diamond drawn to zero error. The ships were almost 100 yards apart, and travelling at a speed of about 15 nautical miles per hour.

"These formations are done usually towards the end of an exercise and are exclusively for photographing them. Aircraft flying over these ships record them, and we would send these photos to all the participating ships," said a senior French navy officer who was aboard one of the Indian ships.

After over 30 minutes of working out several formations, Godvari and Ganga began to move 30 degrees out from the formations. Within minutes the two French ships too were disengaged, bringing to end the two-day exercise.

Foch and Duquesne sailed southwards in their journey to the next destination -- Brazil. And the Indian ships began their journey back to Bombay.

During the exercise, both the sides exchanged several of their officers; to give them some access to each other's working conditions.

"They too have the problems that we face. Foch has problems of overheating in its propulsion room; its pilots do miss the brakes while landing. But one thing is clear: they have a lot of resources at their command, which we miss," an Indian naval officer admitted.

"The exercise will open a new era of navy-to-navy and military-to-military cooperation between the two countries," said Rear Admiral Cluzel.

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