'India is a young navy with excellent strategic aims'

Rear Admiral Francois Cluzel Read C'est la guerre, on the Indo-French mock war

Rear Admiral Francois Cluzel heads the French Navy's Task Force 473, which comprises aircraft carrier P A Foch, destroyer Duquesne, anti-submarine ship Tourville, repair ship Jules Verne and supply ship Meuse.

The admiral sailed into India in the last week of February. He spoke to Josy Joseph aboard Foch, hinting without words that India should explore the possibility of French assistance to fulfill its 20-year-old dream of building a nuclear submarine.

When exactly will the Foch be decommissioned?

The ship entered service in 1968. It is maintained well and it would be able to serve for another 15 or 20 years. We expect to relive Foch as soon as Charles de Gauelle [the nuclear propelled carrier] is inducted sometime around next September.

How long is the present trip of Foch?

We left Toulon on January 15. We carried out combined exercises with the United Arab Emirates. After that rendezvous we went to Saudi Arabia. After the Indian part, we would move to Cape Town, South Africa. And then across South Atlantic to Brazil. We will get back to France sometime in April.

France already has a naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Is it a theatre of thrust? What is going to be the future of the Indo-French naval collaboration?

India is a young navy with well-designed training, excellent strategic aims. You have good attack submarines, naval aviation, and your ships and crew are up-to-date. Our coming here and working with you is matter of pride for us.

What are your immediate aims? A grand alliance with the Indian Navy would be a farfetched dream. But what are the immediate targets? Fight against sea piracy etc?

Sea piracy is a big problem and the world organisation is concerned about it. In the high seas, international waters, we democracies need to assess the situation. Piracy does not exist exactly within territorial waters. It only exists in international waters. What we see around the globe is limited action within territorial waters and at some harbours. So international agencies would have to look at the possibility of putting in place norms and regulations.

Foch is on its way out of the French Navy after more than 30 years of service. You are already talking about selling it off. Is India among potential buyers? The Indian Navy is anyway looking for a cheap aircraft carrier, negotiating with the Russians.

I heard [about India's] possible acquisition of Admiral Gorshkov. As I spoke to Indian authorities they told me that the project to get a new carrier was still on. I don't know whether you are getting the hull from somewhere, or you are building it yourself.

But are you ready to negotiate on Foch if Indians are interested?

I don't know. I was not made aware of any official proposal of India. It could be a possibility anyway. You know, upgradation and maintenance of a ship this size is a costly affair.

Foch played a crucial role in NATO's Kosovo operations. What prompted the French to send the ship?

The participation of Foch and its fighters in Kosovo was noticeable. It was done because it is very easy to deploy Foch with 30 aircraft at the Adriatic Sea in order to be ready to immediately answer any situation. The French Navy as well as the US Navy sent aircraft carriers immediately and managed very early deployment of aircraft.

The main movement of forces was in Italy, so the aircraft on the carriers had real advantage for easy deployment, to act as soon as it would be possible. Foch made one-third of the contributions [of the French participation] and we had a higher rate of precision. And also, it was well known for its flexibility and real positioning of the aircraft that was not possible with aircraft stationed on shore.

Tell us briefly about Charles de Gaulle,your first nuclear aircraft carrier.

It will be nuclear propelled. We would be operating 25 tonne Rafale aircraft. As airborne warning system we would be using E2C Hawk Eye.

It would, obviously, have nuclear weapons?

Yes, of course. Under the French legislation and of course [because of the] situation, we have nuclear strategic submarines. But also we maintain capacity to operate nuclear arms as well on the airforce side and navy side.

You have nuclear weapons on this ship?

I prefer not to speak on that. Nuclear weapons play a key role against nuclear powers. And our deterrence concept is well governed and a matter handled [at a level] quite senior to us. We remain self-sufficient at sufficient level against any possible strike.

You have a powerful presence of nuclear submarines?

Presently we have five nuclear submarines, but soon we would be reduced to four. Each one has 16 strategic missiles. And a submarine is about 10,000 tonne displacement.

India has been trying to build a nuclear submarine for the last 20 years. Is the French ready to give assistance?

I can't absolutely answer that question. It has to be a mutual agreement between the two countries. Such kind of agreement is the result of high level diplomatic negotiations on strategic matters. Many things can be imagined. But on the practical side we only can do what is exactly said in government to government treaties, and such kind of discussion is possible since the relations have improved.

Is there any decision not to assist any country outside the five powers in developing an effective nuclear deterrence? Principally, are you willing?

I am really sorry, I am not able to answer such questions. I know today that relations with the governments are in a good direction. I have the honour of making contacts with the Indian Navy, we were absolutely splendidly welcomed, and human contact between the crew and officers of the two sides was absolutely well. We are beginning to do advanced exercise in order to be more acquainted, to understand each other. That is the beginning. What would be the future, I can't say. I don't really know.

On to Part 2: C'est la vie!

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
Design: Dominic Xavier