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Why France wants India's 'contract of the century'

Last updated on: December 3, 2010 12:55 IST

Why France wants India's 'contract of the century'


Herve Morin, France's defence minister, is leader of the New Centre Party. After the presidential elections of 2007, his party became an ally of the majority (Union for a Popular Movement). He was later selected by President Nicolas Sarkozy to hold the important portfolio.

Against the backdrop of the French president's visit, during which several agreements are likely to be finalised, Morin spoke with Claude Arpi in this exclusive interview for the Indian Defence Review, about deepening Indo-French strategic ties, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reporudced with kind permission of the Indian Defence Review.

Could you give a brief overview of Indo-French defence relations?

We have a long-standing military cooperation. When India desired to diversify its military relations in the early 1980s, France responded, and a relationship of trust was built, especially with the supply of Mirage 2000s.

In 1998, India and France decided to raise their bilateral relation to a strategic level. The establishment of an Indo-French strategic partnership enabled us to strengthen our ties further and mutually support our voices at international bodies.

Whether it concerns its candidature for a permanent seat at the Security Council or the amendment of regulations for civil nuclear energy exportation, India knows that it can count on France's support.

Since the beginning of our strategic partnership, a high-level defence committee has been meeting every year and other agreements have strengthened our bilateral relations. I would particularly refer to the founding of an annual forum on research and technology in 2002, and the signing of the Indo-French defence agreement in 2006.

Further, joint military exercises are held every year between our air forces and navies. Our relation in all these areas has attained a high level of trust.

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Image: French President Nicolas Sarkozy with Dr Manmohan Singh at a Republic Day reception in New Delhi. Inset: French Defence Minister Herve Morin
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

'Defence cooperation, a principle pillar of Indo French ties'

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What are you expecting from the presidential visit in December?

Last year, India was the chief guest for our national day parade on the Champs Elysees in Paris. On the occasion of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to France, our two countries reiterated their resolve to give a fresh impetus to our strategic partnership. Our defence relations constitute one of its principal pillars.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit will make our partnership progress even further in all its facets -- be it facing common threats or intensifying our operational cooperation, or bringing the projects for equipping the Indian armed forces, launched together, to their fruition.

What are the most important projects underway with India?

Our cooperation concerns the very heart of our security: counter-terrorism. This is even more indispensable as we often face similar kinds of threats in Afghanistan, in Europe and in India, as borne out by the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008.

Further, we have a very promising operational cooperation, be it regarding anti-piracy operations, joint exercises or officer exchanges.

With regard to defence equipment, the Indo-French relation translates into the supply of strategic equipment (fighter aircraft, submarines), as also state-of-the-art technology for the entire gamut of the Indian armed forces' requirements.

As our own history has made us extremely sensitive to India's desire to favour local production and develop defence industry, this relation has always been characterised by mutual trust and technological cooperation. As always, we are following the true course of a partnership.

The chief project underway is the manufacture, under licence in India, of six Scorpene submarines at Mazagaon docks, Mumbai. It is a project to which we feel totally committed, in support of our Indian partners.

Among other projects that have matured, one can cite the modernisation of the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fleet; two joint development projects -- the Maitri project for a surface-to-air defence missile system, and the Kaveri fighter aircraft engine; the supply of reconnaissance and observation helicopters or, in the slightly longer term, the second phase of six submarines.

Image: A Scorpene submarine
Photographs: Courtsey: Wikimedia Commons
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'Rafale jets would meet the IAF's needs'

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For more than 50 years France has been a trusted supplier of military equipment to India.

India recently floated a tender for purchasing 126 medium multirole combat aircraft.

What are your hopes for what is being called the "contract of the century" in India?

The Rafale is an exceptional aircraft, which meets the needs of the Indian Air Force particularly well.

I am sure that the field trials, completed in spring 2010, would have enabled the IAF and the ministry of defence to gauge fully the quality of this aircraft, which the French air force itself is equipped with.

I have also noted that the trials were conducted with great professionalism within the strict deadlines.

As part of this partnership, we are, of course, extremely attentive to the comments or specific requirements that the IAF or the defence ministry may send us.

Has the contract for refitting the Mirages been signed?

The acquisition of the Mirage 2000 in the early 1980s was a very important step in bringing India and France close.

In the same spirit, I earnestly hope that the modernisation of India's Mirage 2000 fleet will be executed by Dassault, Thales and MBDA. I am confident that the negotiations for this contract will reach a speedy conclusion.

What is the status of the Maitri project for joint development of surface-to-air missiles?

The Maitri project for joint missile development is mentioned in the political joint statement made in September 2008. It commits the French company MBDA, and the Defence and Research Development Organisation from India in an unprecedented joint project, which will involve extremely ambitious transfers of technology.

The anti-aircraft defence system developed in India, which will use this missile, will meet the requirements of the IAF, navy and the army, should the latter wish to join the programme.

I am confident of the completion of this joint project, which perfectly illustrates the spirit of our strategic partnership as it implies the joint development of a new weapons system.

Image: Rafale figher jets
Photographs: Courtsey: Wikimedia Commons
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'Joint exercises are major manoeuvres to develop new military tactics'

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Do joint exercises like Garuda or Varuna contribute to improving interoperability between the Indian and French armed forces?

The Varuna and Garuda exercises, involving our respective navies and air forces, are major manoeuvres that enable us to develop and implement new tactics, which can be directly used, for instance, to fight piracy.

These joint manoeuvres are also internationally recognised for their high standards and stir much interest, as reflected in the participation of the Singaporean air force in the Garuda exercise held in France in June 2010.

How can the Indo-French strategic partnership be improved with regard to defence?

President Sarkozy has emphasised on several occasions the Indo-French strategic partnership contributes to stability and peace not only at the regional, but also at the global level.

As I had the opportunity to convey to Defence Minister A K Antony, during my visit in December 2009, we can go even farther in enhancing our consultations on the regional situation -- I am specifically referring to Afghanistan, where France is engaged -- but also on major international issues.

We could also intensify our cooperation at the theatres of operation where both our armed forces are deployed, piracy in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden being such a case.

Lastly, we could develop more armament programmes that are efficient and adapted to the needs of both armed forces.

Image: French destroyer Primauguet, INS Beas, INS Aditya during the Varuna exercise in French waters

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'For France, Pakistan is an essential partner'

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Can one envisage France and India collaborating on a major joint project on research, development and production?

India, for instance, already has such a project with Russia for a fifth generation fighter plane.

The Indo-French relation is one of trust. Therefore, France is fully ready to undertake major cooperation projects on armament with India.

There already are two joint development projects: The Maitri missile project between the DRDO and MBDA, and the Kaveri engine that is to be jointly developed by the DRDO and SNECMA.

We must together explore other possible areas for applying this renewed cooperation, accompanied by real transfers of technology.

What is your government's policy on the sale of armaments to Pakistan?

Pakistan is an essential partner for fighting terrorism. Our dialogue with that country, including in the military sphere, has but a single goal: Reinforcement of Pakistani military capabilities for fighting radical extremists.

Image: President Sarkozy with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari in Paris
Photographs: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
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'France attaches special importance to dialogue with India on Afghanistan'

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How do you assess the evolving situation in Afghanistan?

The objective of our engagement in Afghanistan has been to fight against terrorism and ensure the stability of that country, which is essential for the security of the entire region.

At the request of the Afghan government and in the framework of United Nations resolutions, we have maintained a military presence since 2001, the priority being the training of the new Afghan army and police.

With almost 4,000 men deployed on the field, we are fully assuming our share of the responsibility. As reiterated by President Sarkozy on several occasions, we will stand by the Afghan people for as long as is required.

The presidential elections, and recently, the legislative polls, mark an important phase of the democratic process in this country, and we welcome the mobilisation and courage displayed by the Afghan people under particularly violent and tough conditions.

With the support of the international community, the new Afghan authorities must henceforth formulate and implement a programme capable of meeting all the challenges that this country faces: security, governance, development.

All the efforts of the international community must contribute towards helping the Afghans take charge of their own destiny, particularly with regard to security.

What role do you envision for India in Afghanistan?

France considers that the regional aspect constitutes an important factor for the settlement of the Afghan crisis.

For historical, geographical and strategic reasons, India is a major player in the region. It therefore, unquestionably, has an important role to play.

Its contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction has, moreover, been welcomed by the international community as it brings direct benefits to Afghanistan's economic development, the well-being of the local people and the consolidation of the rule of law.

Further, like all other countries participating in the ISAF, India constantly faces terrorist threats.

For all these reasons, we attach special importance to our dialogue with the Indian authorities on the situation in Afghanistan.

How do you envision the future of the French armed forces?

About ten years ago, we undertook unprecedented military reforms through professionalism and ending drafting. These reforms were indispensable, given the change in the missions assigned to our armed forces, which are essentially engaged in foreign theatres and peacekeeping operations.

Today, the threats still remain, as we see in Afghanistan, off the Coast of Somalia and the Sahel region. Hence, France continues to give priority to defence investments.

But given the budgetary constraints, France endeavours to optimise its defence resources. Thus, we are pursuing our modernisation policy with a view to better management and making our military mechanisms more appropriate for the ground realities of our foreign engagements, particularly through greater efforts with regard to equipment.

As far as deterrence is concerned, we maintain a 'strictly sufficient' arsenal, at the lowest level possible for preserving credibility, and which has been ensuring us peace since almost half a century.

Image: A French army officer visits a police station in Shamilia, Afghanistan
Photographs: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
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