As India & France Commence Varuna Naval Drills, Mystery Deepens Over UAE’s ‘Absence’

Is the UAE part of the Varuna Naval Drills 2021? As India and France commence their annual joint naval exercise, the 19th in the series, in the western Arabian Sea, there is a lack of clarity over the participation of the Gulf nation. 

The significance of this exercise lies in the fact that for the first time French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel, is taking part in the India-France Varuna naval war drills.

However, the two countries seem to have totally underplayed the much-publicized participation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the three-day event that will conclude on April 27.

Varuna 2021: Mystery Deepens

Official statements of both India and France on the Varuna exercise, being held somewhere near the Oman coast, did not mention the UAE participation either.

The UAE embassy in Delhi did not respond to a query sent by The EurAsian Times, though a source close to the mission said that the Gulf nation generally does not publicize its military interactions unless the event is hosted by the country.

“You will not know even if it does”, the source said.

Twice this month Indian media had highlighted how the UAE would join hands with India and France in the naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific.

One premier daily had highlighted how “The UAE will, for the first time, hold combat readiness war game with Indian and French warships at the trilateral naval exercises Varuna in the Persian Gulf”.

Another publication had also noted how the UAE’s participation is significant, close on the heels of the France-led war game ‘La Perouse’ in the Bay of Bengal (April 5-7) that was joined by Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) member countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States of America.

It may be noted that the Varuna exercise this time is part of the French carrier strike group’s Clemenceau 21 deployment, which the French Navy is conducting from February to June 2021 in the eastern Mediterranean, the Gulf, and the Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea).

Its goal is to contribute to the stabilization of these strategic zones and strengthening cooperation with the navies of partner countries, in particular India for the Indian Ocean component. As part of this deployment, the carrier strike group is also taking part in anti-ISIS operations, too.

Charles de Gaulle + Rafale To Be The Showstopper

Aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in Varuna naval drills with its carrier air wing (Rafale marine, E-2C Hawkeye, helicopters Caïman marine and Dauphin), one multi-mission frigate, Provence, one air defence destroyer, Chevalier Paul, and one command and supply ship, Var.


The Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a displacement of 42,500 tons (4 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower), carries a crew of 1200, 15.4% of whom are women, and an air wing consisting of 20 Rafale marine jets, two E-2C Hawkeye aircraft, and several helicopters.

Its 75-meter deck with catapult-assisted takeoff feature enables the launch of Rafales in less than 3 seconds, every 30 seconds.

According to the statement issued by the French Embassy in Delhi, the Varuna exercise this year comprises various drills across the spectrum of maritime operations, with the goal of fostering interoperability and mutual learning between the two navies and reinforcing their capability for joint action in a strategic area.

‘“In this respect, this exercise underscores the shared interests and commitment of both nations in promoting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. It bears testimony to the vitality of the strategic partnership between France and India, which continued being strengthened despite the pandemic”.

Indian Navy’s Assets

From the Indian Navy’s side, guided-missile stealth destroyer INS Kolkata, guided-missile frigates INS Tarkash and INS Talwar, Fleet Support Ship INS Deepak, with Sea King 42B and Chetak integral helicopters, a Kalvari class submarine, and P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft, are participating in the exercise.

Since India’s only functional aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is undergoing maintenance issues, it has been unable to be a part of the three-day exercise that will see high tempo-naval operations at sea, including advanced air defense and anti-submarine exercises, intense fixed and rotary wing flying operations, tactical maneuvers, surface and anti-air weapon firings, underway replenishment and other maritime security operations.

Through Varuna, which was initiated in 1983, units of both the Indian and French navies are supposed to enhance and hone their war-fighting skills to demonstrate their ability as an integrated force to promote peace, security, and stability in the maritime domain. They share “a joint vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.”

It may be further noted that on completion of exercise Varuna-21, the Indian Navy’s guided-missile frigate INS Tarkash will continue to exercise with the French Navy’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG) from April 28 to May 1 “to consolidate accrued best practices and enhance interoperability”. During this period, the ship will take part in advanced surface, anti-submarine and air-defense operations with the French CSG.

The non-availability of the news about the UAE’s participation in the Varuna seems difficult to understand. Is it due to Pakistan playing a leading role in the Islamic world against France these days?

There are increasing demands in Pakistan these days to expel the French ambassador and endorse a boycott of French products due to Charlie Hebdo’s republishing of the Prophet Mohamed cartoons last year.

France has already asked its nationals to leave Pakistan following the Pakistani government’s inability to stem the growing anti-French sentiment (including violence) since the French President Emmanuel Macron’s open support for Charlie Hebdo’s right to republish the cartoons, deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

However, such a theory appears very weak given the UAE’s proven record as a proud Muslim country that encourages the least any trace of radical Islam and allows people of other faiths to work and live peacefully in its territory.

France, UAE Come Closer

Besides, it is significant to note that ALINDIEN (a French naval acronym designing the Admiral in charge of the maritime zone of the Indian Ocean, and of the French forces there) has been based in Abu Dhabi since 2010.

His jurisdiction extends over the maritime zone of the Indian Ocean bounded on its western part by the Red Sea and Africa, and on its eastern part by the Philippines and Vietnam. The zone notably comprises such strategic areas as the Persian Gulf, Southern Africa, India, Australia, and Singapore.

In fact, France, for the first time in its history, installed a military operational base in the UAE, a country of which it was never a colonial master. The base, dubbed Peace Camp, was built in record time – less than 18 months. Its 500 troops and major naval and air operations were supposed to safeguard shipping lanes.

And what is further interesting to note is that there is a belief that ALINDIEN’s operation costs, amounting to 15 to 50 million Euros, are funded by the UAE.

Considering all this, the UAE-angle of the Varuna–21 will remain a mystery for the moment

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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: