France ‘Overshadows’ Russia As India’s Most Trusted Defense Partner; Overtakes UK As ‘Most Invited’ Nation To Republic Day

OPED By Col Deepak Kumar

During his visit to France on 13 Jul 2023 to attend the Bastille Day Parade, PM Modi underlined that the India-France relationship is in “excellent shape” and has been steady and resilient in the darkest storms.

The import of this statement profoundly describes the India-France strategic relationship of which we have just celebrated the 25th anniversary, and to mark the roadmap of the next 25 years, there could not have been a more suitable manner than to have President Emmanuel Macron as the chief guest for the Republic Day Parade on 26 Jan 2024.

This invitation to France – the sixth time since India established diplomatic relations with France in 1948 – not only signals the depth and warmth of India-France relations but also demonstrates the upward trajectory of the relationship.

While the ties between India and France are said to be based on the foundation of democratic polity and the spirit of equality and liberty and have, from the beginning, been comprehensive and all-encompassing, it has been chiefly dominated by sovereignty and security issues – while other issues have generally been pushed to the margins.

The twin issues of sovereignty and security partnership continue to be conspicuous in the Horizon 47 vision communique for the next 25 years. This is not coincidental but underscores India’s and France’s keenness to act and contribute to the geopolitical ballet at the regional and global level.

Both players also realize the strategic imperative to check China in the Indo-Pacific region, where both India and France have strategic interests.

Prime Minister Modi and President Macron have met and spoken to each other regularly over the past couple of years at bilateral meetings and also on the sidelines of various multilateral summits.

These two top leaders of India and France not only share an excellent personal rapport but also have a unique relationship due to their shared quest for strategic autonomy in their conduct of international relations.

Historical Background: India, France Ties

As far as India is concerned, France has been a steady and reliable partner during many a geopolitical storm. During the ensuing US sanctions after the peaceful nuclear explosion by India, France steadily stood with India.

While the US and Canada rescinded the agreement to provide fuel for the Tarapur nuclear reactor, France stepped in to help. Later, in 1998, when India again came out as a nuclear power, despite the Western nations led by the US imposing sanctions, France supported India’s sovereign right to go nuclear and, in fact, helped India separate its civil nuclear energy from the military nuclear program.

Even during the negotiations on the India-US civil nuclear agreement in 2008, France’s support based on sagacious pragmatism was available to India to not accept any unfavorable terms under US pressure.

France has supported India’s emergence of a de facto nuclear weapon state and being made part of the international nuclear regime. These actions have generated tremendous trust in the bilateral relations.

India-France military cooperation can be traced back to 1953 with the acquisition of Dassault Ouragan, a combat aircraft of the first generation subsequently renamed Toofani in India, and in 1956, of the Dassault-Mystere IV, which saw action in the India-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971.

During the 1980s, France emerged as India’s reliable military hardware supplier. France supplied the Mirage 2000 multirole combat aircraft and the MILAN anti-tank guided missile.

While MILAN is still being manufactured under license in India, we missed the opportunity to license produce the Mirage 2000 due to the general political apathy at that time.

Robust Military Relations Between India & France

In the present times, there is a significant convergence of vision de mondé between India and France on a range of regional and global issues. France supports India’s claim to the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and the reforms of the United Nations.

France’s support was crucial for India’s admission to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), and Australia Group (AG). France also resolutely supports India’s case for accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India and France continue to engage in new areas of cooperation in bilateral, trilateral, and plurilateral formats.

There is also convergence between India and France with China’s growing assertiveness and expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. The overseas territories of France in the Pacific Ocean have witnessed growing Chinese influence, and there could be latent stirrings of secessions from France.

In this context, President Macron’s speech on resisting China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific at the Garden Island naval base delivered on 02 May 2018 is a significant explainer of the French policy on the issue.

France has force requirements for security in continental Europe and its overseas territories; thus, cooperation with India makes strategic sense. India is a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region and shares France’s misgivings about China’s expansionist tendencies in the Indo-Pacific.

While Quad is a potent grouping to counter China’s designs in the Indo-Pacific, the French presence in the form of French Armed Forces in Southwest Indian Ocean (FAZSOI) at La Reunion, Mayotte, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia is also an essential contributor to security and stability.

France’s 2017 Defence and National Security review explicitly underscored the growing Chinese influence in the maritime areas in the Indo-Pacific, which could come in conflict with French national interests. Thus, India and France’s cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has transformative potential for the region.

To achieve the desired synergy in their efforts, India and France have formalized a three-tier institutional dialogue structure comprising the National Security Advisors, the Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries, and three specialized sub-committees dealing with defense cooperation issues. In addition, there is a joint working group on combating terrorism. These stakeholders have regular interaction and dialogue.

In the last decade, India-France defense cooperation has been on an upswing. Between 2018 and 2022, France emerged as India’s second-largest supplier of military hardware. India has appreciated France for the timely delivery of 36 Rafale aircraft, and India’s Defense Acquisition Council has, on 13 Jul 2023, further accorded formal sanction for the procurement of 26 Rafale aircraft of the carrier-borne version from France.

Rafale Marine: Credits: Marine Nationale

India and France have agreed to extensive cooperation in joint development and manufacture in India of military hardware to support the program of ATMANIRBHAR BHARAT.

India and France are jointly developing a combat jet engine for India’s MMRCA. France is supporting the motorization of heavy-lift helicopters under the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) program – which proposed to replace the Russian Mi-17 helicopters with Safran Helicopter Engine.

Safran and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have entered into an agreement for the transfer of forging and casting technology for the Shakti engine, presently in use in the Indian Advanced Light Helicopter.

In the naval hardware domain, Mazgon Dockyard Ltd., Mumbai and Naval Group France signed an MoU for the construction of three additional Scorpene submarines, underscoring the successful completion of the earlier Scorpene submarine construction program (P75-Kalvari), an excellent model of sharing naval expertise and Make in India.

India has evinced interest in the French Barracuda-class SSN, its latest nuclear-powered attack submarine. This assumes importance for several reasons. India plans to make six SSNs as well as conventional submarines based on the standard Barracuda design to achieve economy in construction and operations.

India is also exploring the feasibility of joint design and construction of naval nuclear reactors for its future ballistic nuclear submarines (SSBNs) and the nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) on which France seems willing to assist. Another example of defense manufacturing cooperation is the MoU between Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd. (GRSE) and Naval Group France to collaborate in the manufacture of naval surface combatants to cater to the requirements of not only the Indian maritime forces but other friendly nations as well.

Further, India is seeking to work on joint projects pertaining to maritime technologies, land warfare systems and equipment, robotics, autonomous platforms, and cyber security. India is also desirous for Indian companies to access the French market to facilitate the growth of the military-industrial ecosystem through international exposure.

This defence cooperation is reflective of the French commitment to support technology transfers and Make in India. These ventures enhance the trust that prevails between India and France in sharing critical technology building blocks.

India and France have repeatedly condemned terrorism in all its manifestations and have resolved to work together for the adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in the UN.

Both have suffered the scourge of Islamist terror and have evolved an effective joint mechanism to combat terror. After the Pulwama terrorist attack in Feb 2019, French support for India had been resolute.

Prior to the UN listing of the Pakistan-based Hafiz Saeed as a “global terrorist”, France had, under its national laws already listed him as an international terrorist. France has supported India in thwarting Pakistani attempts to enlist Indian citizens under the UNSC 1267 sanctions Committee.

They are strengthening this cooperation through regular interaction and learning from each other’s best practices to stay ahead of the evolving trends in terrorism, including online religious radicalization.

India and France are collaborating and blocking terror financing through the No Money for Terrorism (NMFT) initiative and the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online.

The anti-terror agencies of India- the National Security Guard (NSG) and the Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) of France regularly interact to improve the joint counter-terror capability.

India-France Military Sub Committee (MSC) is a forum established to progress military cooperation between the two nations at strategic and operational levels. The HQ Integrated Defence Staff and the Joint Staff HQ of French Armed Forces represent India and France, respectively, in this forum during their interactions and had their last meeting on 16-17 Oct 2023 in New Delhi.

In 2018, the partnership between New Delhi and Paris found expression in a Joint Strategic Vision of Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region and a logistic support agreement. These agreements gave the two countries access to each other’s military facilities. While India and France have conducted sporadic joint maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean for more than three decades, these maneuvers became a formalized annual event in 1993.

In 2021, during the 19th edition of Exercise Varuna — the joint Indo-French naval exercise, French aircraft carrier “Le Clémenceau” participated for the first time — marking the level of trust between the two nations. India and France vis-à-vis China in the IOR have maintained the stance of respecting international maritime law by all states in order to safeguard freedom of navigation and overflight and counter piracy, smuggling, and terrorism.

Both sides are also looking at the exploitation of space for monitoring and enhancing maritime domain awareness. For this, the defense space agencies of India and France are collaborating. The two nations’ Air Forces and Ground Forces also conduct regular GARUDA and SHAKTI joint exercises to enhance cooperation and interoperability.

At the multilateral level, the India-France-Australia trilateral formed in 2020 is working on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, marine and environmental cooperation, and multilateral commitment.

India has been instrumental in reducing tensions between France and Australia after their fallout over the AUKUS formation. It has brought them together again for the common goal of Indo-Pacific security.

The second initiative in which India and France are together is the India-France-UAE trilateral, formed in 2022, which focuses on cooperation in the areas of solar and nuclear energy, climate change, health, technology, and biodiversity protection.

India and France are also part of various other multilateralism fora in the Indo-Pacific. France is a part of three regional networks — the Indian Ocean Commission since 1986, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium since its creation in 2008, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association since 2020.

Too many such networks are akin to ‘’too much government and too little governance. These need to be optimized to achieve effectiveness and efficiency.

File Image: Modi and Macron

The Way Ahead

Due to the Cold War dynamics, India, after independence, viewed France with the same prism as that of the US. Thus, relations with France were laid with hesitations even when France was willing not only to supply critical military hardware and transfer technology.

The baggage of the Cold War was sustained for some time, even after its end. The traditionalists among the political elites and security policymakers thwarted attempts by France for a deeper engagement. However, due to India’s rapid economic progress, the withering of the effects of the Cold War, altered geopolitical scenario, reoriented Indian foreign policy, India’s newfound strategic confidence, and the trust generated by Frances’ support on nuclear issues,  the relations have progressed rapidly and warmly, especially in the last decade.

France has emerged as among India’s top allies, showing a willingness to not only supply military systems but also collaborate and transfer critical technologies for the development of new military systems.

This will help India to wean away from Russia as well as the US as the major source of military hardware. It will help India not only to become truly ATMANIRBHAR (self-reliant) in the manufacture of military systems but also an exporter of these systems to friendly foreign nations, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

The security cooperation in the Western Indian Ocean and the now emerging geopolitical contest in the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean shape the India-France Cooperation.

As middle powers, both France and India have a competing requirement of military resources- for France between European security and overseas territories and for India between maritime security, territorial security, and developmental needs of its vast population – it would augur well to pool in resources for joint training, maritime domain awareness, coordinated as well as joint Maritime operations, regional capacity building of other partners, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and search and rescue. With its maritime resources, France can join and augment the Indian initiative – Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

The trajectory of the India-France defense partnership continues to rise, and this collaborative partnership based on trust will have transformative potential for India’s defense industrial sector and will surely bring peace, security, and stability to the region.

  • Col Deepak Kumar is an artillery officer who has operated in counterinsurgencies in Nagaland, Assam, and Jammu & Kashmir and also in the Line of the control environment. His academic qualifications include a double Master’s, a Diploma in Business Management, and an MPhil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He has been the Chair of Excellence for Defence Services at Observer Research Foundation.