Germany – The Next France For India? Ambassador Hints “All Reluctance Over”; Wants Strong Military Ties With New Delhi

By Amb. Gurjit Singh

In Germany, defense issues remain in the news due to the slow progress in implementing its expanded defense budget and various systemic leaks from within. At the same time, its Defence Minister, Boris Pistorius, has a high popularity rating, much better than the overall rating of the German coalition.

Germany now takes its defense capabilities, deployment, preparation, and production, as well as defense production, more seriously. It realizes that the peace dividend over the years left a gap that needs to be filled; this will take some time. Among them is the defense engagement with India, which is an on-off seesaw.

In the midst of German involvement in the Ukraine crisis, India and Germany held the high defence committee (HDC) meeting in Berlin on 27 February. Indian Defence Secretary Giridhar Aramane met with his counterpart, German defense state secretary Benedikt Zimmer. They discussed the usual range of bilateral security and defense issues. The emphasis was on the faster development of defense cooperation as an important pillar of the growing strategic partnership between India and Germany.

They exchanged views on the regional security situation, essentially Ukraine for Germany and the Indo-Pacific and the Gulf for India, where shipping is threatened. India is not going to participate in any defense-related activity with regard to Ukraine.

Germany intends to participate more emphatically in joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific. The Indian and German Navy have already collaborated against piracy in the area around the Red Sea. These joint exercises occur whenever German ships visit the region.

Importantly, the HDC discussed the need for better defense partnerships and engagement among defense production industries. They viewed several possible defense projects, particularly submarines, tanks, and electronic and cyber-related equipment. The focus remains on high German technology, contributing to the growth of India’s defence production industry.

The defense engagement between India and Germany had slowed down following the Modi-Scholz summit in February 2023. The visit of the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius to India in mid-2023 set the ball rolling again.

In this context, the 16th meeting of the India-Germany military cooperation subgroup was held in early December. The MCFG is the forum established to boost defense cooperation through regular engagement between the headquarters Integrated Defense staff and the Department of International Cooperation of the German armed forces.

Following these, a recent interview with the German ambassador to an Indian daily brought attention back to the neglected aspect of strategic cooperation between India and Germany.

His message was that Germany is now more focused on enhancing strategic defense cooperation, which would be three-pronged. There would be more joint exercises, a greater interest in defense equipment sales, and further interest in joint production of high-technology military hardware, including submarines.

The ambassador’s message was that Germany’s hesitancy had been overcome. Now, there was political will to undertake a paradigm shift. He attributed this to Germany seeking partners outside NATO, particularly in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. In this context, India is seen as a reliable partner with common values.

Germany’s interest in the Indo-Pacific and the growing Indian market for defense products, particularly its desire to diversify from Russia, are now important elements of its interest.

What Can Be Expected?

32 German Air Force aircraft, including 12 Tornado jets, 8 Eurofighters, several Airbus 300 mid-air refueling tankers, and Airbus 400M military transport planes, will participate in India’s largest multinational Tarang Shakti exercise in Tamil Nadu in August 2024.

15 French and Spanish aircraft are expected to participate in coordination with the German contingent. In October, a German frigate and combat support ship are expected to visit Goa.

On such expeditions, they normally exercise with Indian ships in and around the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal and beyond as they venture into the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific.

Germany now evidently seeks to enhance its interoperability with countries like India, Japan, and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. France has been following this Quad plus approach, and Germany seems ready to follow suit.

Thus, military visits and exercises with India are certainly on the cards. As far as defense production is concerned, Germany is back in the game for the building of six advanced stealth diesel-electric submarines.

They are in competition with a Spanish manufacturer, but Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems signed a production cooperation agreement with Mazagon Dockyard when Boris Pistorius visited India in 2023.

How will they compete with the Spanish firm? Navantia for the project 75 India project is still open to question. In Europe, they exercise together, they often don’t produce together and compete for defence contracts.

Some Indian analysts believe that the German enthusiasm is real. But do they have the right strategy to pursue this in India? They believe that their submarines are better than the Spanish, but in India, besides the technology, the costs and speed of production also matter.

An analyst has said that the Germans look to grasp a major defense contract like the submarines before they think of doing other defense production in India. It may be better for them to start grasping smaller contracts since India has a vast array of defense items it wants to produce with imported technology.

Invariably, Germany is compared with France, the most visible and energetic defense partner for India at present. Since there is little to show for German defense production on the ground, and no major purchases have recently taken place, unlike the visible Rafaels from France, other analysts believe that Germany is offering the bait of expanded cooperation provided the submarine project is awarded to them.

Would it not be better if they entered the market in diverse ways and then grabbed the submarine project as it came along?

When India urgently required German MTU powerpack engines for the light tank project, the delays in granting licenses led to India shifting its acquisition to the USA.

This instance and the visit of the German defense and economy ministers in mid-2023 led to a reassessment in Germany that India is indeed an important strategic partner. This needs to be acted upon in practice.

Now, it appears that clearances for licenses are much faster and don’t suffer the same delays as earlier. Moreover, having lost the light tank project, the German industry is better focused on participating in future tanks and related development in India by providing equipment, electronics, and engines and looking for collaborations with Indian companies.

In an important development, the Society for Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM) is now close to signing an MOU with the German Security and Defence Industry Association (BDSV), which would then open the way for implementing the real-time collaboration that India and Germany desired through their strategic cooperation.

  • Gurjit Singh is a former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN, and the African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa, Professor, IIT Indore.
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