India's single-engine acquisition program was recently cancelled by the Ministry of Defence

The Indo-French strategic partnership that concluded 20 years ago, soon after India's nuclear tests in May 1998, stands on a triad-cooperation in the defence, space and civil-nuclear fields. Over the years, however, defence cooperation has largely been confined to regular military exercises between the armies, navies and air forces of the two countries and off-the-shelf purchases of military hardware. From Mirage fighters in the 1980s to, more recently, Rafale fighter jets and the licenced manufacture of French Scorpene class submarines, a deal for which was signed in 2005, things have never looked as good for defence ties. As President Emmanuel Macron heads to New Delhi on a historic first visit, he will note that Dassault's production line in Bordeaux has started assembling the first Indian Rafale fighter jets, part of a September 2016 deal for 36 Rafale jets worth 7.87 billion euros. The Mazagon Dock submarine production line in Mumbai recently floated out the second of six French-designed Scorpene class submarines. France is one of India's top five suppliers of military hardware.

Both Rafale and Scorpene address critical gaps in India's defence modernisation-the Indian Air Force (IAF) is desperately short of modern fighters to replace its retiring jets while the navy needs modern submarines to fill in the gaps left by its ageing Soviet-origin undersea platforms. The 16th edition of the annual Indo-French naval exercise, Varuna, begins off the west coast of India in the Arabian Sea on March 15. While the hardware sales are likely to continue as the most visible signs of the relationship, the defence partnership between the two countries is poised to move to the next level during President Macron's visit.

A soon-to-be formalised logistics support agreement could see Indian warships using French bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This agreement dovetails with the Indian Navy's Mission Based Deployments (MBD) concept announced last year, part of a wider maritime strategy to counter the enhanced deployment of China's PLA Navy in the IOR. The PLA's deployments, which began in 2008 and were cemented by a string of military bases like Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, have seriously threatened India's influence in the IOR. MBD envisages an Indian warship on station at six vital points in the IOR-Seychelles, Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, southern Sri Lanka and northern Bay of Bengal at the Persian Gulf.

During the state visit of PM Narendra Modi in February this year, India, as part of the strategy, signed a deal with Oman to use the port of Duqm as a military base.

France is the second-largest extra-regional naval power in the IOR after the US Navy and maintains an Indian Ocean fleet based in Reunion near Mauritius and permanent bases in Abu Dhabi, the Comoros and Djibouti. In 2016, India signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US to use its bases for refuelling and logistics supply, thereby extending their reach through the Indo-Pacific region-a common expression used by the four Quadrilateral dialogue partners: the US, India, Australia and Japan. A similar agreement could see the Indian Navy use French naval bases and facilities in the western IOR. Indian warships have been refuelled and resupplied in French bases, usually against payment. An agreement could ease the transfer of funds in a more structured manner.

"The Indian Ocean is becoming the central arena of an emerging Sino-Indian contest," says Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations at King's College, London. "New Delhi, recognising its limitations, is now open about working with other like-minded countries in preserving a stable balance of power in the region. In this geopolitical chessboard, India is trying to build some bases, like in the Seychelles and Oman, and is also trying to enter into pacts where it can access the bases of other powers, such as France." Defence officials term the western IOR-bound by countries like Mozambique, Kenya, the Seychelles and Mauritius-as one of the few places with a confluence of Indian soft power, hard power and an influential diaspora. It is also a region where China is trying to make inroads, and this explains the step-up in Indian activity. On January 28, then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar signed a 20-year agreement to build air and naval infrastructure on Assumption Island, the Seychelles, in another expression of the MBD concept.

The logistics agreement with France will swing the defence relationship away from the air force to the maritime domain. The process started in January 2017 when both sides signed a 'white shipping agreement' to exchange information on merchant traffic in the IOR-again, part of the Indian Navy's Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) policy initiated in 2008. The agreement comes even as both countries grapple with the unseemly controversy over another government-to-government agreement, the 2015 agreement for the sale of 36 Rafale aircraft. Separately, French defence firms have also raised concerns over the go-slow on hardware acquisitions by India's defence ministry in deals worth over $15 billion where several French firms are contenders. Last month, just days before President Macron's state visit, Airbus reportedly pulled out of a Rs 2,000 crore deal to supply 14 twin-engine EC-725 choppers for the Indian Coast Guard. The deal had been in the pipeline for nearly a decade and the defence ministry had approached it for a 10th price extension (see On Slow Track).

The Rafale deal, worth an estimated 7.8 billion euros, was announced in May 2015 as a government-to-government deal during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to France. Government-to-government deals are typically done to cut time and cost overruns and eliminate corruption. In this case, it was a 2007 deal to buy 126 Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the IAF. The UPA government took 10 years to downselect the French MMRCA as the finalist, but did not sign the contract. The NDA government scrapped the contract and went for an off-the-shelf purchase of the aircraft (in fewer numbers) without any transfer of technology.

The Congress insists that the price it negotiated was the best, particularly as it entailed a transfer of technology, and that the NDA government bypassed procedures when PM Modi announced the deal in Paris. The Modi government's defence is that while the deal was announced in Paris, it was negotiated and signed by then defence minister Manohar Parrikar in 2016. The cost escalation was because the MMRCA aircraft the UPA government was going for had none of the bells and whistles included in the current two squadrons of Rafale. The deal also included missiles, bombs and spare parts and special infrastructure in two bases where the aircraft will be housed. The NDA government has refused to reveal the exact price of the deal or the aircraft, citing a 2008 confidentiality clause signed between India and France.

The Rafale is also a frontrunner for the navy's requirement of 57 carrier-based fighter aircraft for its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the 40,000-tonne Vikrant, being constructed at the Cochin Shipyard. A spin-off of the Rafale deal now sees its engine-maker Snecma helping the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) get its stalled Kaveri engine off the ground. The Kaveri is to power the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, which currently uses an imported engine.

Last month, Mazagon Dock offered to construct three additional Scorpenes for the Indian Navy. The existing facilities at the dock will become idle by 2020 after the sixth and last Scorpene is built. There are compelling reasons why the navy would want three more submarines. The six next-generation conventional submarines of Project 75I, worth $10 billion, for which France's Naval Group that makes the Scorpenes is a contender, are at least a decade away. (It takes six years to build a submarine.) Mazagon Dock can deliver three more units at the rate of one a year after 2025. The French designer has agreed to make the 14 design changes in the three additional Scorpenes. "In the maritime domain, France has a number of things that we could use-design of a small nuclear reactor (Rubis class) for submarine and a larger reactor for carrier propulsion," says former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash.

India is currently building six nuclear-powered attack submarines, platforms which use their reactors to stay almost indefinitely under water and are armed with an array of torpedoes and cruise missiles to attack surface ships and land targets. Significantly, navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba visited the Cherbourg naval facility, which builds the Barracuda class SSN (nuclear-powered attack submarine). While the Rafale deal went ahead because of government intervention, critical issues of bureaucratic delays and indecisiveness have placed the acquisition of other military hardware from France in an unending loop.

French firms like Airbus, Naval Group and Nexter are in the fray in the defence ministry's Strategic Partnership model cleared in May 2017. They are to tie up with Indian private companies or strategic partners to manufacture big-ticket military platforms like fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines and battle tanks. But the defence ministry is yet to select partners or send out requests for proposal. Handing out contracts for building the hardware is thought to be several years away. So while the Indo-French strategic partnership gallops on at the political level, the military-industrial partnership languishes in a bureaucratic muddle.