Defence cooperation between France and India is not only limited to Rafale fighter jets

by Syed Zain Jaffery

After a controversial 15-year procurement procedure, at least five Rafale fighter jets are now scheduled to land in India on July 29th and will be ready for combat. Amid the escalating crisis between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, France is providing Rafale fighter jets to India. France has initiated the process of delivering the nuclear capable Rafale fighter jets when not a single weapon was used in Ladakh standoff except stones, clubs and sticks. The Indian media has branded the Rafale jets as a game-changer in any future conflict with China. But it is very difficult to comprehend as to how Rafale jets will change the military equation when India is not in a position to use these aircrafts directly against China in an all-out war. Therefore, some might argue that this massive procurement of military hardware by India is not directed towards China but will instead be utilised against Pakistan.

The Rafale was the worst-selling fighter jet in the world before 2015. Without export orders, the French military was forced to cancel procurement of the Rafale due to budgetary constraints. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided a breather to Dassault Aviation when he ordered 36 “ready-to-fly” Rafale fighter jets in 2015 to modernise his country’s ageing warplane fleet. Finally, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh received the first of the French-made Dassault Rafale while performing “Shastra Puja” to ritually protect newly purchased fighter jets.

India has extended its security and strategic collaboration, including with geographically remote countries, in search of military modernisation. India cannot satisfy its demand for new strategic equipment and missile systems from the two biggest arms manufacturers in the world, the United States (US) and Russia. This prompted India to enter into an arrangement worth Euro 7.87 billion with France for the purchase of Rafale jets. French cooperation with India in the realm of strategic weaponry is another example of Western efforts to modernise the Indian armed forces while undermining the regional security environment of the South Asian region.

Now India is propagating the efficiency of Rafale fighter jets to boost the morale of its defence forces, which was severely shattered after the February 27th dogfight. IAF’s Chief, Rakesh Kumar Bhadauria, has already dispensed a strong ultimatum about the limitations of the Rafale fighter jets in a technological comparison to the JF-17 Thunder (developed jointly through a Sino-Pak joint venture). According to open-source information, the latest version of the JF-17 fighter jet contains the next-generation feature of China’s high-end J-20 fighter jet that will immensely boost its combat efficiency. These enhanced features consist of a new and superior holographic head-up display, integrated cockpit display, and is also compatible with an advanced infrared missile approach warning system. Although JF-17 Thunder poses a serious threat to the Indian Rafale fighter jets, the IAF could still create strategic imbalance when the procurement of the French aircrafts is initiated.

One must also keep in mind that the Rafale jet was evaluated to conduct nuclear strike missions by the French Air Force (FAF). According to media reports, France tested all phases of a nuclear strike with an 11-hour mission that saw a Rafale fighter jet refuel and fire an unarmed missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. A nuclear-capable Rafale in Indian possession will create a dangerous and worrisome equation for South Asian strategic stability. France will intensify the regional arms race with the selling of advanced military equipment like the Rafale jet to India.

However, the defence cooperation between France and India is not only limited to Rafale jets. France has invested comprehensively in helping the Indian naval forces counter China's growing maritime influence in the Indian Ocean. Indian defence PSU Mazagon Dockyards Limited and the French Naval Group have been jointly building six Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines. India and France have also inked military logistics support deal to enhance naval manoeuvrability in the Indian Ocean. The French Defence Minister, Florence Parly, has already designated naval collaboration with India as a “shining illustration of the exemplary nature of technological and industrial cooperation.” The profitable Indian market will further accelerate French defence cooperation in multiple fields of military technology, but in the long run, its global and regional implications are catastrophic.

India is one of the leading countries that has expanded its military and defence related imports from other arms exporters. India signed a $5 billion deal for Russian S-400 surface to air missile defence systems in 2018. In addition to that, India and Russia have already signed deals worth $14.5 billion of Russian-made weapons, which also include a deal to deliver 11356 class frigates to Indian forces. However, there has been a slight reduction in India’s purchase of Russian weapons in the last couple of years due to the latter’s defence agreements with Western military powers. India has inked the biggest weapons deal with the US, which includes the sale of sensitive military equipment, and New Delhi has already announced that it will purchase more than $3 billion worth of defence equipment from Washington.

Both scenarios of India’s overwhelming purchase of latest weaponry, as well as the unabated military support by the West, have repercussions for South Asian strategic stability. At the moment, India has virtually frozen its bilateral relationship with almost its entire neighbourhood and has reduced the scope of confidence-building measures with its nuclear-armed rivals. India, under the Modi government, has followed a policy of coercion, particularly against Pakistan, which shares a territorial conflict with the former. The influx of latest weapons in India, during such a volatile environment, will further exacerbate security concerns in the region.