New Delhi: The challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, India and France on Sunday commenced their annual “Varuna" joint naval exercise with large-scale drills in the western Arabian Sea.

The three-day exercise is scheduled to close on Tuesday, Indian and French officials said.

This is the 19th edition of the exercise and “involves the participation of the French Navy aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, and its entire carrier strike group," the French embassy said in a statement.

Besides the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle 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" are also part of the drills, it said.

The nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle with a displacement of 42,500 tonnes carries a crew of 1,200, 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 launching enables the launch of Rafale marine jets in less than 3 seconds every 30 seconds, the French embassy statement said.

The joint exercise will comprise 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," the statement said.

Started in 1983, Indo-French naval cooperation plays a key role in the two countries’ joint vision for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific," it said.

The naval cooperation has intensified in recent years with increasingly “ambitious" joint exercises that have raised the degree of the two navies’ interoperability. Earlier this month, the Indian Navy took part for the first time in the France-led naval exercise “La Pérouse" with the navies of the US, Australia and Japan.

“The ‘Varuna’ joint exercise 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," the statement added.