French Defence Minister to visit New Delhi for talks with Rajnath Singh on December 17

France is set to dramatically scale up defence cooperation with India by putting the Barracuda nuclear attack submarine on the table. French Defence Minister Florence Parly is expected to broach the offer for the Barracudas with a Make in India element during her visit to India on December 17 and 18, BW has learnt from highly-placed sources. The French Minister is slated to have talks with her Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh in New Delhi on December 17.

This is the most significant offer of military equipment to India and could give the Indian Navy formidable sea denial capability in the Indian Ocean Region and provide it the sea legs to exercise a credible military presence in the Indo-Pacific Region. Nuclear submarine technology is regarded as the crown jewel of military capability.

“The French Defence Minister’s visit will have a heavy maritime focus,” informed sources confirmed to this reporter.

Coming close on the heels of the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, this reported French offer to provide India the knowhow to make nuclear submarines has the potential to establish France as India’s pre-eminent Defence partner, a position traditionally enjoyed by Russia.

This is the first time that a nuclear-powered attack submarine technology would be offered to India. In the past, Russia and the erstwhile Soviet Union have on two occasions leased nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) to India. India has also signed a reported $3 Billion deal in 2019 for the lease of another SSN of the Akula class to the Indian Navy, making it the only navy other than those of the P5 countries to have operated a nuclear attack submarine.

The Barracuda class submarine is nuclear-powered but not nuclear armed. An SSN like the Barracuda is nonetheless the most formidable sea denial weapon. This submarine, while remaining submerged for extended durations, has a powerful land attack capability with the 1,000-km-range Scalp Naval cruise missile. The time between refuelling is a reported 10 years.

Observers reckon that the door for the French offer of nuclear submarines to India opened up after the deal to provide American and British nuclear submarine knowhow to Australia upon the forging of the AUKUS grouping to deter China. France is also smarting from the Australian cancellation of a mega deal for 12 conventional submarines while accepting the American offer under the AUKUS umbrella.

But acquiring deep technology for SSNs has been a priority for India for many years. The indigenous programme for six SSNs is still in the design stage. The offer for the Barracuda is the consequence of regular deep consultations with France to deepen military cooperation. In October, the 5th session of the India-Franco Maritime Cooperation dialogue was held in Paris to carry forward discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Defence cooperation was reportedly on top of the agenda during the 35th Indo-French Strategic Dialogue between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his French counterpart Emmanuel Bonne in Paris in November. The two sides have also been interacting deeply at a number of other fora, and France has repeatedly declared India as the cornerstone of its strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

The Barracuda submarine is produced by the Naval Group, which is currently engaged in delivering the contract to build six Scorpene class diesel-electric submarines at Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders (MDL), Mumbai, for the Indian Navy.

If the Barracuda offer gains momentum, it is expected to have repercussions for the ongoing $5.7 Billion programme to build a new line of six diesel-electric submarines for the Indian Navy under Project 75 (I), which is already struggling with a de facto single vendor situation.

Recently, BW reported exclusively that of the two foreign OEMs which meet the Project 75 (I) tender requirement for a proven fuel cell-based Air Independent Propulsion System, the German TKMS is giving indications of a pull-outs from the competition, leaving only the Daewoo KSS-III of South Korea in the fray. In this situation, both the shortlisted Indian Strategic Partner hopefuls MDL and L&T would be compelled to submit rival bids in collaboration with the same foreign partner, effectively reducing it to a single horse race with two jockeys.

The Barracuda offer could potentially subsume Project 75 (I), informed observers reckon.

The French Defence Minister is also expected to reiterate the pitch for the Rafale in connection with an upcoming Indian tender for 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).