Rafale-M fighter on the deck of French Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit France [July 13-14]. The highlight of the visit is the expected agreement to buy 26 Rafale Marine [M] for India’s aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant. This isn’t surprising, as the Indian Navy prefers the Rafale-M over the US Boeing’s F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter. The visit also reflects France’s efforts to surpass the United States in the defence sector.

French President Emmanuel Macron has reportedly approved Safran to partner with India on a joint project. This involves the creation of an engine for India’s twin-engine Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft [AMCA] and the twin-engine deck-based fighter for Indian aircraft carriers.

Last month, India and the United States co-signed a deal to manufacture General Electric GE F-414 jet engines in India for the Tejas-2 fighter aircraft, with eighty percent of technology transfer. The deal also involved the purchase of 31 MQ-9B drones. Now, France is reportedly offering a full transfer of technology for the co-development of a new 110kN high-thrust jet engine to power the AMCA fifth-generation stealth jet.

The details of the Indo-US collaboration on the F-414 engine are unclear, particularly regarding technology transfer under US ITAR. In contrast, the French plan offers a brand-new engine with advanced features and materials and a full manufacturing base in India.

Moreover, Safran, a company already established in India with an MRO facility for LEAP engines and the M-88 engine, plans to set up a gas turbine technology centre in India. This centre will have full design capabilities and high-end metallurgy software tools. The head of India’s DRDO, Dr. Samir V Kamat, recently visited the Safran engine factory and R&D centre in Paris during the Paris Air Show 2023. This unexpected visit sparked an interest. Other big competitors for the AMCA project include American General Electric and British Rolls Royce [RR].

Rolls-Royce has expressed strong interest in AMCA, suggesting developing an engine for it – a Eurojet EJ200 with a thrust of 110-120KN. They have previously participated in the British-Japan sixth-generation fighter program and propose to co-produce engines in India for export.

A Times Now report states that France has pledged unrestricted access to sensitive matters in the co-production of an engine. This is a testament to France’s partnership approach. France has a solid reputation as a reliable defence supplier to India, unlike the United States, which has been inconsistent as a military supplier to India and its allies.

The US has previously disrupted or delayed supply of parts and training, France, unlike its competitors, will not limit access to sensitive tech in this engine’s co-production. This shows France’s partnership approach. Light Combat Aircraft [LCA] TEJAS has a reliable defence supply and history which is well placed in India, contrasting the arms embargo on India in 1998. In contrast, France has shown itself to be a trusted defence partner.

India has a strong strategic partnership with France, which began in 1998 and is founded on three key areas: Nuclear, Space, and Defence. France has consistently supported India in these domains, even during periods of international conflict. When India’s nuclear tests in 1974 led to severed nuclear engagements with the United States and Canada, France continued to support India, providing fuel for its Tarapur Nuclear Power Plant.

Even when India faced international sanctions following nuclear tests in 1998, France, led by then-president Jacques Chirac, openly opposed the sanctions. Moreover, when India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] in 2008 to conduct civil nuclear trade, France was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India. The Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] has stopped supplying enrichment and reprocessing technology to non-signatory countries of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet, France continues its nuclear cooperation with India, not influenced by the NSG’s move.

Despite the US aiding India’s NSG waiver, French firms have been more successful in India’s nuclear market, reflecting the dynamic nature of international relations. France has suggested building six 1,600 MW EPR nuclear reactors in India, a sign of its solid partnership, despite the plan’s slow progress due to India’s local politics. India and France have a long partnership in space technology, starting with France helping India produce Centaure-sounding rockets. The first Indian Satellite Telecommunication Experimental Project [STEP] utilized the French satellite, Symphonie, leading to the Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment [APPLE] launch by the Ariane.

Arianespace, a French company, used to be the preferred choice for launching India’s large satellites. However, as India developed its launch capabilities, a partnership with French firms like EADS Astrium emerged. Together with India’s commercial arm, Antrix, they promote the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle [PSLV] to the West. The defense sectors of France and India have a long history, dating back to the 1950s and 60s. France even gifted 104 Ouragan aircraft to the Indian Air Force, which India renamed “Toofani”. In 1998, a High Committee on Defence Cooperation was established to further strengthen their ties.

The committee promotes political dialogues and military consultations between the two countries. It encourages cooperation through exchanges and joint exercises and fosters partnerships within the armaments industry. India’s first post-1998 nuclear test joint naval exercise was with France, a symbol of their strong bilateral relationship. New Delhi and Paris share a unique bond, often called the middle powers congruence, prioritizing “strategic autonomy” despite their geopolitical situations.

France’s relationship with the United States isn’t of blind allegiance, a stance that India also upholds. France may be using India to rejuvenate its older technologies. The Rafale fighters that France sold to India aren’t the newest, but they are essential to the French Air Force. By sharing its knowledge and products, France might be creating a new manufacturing base, helping its technologies to stay relevant. These technologies will continue to be significant globally. India’s participation might speed up its technological growth. China, for instance, is now self-sufficient in producing its fighter jets, having developed from using Russian-made engines to its own, albeit a generation behind the West.