India and France have had long-standing defence ties, which continue with the ongoing Scorpene submarine project and the Mirage-2000 upgrade programme, and now the Rafale deal . French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian tells TOI that the bilateral ties will touch new heights in the years ahead. Excerpts:
The Rafale deal has been long in the making, from the MMRCA project to the now direct acquisition of 36 fighters. Your thoughts on this?
France maintains very strong and warm relations with India, which have always been based on trust. One of its cornerstones is our strategic partnership. It is a solid and dynamic partnership, of which the Rafale is a major and emblematic project. It is a strong commitment for the next 40 years. Naturally, finalising a project on such a scale required some amount of time. What matters is the result: an agreement that paves the way for unprecedented industrial and technological cooperation between our two countries, including the ‘Make in India’ in which French companies will be fully involved.
There have been persistent questions on the high costs of the deal as well as France’s refusal to give sovereign guarantee for the contract.
I don’t share this opinion on high costs. The Rafale’s maintenance and operation costs are extremely competitive. In fact, that’s why it won the earlier MMRCA tender. I can see this every day as the defence minister of a country that uses more than 100 of these aircraft. I would also like to point out that the Rafale’s fleet availability rate is superb.
How will India benefit from the Rafale deal? Are you looking to sell more Rafales after the first 36?
The Rafale, I am not shy to say, is really the best fighter jet in the world. With the Rafale you can conduct all kinds of missions — and simultaneously at that. They are what we call ‘omnirole’ aircraft. The recent military operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali as well as in Iraq and Syria against Daesh/IS have demonstrated its remarkable performance. It will be a formidable defence asset for decades to come, and we will continue to upgrade it as and when new technologies emerge. It’s really up to India to decide whether it wishes to pursue more acquisitions. If India so wishes, we will be happy to support it.
The massive leak of confidential data in the Scorpene submarine project has cast a big shadow on India-France military projects.
This leak is due to a malicious act. An inquiry has been instituted in France and all means are being used to bring the truth to light as fast as possible. We are, of course, cooperating closely and in all transparency with the Indian authorities.
All the stakeholders concerned — from the manufacturer, DCNS, to Indian and French authorities — have immediately taken action to limit the impact of this incident. The injunction DCNS obtained from Australian courts helped halt circulation of the documents. The documents that have been published, old and commercial in nature, don’t contain any information on the security of the submarines. Our defence cooperation with India goes back many decades. We have been able to forge a very strong relationship that individuals with malicious intent cannot undermine.
Tell us about the overall strategic partnership between India and France, and its prospects in the future.
India and France are united by a long-standing, loyal friendship, based on shared values and a strategic partnership in the true sense of the term. France was the first country to have concluded a strategic partnership with India in 1998, and since, we have ceaselessly strengthened and deepened our relationship, including during critical periods like the crises of the nuclear tests and the Kargil war.
Such is the degree of trust we have attained with India that it enables us to cooperate on very sensitive matters like defence, civil nuclear energy, space, counter-terrorism, cyber security etc.
In all these areas, India and France have considerable projects underway. I’d also like to mention the construction of six EPRs in Jaitapur, which was confirmed during the state visit of President Hollande in January. Negotiations are progressing well. We also have common ambitions in the Indian Ocean. France has always considered India to be a vital partner for stability and security in the region. Our cooperation on maritime security is really substantive and we intend to make it flourish.
The key to our strategic partnership is that we know that we can count on each other, even in the toughest times. This is particularly true of the fight against terrorism, a scourge that afflicts both our countries.
France has most firmly condemned the terrible attack against an Indian Army camp in Uri on September 18. We want to see decisive action taken, in accordance with international law, against terrorist groups that target India, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul-Mujahideen.