Is France now India's most important supplier of military equipment?

India is on a mission to broad-base its military sourcing

FRANCE-INDIA/ Warm vibes: President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris in May 2022 | Reuters

On May 11, 1998, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the world a shock by announcing that India had exploded the nuclear bomb again. The tests were conducted in Pokhran, in the deserts of Rajasthan, where India tested its first nuclear device in 1974 under Indira Gandhi. The west, led by the United States, was furious and sanctions followed. But there was an exception. French president Jacques Chirac went against the western consensus and chose to pursue closer ties with India.

Cut to the present, when US President Joe Biden expressed his inability to attend the Republic Day celebrations as chief guest, there was no real panic in the corridors of the South Block. Because Indian diplomats knew that they could bank on the ever-dependable French. And Jawed Ashraf, the Indian ambassador in Paris, sprung into action.

Soon and sure enough, on December 22, President Emmanuel Macron took to X to confirm that he would be attending the Republic Day celebrations as chief guest. Less than seven months ago, on July 14, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was the guest of honour at the Champs-Elysees in Paris during the Bastille Day celebrations, which, as the French national day, commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 during the French Revolution.

That day, as Rafale fighters from the Indian Air Force flew overhead, Macron, with Modi at his side, said, “[India] is a giant in the history of the world which will have a determining role in our future.” Apart from telephonic interactions, the two leaders have met several times in the last two years―in Paris on an official visit by Modi in May 2022, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November 2022, in Hiroshima in May 2023 during the G7 summit and during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September 2023. “With this new―and somewhat last-minute―visit to India, Macron intends to show his personal commitment to the bilateral partnership as well as the staunchness of France’s engagement with India,” said Isabelle Saint-Mezard, associate research fellow at the French think tank IFRI (French Institute of International Relations).

In the burgeoning India-France relationship, it is the defence vertical that leads the way, with France being a traditionally important supplier with a vibrant military production ecosystem on continental Europe and an increasingly aspirational India being a prominent buyer. The numbers speak for themselves. A March 2022 SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) report says that India’s share of arms import from Russia came down to 46 per cent in 2017-2021 from 69 per cent in 2012-2017. France, meanwhile, recorded an eleven-fold growth during the same period, making it India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia.

Supporting the French quest to secure a key presence in the Indian market is the legacy factor. The state-of-the-art Rafale fighters follow a long line of French exports. There is the Mirage 2000 multirole fighter aircraft from the Dassault stable, the Chetak, Cheetah and Cheetal helicopters that have their origins in the French Alouette and Lama helicopters, the Scorpene submarines, diesel engines for submarines and ships, anti-submarine warfare sonars, radars and the Milan anti-tank missiles.

France was the first major western power to ink a long-term strategic partnership with India in the multipolar context, finalising the deal in 1998. Now French strike weapons like the R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles, Exocet anti-ship missiles, the MICA missile system, SCALP air-launched cruise missiles and the Hammer air-to-surface missiles are at the frontline of the Indian offensive armoury. India has recently placed orders for 26 naval variants of the Rafale fighter and three Scorpene class submarines. The new fighter jets will be for the naval air fleet onboard the aircraft carriers INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya.

As India is on a mission to broad-base its military sourcing, France, with its dependability, warm bilateral vibes and its arsenal of powerful and time-tested military systems, is an obvious choice to be a strategic partner. This is especially true as Russia, which has been New Delhi’s traditional partner for decades, is experiencing a major turmoil caused by the Ukraine war. India is also concerned about the burgeoning Sino-Russian ties, which have strengthened during the war.

India needs more platforms where nuclear systems can be mounted. With Sino-Indian ties at an all-time low, such systems are needed urgently for deterrence. Rafale jets can be made nuclear-weapons compliant more easily than US platforms as Washington often imposes restrictive clauses on using its platforms. India is also concerned that despite the growing ties with the US, Washington remains cagey about supplying its most modern platforms to Delhi. Not offering the F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter aircraft to India―when many countries across the world operate it―is just a case in point.

Following the mega military deals, India expects French support on critical geopolitical issues, including New Delhi’s long-pending demand for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Finally, India believes that strong ties with France offer it more space for pursuing a policy of ‘strategic autonomy’.

France, meanwhile, has recognised the evolving nature of the global order, which mandates a shift from the traditional focus on the Atlantic theatre to a bigger role for the Indo-Pacific. The US has already made the Indo-Pacific its key strategic priority in an attempt to check the growing Chinese influence in southeast Asia and the Pacific rim. India’s geographical position is of pivotal interest to the French in its quest to retain global relevance. “France sees India as a major partner at the bilateral, regional and global levels,” said Saint-Mezard. “At the bilateral level, the two states have built a high degree of mutual trust over the years. Their cooperation covers different areas, including that of military equipment and technology, which is deemed critical from a French point of view.”

The French economy is in bad shape. Macron hopes that an abiding relationship with the world’s biggest importer of weapon systems and one of the most promising economies in the world would offer a panacea from the economic woes. In that context, Macron’s visit―which is based on a realistic assessment of his country’s strategic, business, cultural and political interests―may be a harbinger of a much deeper French connection for India.