PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming trip to France to attend the Bastille Day parade as its chief guest is, much like his recent US visit, widely expected to result in the announcement of some critical deals for the Indian Navy. There is widespread speculation in domestic and overseas military and security circles that PM Modi was invited for the celebratory July 14 event in Paris in anticipation of the two sides proclaiming government-to-government (G2G) defence contracts that have long been under negotiation.
These included the procurement of 26 Dassault Rafale-Maritime (M) fighters and at least three add-on Scorpene-class diesel-electric ‘killer-hunter’ conventional submarines or SSKs to supplement six similar boats, which were licence-built by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) in Mumbai 2006 onwards. The Paris visit could also result in India agreeing to France’s involvement, via a technology transfer, in the Navy’s incipient programme to indigenously build six nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs at the secretive Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam.
An analysis of these three putative agreements is instructive. Firstly, the Navy is believed to have recently shortlisted the twin-engine, canard delta-wing Rafale-M over Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III ‘Super Hornet’ naval fighter following trials at the Navy’s shore-based test facility in Goa in 2022, for possible deployment aboard INS Vikrant, the newly commissioned aircraft carrier. It had reportedly informed the Ministry of Defence recently of its preference for Rafale-Ms, given their overall operational performance in flight trials compared to the F/A-18s, but particularly due to the French fighter’s ‘commonality’ with the 36 in-service Rafales that the Indian Air Force (IAF) had acquired in 2016 for $8.98 billion, completing their induction six years later.
Furthermore, the IAF’s Rafale buy had included Dassault establishing a maintenance and flight training facility at Ambala for the fighters which, the Navy rationally reasoned, would support its prospective $5-6 billion Rafale-M purchase by not only reducing procurement costs but hastening platform induction. Besides, the Navy needed to urgently firm up its fighter purchase for Vikrant, as the Russian MiG-29K/KUB naval fighters, of which the service had acquired 45 between 2004 and 2010 for $2.29 billion, had proven operationally problematic. In its July 2016 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General had rapped the Navy for technically accepting these Russian platforms despite them being “riddled with problems, discrepancies, and anomalies”.
Secondly, the follow-on deal for MDL to licence-build three more Scorpene-class submarines is the other prospective contract on the anvil during PM Modi’s visit, following the Navy’s botched-up and continually-delayed 16-year-old Project 75-India (P-75I) programme, to locally build six SSKs in collaboration with a foreign original equipment manufacturer.
A follow-on tender for these three boats would notably obviate a re-run of the ‘lost decade’ between 1995 and 2005 when MDL’s submarine construction facilities remained idle following a corruption scandal involving the import of four German HDW Type 209/1500 SSKs for the Navy, that ultimately remained unresolved.
Under this contract, MDL had licence-built two of these German boats, but the alleged wrongdoing in the deal led to all submarine-building activity in the Mumbai shipyard being halted for 10 years. Thereafter, around 2005-06, new dockyard facilities were resurrected for the Scorpene programme at great expense, and skilled engineers, mechanics and underwater welders were hired afresh. Senior MoD officials who visited MDL in 2022 disclosed that large areas of the dockyard’s submarine-building facilities lay deserted, as the six Scorpenes had already been completed, and groups of idle workers drifted aimlessly around. These officials collectively concurred that the Navy could not afford to repeat such a folly.
Lastly, France has expressed its willingness to partner the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Department of Atomic Energy, the Navy and related organisations in locally building six SSNs. The Navy’s SSN project was initially approved by the government in early 2015, with the first such 6,000-tonne boats scheduled for completion by 2032-33. The SSNs were intended to supplement and operationally support the Navy’s four locally designed and constructed 7,000-tonne Arihant-class nuclear powered missile submarines (SSBNs), built with Russian knowhow and technical assistance, especially with regards to miniaturising their 82.5-MW pressurised light water reactors.
The SSBN programme is presently proceeding apace in seclusion at Visakhapatnam, with the third such platform — simply designated as S4 — being launched in late 2021, after INS Arighat, the second analogous boat, was undergoing further fitment. These SSBNs comprise a vital component of India’s strategic triad aimed at sustaining New Delhi’s credible nuclear deterrent and no-first-use posture.
In early 2023, France had offered to jointly develop SSNs with India under the aegis of its atmanirbharta initiative designed to enhance self-sufficiency in materiel requirements, by transferring technology based on its Barracuda-class SSNs, the first of which, INS Suffren, was commissioned into the French Navy in mid-2022. Designed by the Naval Group, which is also responsible for the developing the Scorpene boats, the 4.765-tonne Suffren is the first of six SSNs, all of which are scheduled for commissioning by 2030 at a cost of over $2 billion each.
The French remain eager for this deal with India to compensate for Australia summarily scrapping, in late 2021, Naval Design’s tender to supply the Royal Australian Navy 12 conventional diesel-electric Attack-class submarines for over $60 billion. Instead, Australia entered into a $368-billion deal with the US and the UK for eight SSNs under the AUKUS trilateral pact featuring all three countries. India too is amenable to such cooperation with France, as continued Russian assistance in its nuclear submarine programme remains uncertain, considering extensive punitive sanctions imposed on Moscow for invading Ukraine.
Hence, like PM Modi’s successful US tour in which several landmark defence buys were confirmed by the Pentagon, his Paris visit could, via the G2G route, boost the long-deferred modernisation and operational capabilities of India’s military.
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