Dassault Aviation’s Rafale
The French arrived in India at Pondicherry in 1674 and created colonies at Pondicherry and a few other places. All these were peacefully transferred to India in 1954. Paris and New Delhi have had warm and business friendly relations from the very beginning. French supported India during Cold War and have also tacitly supported India as a nuclear power. India and France signed a strategic partnership in January 1998. French have been pioneers of world aviation and this has been a real solid pillar in the Indo-French relationship.
Initial Aviation Bond
In 1953, India ordered Dassault Ouragans (Indian name Toofani) and 101 aircraft were inducted. Toofanis faced combat in 1961 Goa operations, and later flew reconnaissance missions in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Dassault Mystery IVA started replacing them in 1957. 104 were procured and used extensively in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. On 7 September 1965 an Indian Mystere shot down a Pakistani Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in a raid over Sargodha. 12 Breguet Alize anti-submarine warfare aircraft were acquired by Indian Navy for operations from aircraft carrier Vikrant. The Aerospatiale Alouette III a single-engine, French light utility helicopter was manufactured under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as ‘Chetak’. Lighter variant ‘Cheetah’ was developed from Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama for high altitude operations including the Siachen glacier. These aircraft are still in service.
Big Boost of Eighties
After initial Cold War years, the Indo-French aerospace linkage got re-established when the IAF purchased the Anglo-French Jaguar Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) in the Seventies. The IAF later bought 49 Dassault Mirage 2000s in the Eighties. Ten more Mirage 2000Hs were bought in 2004. These for the first time introduced fly-by-wire controls, air refuelling; weapon-integrated multi-mode radar and modern aerial weapons. The IAF also got the first comprehensive EW suite on any aircraft. Mirage 2000 performed exceedingly well in the 1999 Kargil conflict, a battle fought at the highest terrain in the world. A very high sortie generation rate made the Mirage 2000 the most efficient IAF fighter in the conflict. These aircraft are being over-hauled by HAL for the IAF and global customers. The fleet of 51 aircraft are under upgrade to Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards with Thales RDY-2 radar, helmet mounted display, new avionics, and new weapons including MICA missile, 400 of which have been bought. Aircraft operational life has been extended by another 20–25 years. France also supplies Turbomeca TM 333 and jointly developed with HAL the ‘Shakti’ helicopter engines for Dhruv.
Dassault Rafale emerged the winner of IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender on 31 January 2012. The original proposal for 18 fly-away aircraft and108 to be manufactured by HAL through transfer-of-technology was changed to outright purchase of 36 aircraft. The deal was signed on 23 September 2016 for 7.8 billion Euros with an option for 18 more at the same inflation-adjusted price. The first aircraft are expected to be delivered by 2019. All 36 aircraft will induct in six years. This twin-engine delta-wing aircraft is an omni-role fighter with semi-stealth capabilities. It can simultaneously package air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and the airborne nuclear deterrent missions. It has a reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and low infra-red signature. The aircraft’s RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is operationally tested. The aircraft has been used in combat over Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.
As part of the strategic initiative of 1998, regular joint military exercises are conducted. The first of the Indo-French joint air-exercise of ‘Garuda’ series was held in February 2003 at Gwalior. Thereafter, they were held alternatively at France and India. The last Garuda V was held in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in May 2014 where the Rafale and Su-30 MKI practised cooperative combat.
France: All Weather Friend
Delhi considers France as the most reliable Western ‘friend’. France has consistently supported India’s permanent membership of the UNSC. A squadron of DCNS Scorpene class missiles are being produced in Mazagon docks under license. Defence Research and Development Organisation’s 3D Multi-Function Control Radar (MFCR) was developed as part of the Indian anti-ballistic missile programme in cooperation with Thales of France. Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) and French National Space Agency work very closely under a formal agreement. Significant part of India’s civil airline fleet is composed of Airbus series of aircraft. Airbus R&D focus in India is on high-end engineering and design activities that include flight physics, structures, systems and testing, and more than 5,000 Indians are employed in Airbus aircraft related programmes. France is an all-weather friend ready to support PM Modi’s desire for ‘Make in India’.
(The writer was among the initial few pilots trained in France on Mirage 2000)