India-France cooperation in the land domain holds a lot of potential
France has a longstanding defence partnership with India, emerging as one of its key defence partners since the eighties. However, the defence relationship between the two nations, goes back much further. The first significant Indian orders for French military equipment were placed in 1953, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) ordered the MD-450 Ouragan fighter aircraft from Dassault Aviation. This was followed by follow-on purchases in 1956 for Mystere fighter aircraft (also from Dassault) and AMX-13/Model-51 light tanks.
Orders for the Alize Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft in 1959 ensured that French defence equipment would now be operational with all three wings of the Indian armed forces. This was followed by larger orders for the SA 316 Alouette III in the early sixties. The first SA 316 Alouette IIIs (known as Chetak in Indian service) were inducted into the Indian armed forces in 1962. Following the incorporation of a license production agreement, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) went on to produce 650 Chetaks and Cheetahs (Alouette II). These helicopters are celebrating 60 years of operations with the Indian armed forces this year.
An important change in arms transactions between the two nations has been the shift from the traditional ‘buyer-seller’ relationship that existed all these years, to a more partnership-based defence procurement approach in recent years. However, while France remains one of India’s main arms partners and the strategic prospects, sales of land systems, despite the promise of large orders have been stymied by the often long and complex acquisition procedures now endemic to India’s procurement process.
As a result, while French defence equipment is a key aspect of the IAF arsenal and the Scorpene is the pride of the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet, the Indian Army has yet to acquire French defence equipment in any substantial manner. France has also had little success in partnering on India’s myriad rocket and missile programmes, despite being a leader in the field. Israel is one beneficiary of this, having supplied and partnered on a variety of missiles systems sold to the Indian military.
Rooted in the Past
The Milan-2T, 2nd generation Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) remains in service in large numbers. Milan ATGMs in their various versions have been in service with the Indian Army for nearly five decades. MBDA, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of the Milan has provided the manufacturing license of the ATGM in India to Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL).
India’s decision to turn down MBDA’s offer, made as far back as 2015 for Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) to become a co-development partner for the 5th generation MMP ATGM, can certainly be considered a lost opportunity. At the present time, MBDA’s joint venture in India, L&T MBDA is offering further development and manufacture of the MMP for India, known as ATGM5.
The Milan-2 was originally introduced into service with the army in the late seventies and was produced in India by BDL under license since the early eighties. The Milan-2 had a single warhead which had limited capability to defeat modern tanks. The newer Milan-2T developed by MBDA had a tandem-warhead better suited to defeating modern tanks of the nineties and the early 2000s.The Milan-2T tandem-warhead ATGM has a range of 1,850 metres and can be fired from ground as well as vehicle-based launchers and can be deployed in Anti-Tank Role for both offensive & defensive tasks.
The Milan-2T remains in production at BDL, which received an order for 4,960 ATGMs in March last year, worth Rs 1,188 crore. BDL is to concluded deliveries for this order of nearly 5,000 ATGMs by 2024. The March 2021 order was a repeat order of an earlier order placed in March 2016 for nearly 5,000 ATGMs. The first Indian order for the Milan-2T was made with MBDA in December 2008 for 4,100 ATGMs worth Rs 567 crore.
Potential for More
French firms are now eyeing an Indian requirement for a Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV). An earlier 2017 Request for Information (RFI) for this advanced family of land combat vehicles was rescinded with a new one issued recently. The FRCV is aimed at replacing the Indian Army’s large fleet of T-72 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) in the early 2030s. French weapons systems specialist Nexter Group received the RFI in early June 2021, along with other global defence primes.
Nexter along with its partner Krauss Maffei Wegmann (KMW) is looking at the possible solutions it can offer to meet Indian requirements and is working with KNDS to respond to the RFI. The FRCV programme is being undertaken under the MoD’s “Strategic Partner” procedure in which an Indian private sector firm will partner with a global OEM for transfer of technology and in-country production. Nexter has already been successful in supplying the THL-20 20 mm cannon for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) built Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and Rudra armed helicopters.
Despite having a wide range of armoured vehicles on order, France has been unable to break open the Indian market for armoured vehicles. The only French armoured vehicle in service is the Arquus Sherpa (earlier known as Renault Sherpa) which has been ordered by the National Security Guard (NSG) and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has also undertaken trials with Sherpa armoured vehicles in the Kashmir valley. According to data available with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India received 14 Sherpa vehicles between 2013-2017.
The Sherpa Light has been delivered by Arquus to numerous armies and police forces in France and several NATO countries, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. The 11-tonne armoured vehicle can attain a speed of 110 kmph.
However, when it comes to artillery systems, the French firm has been trying to crack the Indian market for over a decade now. The Larsen & Toubro (L&T)-Nexter consortium has been working since 2011, to provide an effective solution to meet Indian Army requirements for modern artillery systems. Despite delays in its efforts to sell artillery systems to the army, Nexter remains hopeful of chances for its offerings for a Towed Gun System (TGS) and Mounted Gun System (MGS). The MGS shares the same gun used on the TGS offering.
In April, the ministry of defence issued a Request for Information (RFI) for procurement of 155 mm/ 52 Calibre Mounted Gun Systems. According to the RFI, army regiments are to be equipped with MGS’ to provide matching mobility for high intensity operations with mechanized forces. ‘The proposed 155 mm/ 52 Calibre Mounted Gun System will be employed in plains, mountains, high altitude area, semi desert and desert terrain along the Northern and Western Borders of the country for execution of artillery tasks,’ the RFI said.
The time consuming nature of Indian defence procurement is evident from the fact that the two companies announced their partnership in 2012 to collaborate on the 155mm/ 52 Cal TGS and MGS programmes. According to the agreed upon agreements between L&T and Nexter, the latter would transfer the production of sub-assemblies of its Trajan TGS and Caesar MGS and the final integration of both systems to L&T in India. L&T would also undertake the engineering customisation of the systems to fulfil India specific requirements.
Nexter’s Caesar MGS is a class-leading artillery weapon, that has been deployed since 2009, by the French and other armies in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mali and current operation in Sahel, Iraq, in Middle-East and East Asia. The 155mm/52 cal artillery system can fire six rounds per minute and using Base Bleed ERFB ammunition can engage targets out to ranges of more than 40km. When using rocket assisted ammunition, targets can be engaged as far away as 55km. More than 300 Caesar systems are in service or in production.
In February, Nexter announced that it had been awarded the contract for the development of the Caesar 6X6 Mark II new generation (NG) artillery system by the French Direction générale de l’armement (DGA), the programme’s prime contractor. The Caesar 6X6 Mark II is expected to enter production after an initial four-year development and qualification phase. The French DGA will explore two procurement options in 2024—the first to launch, new production of 109 new Caesar 6X6 Mark IIs, or to launch the production of 33 new Caesar 6X6 Mark II supplemented by retrofit of the 76 CAESARs in service today. As per current plans, 109 CAESARs 6X6 Mark IIs are to be delivered to French army artillery regiments by 2031.
The CAESAR 6X6 Mark II will be offered to export customers and retain the current configuration of the proven artillery system, with more than 100,000 rounds fired since 2009. The main improvements are related to crew protection and mobility, for which Nexter is incorporating a Level 2 mine and ballistic armoured cabin, which will be resistant to Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and small-calibre ammunition. Arquus will install a new 460 HP engine on the Caesar 6X6 Mark II in place of the current 215 HP engine, in addition to incorporating a new automatic gearbox and a new chassis.