French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gestures while answering a question during a meeting in New Delhi. (AFP Photo)
French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, visiting India at present, spoke to foreign editor Pramit Pal Chaudhuri about the $15 billion (Rs 87990 crore) Rafale fighter deal that is stilling awaiting formal completion and the Indo-French defence relationship.
How would you describe the state of Indo-French defence relations today?
Over the past 15 years, despite changes in the democratic lives of our respective nations, there has been a steadfast continuity in our strategic partnership.
For me, this is the cornerstone of our relationship. I'd like to pay tribute to the deep commitment and long-term visions of your former prime ministers Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, the present incumbent, Manmohan Singh. India and France share the same goal and support each other in strengthening their strategic autonomy.
Our defence relation is a longstanding one, initiated more than 60 years ago with successful joint achievements, such as the Toofan/Ouragan helicopter as early as 1953 or later the Milan missile. I am convinced it will continue to grow in scope, in maturity and in strength.
It is now two years since the Rafale fighter was selected by the Indian defence ministry but the deal is yet to be finalised. What is the reason for this delay and how long is Dassault prepared to wait?
The Rafale was selected in February 2012. Negotiations take time – that's natural, they are progressing well and I am confident.
This is the biggest armament tender of the world, so we have to establish a collaboration with industrial partners that will last for decades and negotiate the clauses of the contract itself.
Dassault is fully committed to this historic and strategic project. I would recommend patience and optimism. As your external affairs minister once said in this regard, "A good French wine takes time to mature and so do good contracts."
The Rafale is principally designed to counter the Chinese Air Force. Yet it is a fourth-generation fighter at a time when China is testing a fifth-generation airplane. Will Rafale be outdated by the time it is fully inducted?
The Rafale is an omni-role aircraft designed to address the entire range of challenges that countries like France, India or others may face. I would take all the excitement about third or fourth or fifth-generation aircraft with a pinch of salt.
As of today, the only operational so-called 'fifth-generation' fighter has never been used in combat. Frankly, in real terms, the Rafale is as good as any existing fifth-generation aircraft.
As the British say, "the proof is in the pudding". The Rafale has been used extensively in Afghanistan, Libya in 2011 and in Mali since January 2013.
Its performance has surpassed expectations. As minister of defence I can testify to its outstanding performance. The Rafale can be upgraded to integrate the latest technologies and it has a clear roadmap for future development. We will partner with India in this endeavour.
The Scorpene submarine's induction is now four years behind schedule. Do you see this as an indication of the technical limitations of Indian defence partners, especially state-owned firms?
During the state visit of president François Hollande in February, I had visited the Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) shipyard to review the progress of the programme.
I was able to gauge its mastery of the manufacture of key equipment. Four years may seem long to you, but this project is a real technological, industrial and human challenge for a company that had stopped building submarines 10 years before.
They had to train the personnel. This is also the first time that the first submarine is being built directly in the client's shipyard. It's a performance whose initial results should be acknowledged.
Here, too, our partnership has been forged for the long term and with trust. This programme proves that, together, we can execute major projects.
France faces greater competition for the Indian defence market than before. Israel and the US are among the new entrants. Is there anything that differentiates France from these other countries when it comes to arms exports?
We competed against the United States and others for the MMRCA tender, and we are currently contending against Israel in artillery and Russia for light utility helicopters. Transparent competition is healthy.
It helps India to secure the most favourable terms and makes the companies outdo themselves to win. French manufacturers are offering their best equipment at the best price. May the best win!
As for the rest, France's position is quite well-known: an unambiguous political commitment vis-à-vis India, unbroken supply continuity – cast your mind back to Kargil, openness to transfer of technology and joint development of new weapons systems with Indian manufacturers, and the certainty of transparency as French law prohibits and punishes corruption. Not a single French company has been blacklisted by India.
The Indian government has announced a new push to indigenise defence production and reduce its arms imports. Would this be an obstacle to France's commercial defence engagement with India?
On the contrary, France is well placed to understand India's resolve. We have ourselves expended much energy and public funds over the past few decades in building an industrial base capable of supporting our own national defence.
This policy continues even today, generating employment and bolstering our economy. International cooperation is an integral part of this strategy. That's what we are quite successfully doing with India, and it's a win-win situation. Scorpene is a good example. Other French companies are ready to embark on such projects, too.
France is the European nation with the largest Indian Ocean military presence. Has India been forthcoming in cooperating with France in this sphere?
For France and India, the security of the Indian Ocean and the adjacent zones, such as the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf, are a shared interest. How can we ensure the security of the Indian Ocean without cooperating with India?
So that's what we are doing – by fighting piracy, through regular naval exercises, the construction of six Scorpene submarines in Mumbai that will be able to patrol in that area and others.
We also have regular exchanges between our military authorities and the French admiral commanding the Indian Ocean maritime zone was recently in Delhi and Goa.
We have a significant military presence with our bases in Reunion, Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. The nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and its Rafales will be patrolling the region by the end of this year.
Defence expenditure is shrinking rapidly in the West. Will this endanger France's ability to maintain an independent defence manufacturing base in such circumstances?
The scenario is not that drastic though Western countries are facing the biggest economic crisis in 40 years. President Hollande and his government are implementing several courageous reforms to preserve our social system and improve our competitiveness.
France attaches the utmost importance to her sovereignty and her strategic autonomy. The president has decided to maintain our defence spending for the future, ie $480 billion till 2025.
The French industrial sector is one of the best performing and is capable of adapting to market developments. The state will support it and our defence partners can rely on France.