PARIS — Russia’s growing unreliability as an arms supplier is giving France a prime opportunity to swoop in and accelerate its moves to make New Delhi one of the cornerstones of President Emmanuel Macron’s major strategic push in the Indo-Pacific region.
French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu heads to India on Sunday to boost ties with Paris’ longtime ally, ahead of a possible visit by Macron early next year. Officially the trip is a diplomatic charm offensive rather than a shameless attempt to sell weapons made by France Inc., but it’s impossible to ignore the hard-power component.
Since 1993, India and France have conducted joint naval exercises and France is already India’s No. 2 weapons supplier after Russia. It only counts in France’s favor that its war in Ukraine has widely exposed concerns about the quality of Russian weapons and Moscow’s ability to meet production deadlines for export under sanctions.
For India — set between a nuclear-capable Pakistan to the east and an increasingly aggressive China to the north — the effectiveness of weapons is a pressing concern. While it has diversified its suppliers in recent years, Russia still delivers nearly half of India’s arms.
“There is a sense of urgency in New Delhi to diversify, to find new sources and France is already seen as an important partner. [India] is ready to loosen its ties and diversify away,” said Garima Mohan, an EU-India expert with the German Marshall Fund.
The official version from the French is that Lecornu’s trip is not ostensibly about weapons — but he won’t be shy about how to find alternatives to Russia.
“We are not going there to sell military equipment, our aim is to mark the importance of the relationship,” said an advisor from France’s defense ministry, adding that Lecornu has been invited on board India’s “Vikrant” aircraft carrier in “a sign of goodwill” between France and India.
“[But] we can show them that European alternatives exist to Russian weapons,” he said.
The big test for France will be whether it can really ramp up manufacturing capacity to meet the massive demands of a military heavyweight such as India.
A trusted partner
In the race to win Indian military contracts, France sets off with a head start.
Last week, the French president discussed “deepening the strategic partnership” with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20, before flying off to a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, where he assured participants that France was committed to its presence in the region.
The two leaders share a warm relationship and have made references to each other as being good friends on social media in the last couple of years. French presidents have been cultivating the relationship since the 1990s, and Macron in particular never misses an opportunity to indulge in public displays of affection with India’s Modi.
“It’s the most important partnership within Europe. In a way, it’s the ‘special relationship,’ more than the relationship with Russia and the U.S. France and India have consistently been strong partners,” said Mohan, citing naval operations, interoperability and intelligence gathering as cooperation areas.
As India’s second-largest arms supplier, France has landed big-ticket arms deals in the past such as a Rafale fighter jet contract. In the naval sector, the relationship has deepened, as India and France — which has a string of islands and a vast maritime exclusion zone in the Indo-Pacific — find common ground faced with a more aggressive China.
“China is one of the great convergence points between France and India, one that is more or less admitted publicly. They need to watch what China is doing in terms of building connectivity and deploying war ships and submarines,” said Isabelle Saint-Mézard, a lecturer at the French Geopolitics Institute of the University of Paris.
But with Russia mired in its war with Ukraine, France’s relationship with India could move to a new level.
According to a 2020 study by the Stimson Center, 70 percent to 85 percent of the India armed forces work with Russian equipment and Modi’s government is already looking at reducing that dependence.
“A smarter government would have realized when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, it doesn’t make sense to put all one’s eggs in the same basket,” said one Indian analyst who works in the private sector and wanted to stay anonymous for professional reasons.
“There’s an understanding now that we haven’t purchased enough non-Russian weapons,” he said.
Far from being a showcase for Russia, the war in Ukraine has exposed shortcomings in the Russian military machine. According to a Ukrainian government report, many of Russia’s weapons are “ineffective” and “obsolete,” with missiles likely to miss their targets and armored vehicles vulnerable to small arms.
France’s industrial woes
For Macron, there may be a couple of tempting contracts up for grabs. The Indian air force is looking to upgrade its fleet of fighter jets, and buy over 100 new aircraft, and there is a tender for a submarine construction contract that has gone unanswered.
But there are issues of credibility for France. Its defense industry is struggling to ramp up its military production and respond to global demand and wartime needs since Russia invaded Ukraine. In June, Macron warned that France needed to build “a wartime economy,” with more investment, and simplified, faster production chains.
“They are planning to increase the output,” says Michel Goya, a French defense consultant and retired colonel. “But there are issues of production capacity and bureaucratic delays. The question is still whether our defense industry can transition from being a luxury craft business to becoming a mass production industry.”
France’s Caesar truck-mounted howitzers have attracted global attention over their efficiency in Ukraine but they take almost two years to build. France may see other suppliers such as the U.S., Israel or South Korea nab opportunities as they struggle to keep up.
France and its rivals may also struggle to unravel India’s relationship with Russia.
“Things don’t change overnight. India is so dependent on Russia … The purchase of aircrafts and very sophisticated weapons has tied them up in the medium term,” said Saint-Mézard. Modi’s government is also reluctant to alienate Russia and force it into seeking closer ties with India’s rival China.
Macron is playing the long game with India, but as China builds up its naval fleets, India keeps up and the focus of the U.S. turns to the Pacific Ocean, France risks finding it’s quickly out of its depth.