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Similar to his last visit to the US, PRIME Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to travel to France to attend the Bastille Day parade as its chief guest. Many anticipate that he would announce some important deals for the Indian Navy during this trip. In both local and international military and security circles, there is widespread speculation that PM Modi’s invitation to the joyous July 14 event in Paris was made in anticipation of the two parties announcing their long-awaited government-to-government (G2G) defence contracts.

These included the purchase of 26 Dassault Rafale-Maritime (M) fighters and at least three additional Scorpene-class diesel-electric ‘Killer-Hunter’ conventional submarines, also known as SSKs, to supplement six other vessels of a similar design that Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) began building under licence in Mumbai starting in 2006 on. The visit to Paris may also lead to India’s acceptance of France’s participation in the Navy’s nascent programme to domestically produce six nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, at the covert Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam through a technology transfer.

It is useful to examine these three hypothetical agreements. First, following trials at the Navy’s shore-based test facility in Goa in 2022, it is thought that the Navy has recently shortlisted the twin-engine, canard delta-wing Rafale-M over Boeing’s F/A-18 Block-III ‘Super Hornet’ naval fighter for potential deployment aboard INS Vikrant, the recently commissioned aircraft carrier. Given the overall operational performance of the French fighter in flight trials compared to the F/A-18s, but especially 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, it is reported that it recently informed the Ministry of Defence of its preference for Rafale-Ms.

In addition, Dassault built a maintenance and flight training facility for the fighters at Ambala as part of the IAF’s Rafale purchase, which the Navy rationally reasoned would support its potential $5–6 billion Rafale-M purchase by lowering procurement costs and speeding up platform induction. The Russian MiG-29K/KUB naval fighters, of which the service had purchased 45 between 2004 and 2010 for $2.29 billion, had proven to be operationally problematic, therefore the Navy needed to swiftly finalise its fighter acquisition for Vikrant. The Navy was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General for technically accepting these Russian platforms even though they were “riddled with problems, discrepancies, and anomalies” in their July 2016 report.

Second, after the Navy’s botched and continuously delayed 16-year-old Project 75-India (P-75I) programme, to locally build six SSKs in collaboration with a foreign original equipment manufacturer, 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.

The “lost decade” between 1995 and 2005, when MDL’s submarine construction facilities were idle due to a corruption scandal involving the import of four German HDW Type 209/1500 SSKs for the Navy, which ultimately went unresolved, would be avoided significantly by a follow-on tender for these three boats.

Two of these German boats were built by MDL under the terms of this contract, however due to the alleged irregularities in the transaction, all submarine construction in the Mumbai shipyard was put on hold for ten years. After that, new dockyard facilities were revived for the Scorpene programme circa 2005–2006 at a significant cost, and experienced engineers, mechanics, and underwater welders were engaged once more. When senior MoD officials visited MDL in 2022, they reported that the six Scorpene submarines had already been finished, leaving significant parts of the dockyard’s submarine-building facilities abandoned and dotted with groups of idle workers. All of these leaders agreed that the Navy could not afford to repeat such a mistake.

The Navy, Department of Atomic Energy, Defence Research and Development Organisation, and other allied entities will work with France to domestically construct six SSNs. The government initially gave the Navy’s SSN project approval in early 2015, and the first of these 6,000-ton boats is expected to be finished in 2032 or 2033. The four locally designed and built 7,000 tonne Arihant class nuclear powered missile submarines (SSBNs), which were built with Russian know-how and technical assistance, particularly in regards to downsizing their 82.5 MW pressurised light water reactors, were meant to be operationally supported and supplemented by the SSNs.

The third platform of this type, simply referred to as S4, will be launched in late 2021 once INS Arighat, the second comparable boat, has finished receiving further fittings. The SSBN programme is currently moving forward at a rapid speed in isolation at Visakhapatnam. These SSBNs are an essential part of India’s strategic trifecta, which aims to maintain New Delhi’s credible nuclear deterrent and no-first-use posture.

Early in 2023, France made the offer to work with India to jointly develop SSNs as part of its atmanirbharta initiative, which aims to increase material self-sufficiency. This technology transfer was based on France’s Barracuda-class SSNs, the first of which, INS Suffren, was commissioned into the French Navy in mid-2022. The 4.765-tonne Suffren, designed by the Naval Group, which also created the Scorpene boats, is the first of six SSNs that are expected to be operational by 2030 and will each cost more than $2 billion apiece.

In order to make up for Australia summarily rejecting Naval Design’s tender to provide the Royal Australian Navy with 12 conventional diesel-electric Attack-class submarines for more than $60 billion in late 2021, the French are still hungry for this agreement with India. Instead, Australia signed the AUKUS trilateral agreement, which includes the US, UK, and Australia, for the purchase of eight SSNs for $368 billion. Since the future of Russia’s support for India’s nuclear submarine programme is dubious in light of the severe sanctions imposed on Moscow for annexing Ukraine, India is also open to such collaboration with France.

Thus, similar to PM Modi’s successful US tour, during which the Pentagon confirmed many significant defence purchases, his Paris visit might enhance India’s military’s long-delayed modernization and operational capabilities via the G2G path.

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