The first phase of the seventeenth edition of Exercise Varuna, the annual interaction at sea between the French Navy and the Indian Navy concluded on 10 May 2019. This included a harbour phase from 01-06 May followed by the sea phase off Goa from 7-10 May. The two navies put their respective forces through the paces and exercised a range of combat manoeuvres including advanced naval operations including carrier strike procedures, countering asymmetrical threats and live firing frills among others. The second leg of this exercise is scheduled to be held later this month off Djibouti where the French have had a significant naval presence for many years. The strategic importance of Djibouti and the Horn of Africa has attracted the increasing presence of extra-regional navies many of whom are now operating there. Unsurprisingly and true to form, the Chinese have been the first off the block and as part of their global maritime aspirations have established a full-fledged military base and stationed a substantial naval presence. The next step will probably be the basing of PLA(Navy) ships.
The Indian and French navies first exercised in 1993 though the formal Varuna series began in 2001. From very basic and small beginnings, where the two navies began to understand each other and their respective operating philosophies and imperatives, it has seen an incremental increase in its scope and depth over the years. This year included the participation of an aircraft carrier and a submarine from both sides and signalled France s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific and an exponentially deepening strategic engagement with India. It also showcased the enhanced level of interoperability between the two navies.
France s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle (with its full complement of air assets including the Rafale fighter jet), fresh from an extended maintenance period and subsequent exercises in West Asian waters was accompanied by the destroyers Forbin and Provence, the frigate Latouche-Treville, an underway replenishment ship FNS Marne and a French Amethyste class nuclear attack submarine. India s only aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, with the MiG 29K fighters embarked, the Type 15A guided missile destroyer, INS Mumbai. The Teg class stealth frigate INS Tarkash, Underway Replenishment ship INS Deepak and a Type 209 submarine, INS Shankul constituted the Indian force. The participation of aircraft carriers and submarines in any naval exercise is significant particularly in a bilateral context and indicates a deep military engagement between the two countries and a shared commitment to maritime security.
France has been one of India s most reliable supporters in the international arena. It has unwaveringly supported India s initiatives on global platforms. After the nuclear explosions of May 1998, when India faced opprobrium from most of the western world in the form of punitive sanctions, France stood steadfast in support of India. This was indeed the turning point in the Indo-French bilateral relationship and elevated it into the strategic domain. France has always championed India s bid for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council and recently presented a strong case for India s inclusion along with some other countries. Most recently, it played a major role in the UN Security Council initiative to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist which China had been repeatedly stonewalling, probably in deference to its close relationship with Pakistan.
It is not that France has not benefited from this support. India offers a huge market in the defence, space and nuclear sectors. Exporting defence equipment is one of the strength areas for the French and is actively supported by the French government at the highest levels. India s Project 75 submarine building programme is in collaboration with Naval Group, the partly state-owned defence company. The alacrity with which the of the Government-to-Government (G2G) agreement was concluded for the outright purchase of 36 Rafale jets bypassing many significant aspects of the India s onerous Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) reflects the depth of this relationship. After the civilian nuclear deal with the USA and once India became a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), France was one of the first countries to offer India a collaboration for building nuclear reactors.
Similarly, in the space sector too, India and France have shared a close relationship. From a maritime perspective, France is also a stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific with territories like Reunion Island, a base in Djibouti and deep links with its erstwhile colonies in this region. It is also a full member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and is therefore integral to the maritime developments in the region. In the geopolitical great game that has begun to play out in these waters, France will definitely seek to play a larger role and could well become a constituent in the arc of maritime democracies committed to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and ensuring the stability of a rules-based international order. The deployment of the aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle to these waters is a clear signal of this intent even though its current deployment may not be beyond Singapore.
At the Raisina Dialogue held in January 2019 in New Delhi, the Chief of the French Navy was part of a panel discussion on the regions maritime security challenges, the other constituents of which were four-star officers from the Quad nations ( the Indian and Japanese Naval Chiefs, the Australian Chief of Defence Staff and the Commander-in-Chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command). The significance of the French participation was not lost on anybody. In the recently established Indian Ocean region Information Fusion Centre established near New Delhi to enhance regional Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), France is one of the countries which is likely to position a liaison officer there in the near future. As important constituents and instruments of a nation s foreign policy objectives, the deployment of navies often indicates national intent. Exercise Varuna, in that sense, is therefore a microcosm of the bilateral Indo-French relationship and the enhanced scope of this exercise is a reflection of the depth of this bilateral engagement.
(The author of this article is a former submariner. Views expressed are personal.)