22.An Umbrella of French Connections in the Indian Ocean Region- A Naval Perspective

(Published in Defence and Security Alert, Jun 2013)

An Umbrella of French Connections in the Indian Ocean Region- A Naval Perspective

France continues to accord strategic importance to the Indian Ocean region in the post cold war scenario. This article aims to highlight how France has cultivated and nurtured its influence in the region through its geographical presence/ naval ties and the interdependencies developed through military equipment sales.

France has its out posts at Mayotte & La Reunion and military bases in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi. The Mayotte archipelago consists of two major islands and a number of small islets between NE Mozambique and NW Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel. Though geographically it is a part of the Comoro Islands, its people preferred accession to France in 2009. The Foreign Legion detachment in Mayotte has strength of 270 personal and can act as a rapid reaction force. This contingent exercises mainly with Madagascar armed forces, adds to security and maritime surveillance of the Mozambique Channel and can be used for humanitarian assistance tasks in the area. Mayotte has an EEZ of 63,078 sq kms. Reunion (La Reunion) is an island ~120 kms SW of Mauritius and East of Madagascar. Reunion provides a convenient access to SLOCS in eastern and southern coast of Africa. France maintains a small naval presence at Reunion islands through its naval base at Point des Galets, which has a frigate, a support ship and some patrol craft. Reunion has an EEZ of 31, 5058 sq kms.

Republic of Djibouti is strategically located in the horn of Africa, with Gulf of Aden and Red Sea as its eastern borders. It shares its borders with Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Djibouti’s location offers a controlling position over the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Its Camp Lemonnier military base (ex France) has been leased to USA and is being upgraded by an investment of $1.4 billion to house over 1000 US Special Forces. France, under a defence treaty, pays €30 million/year for keeping up to 3000 troops under the Forces Françaises de Djibouti. France has also stationed marine, air force and army units at Djibouti with fighter aircrafts at Ambouli airport. Djibouti provides a military access to SLOCS between Red Sea and Indian Ocean, which carry the bulk of French energy supplies. Interestingly, since 2012, China too has got a foothold in Djibouti, as its China Harbour Engineering Company is executing a $64 million project of constructing an ore terminal for export of salt to SE Asia.

“The permanent French military installation in Abu Dhabi shows the responsibility that France, as a global power, agrees to assume with its closest partners, in a region that is a fault line for the whole world,” President Nicholas Sarkozy, 2009.

In 2009, France signed an agreement with Emirates to operate a military base at Abu Dhabi. The naval base is at port Mina Zayed and can berth French naval ships except aircraft carriers. The air force base is at Al Dhafra which can house fighter aircraft. The Army base (Urban Combat Training and intelligence) is at Zayed and the famous 13th Démi-Brigade de la Légion Étrangère has been relocated to this base from Djibouti, without diluting the French military presence at Djibouti. Abu Dhabi is located near the junction of Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. This base provides France access to the SLOCS in Persian Gulf and ensures safety of its oil supplies.

In 2011 France has signed an agreement with Kenya for cooperation in the fields of international security, economic partnership, and scientific collaboration amongst others. France has also gifted a patrol boat for helping Kenya in its fight against sea piracy. France has nurtured its relationship with South Africa with which it holds regular military exercises. Both countries are looking for greater cooperation in ensuring maritime security in association with other countries. France, Mozambique and South Africa carried out ‘Operation Oxide’ an anti-piracy naval exercise in 2011.

In addition to the above, the French presence also comprises of its Territory of the French Southern and Antarctica Lands , which have Scattered Islands (around Madagascar),Crozet Islands (South of Madagascar), and the St. Paul, Amsterdam and the Kerguelen Islands in southern Indian Ocean. Further south, it has its claims in the Antarctica.  The Combined EEZ of all the French territories in the Indian Ocean amounts to around 1 million sq kms! The claimed EEZ in the Antarctica region is about 1.7 million sq kms.

Thus it can be seen that France has a significant strategic presence from Emirates in the Persian Gulf, Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden, off Madagascar and down to the Kerguelen islands in the Southern Indian Ocean Region. Further it has ensured that its national interests in its energy supply lines and the extensive EEZ are carefully monitored and guarded.

Export of Military Equipment.         France had been the third largest exporter of military equipment till last year when it was overtaken by China.     Military exports have very high significance in building deep security bonds with the recipient states, as unlike the commercial purchase agreements, the military hardware has other commitments and costs attached to it. Military contracts require consent of the participating governments (which more often than not lead to hefty payoffs).These contracts last over much longer periods due to requirements of spares and subsequent upgrades, the equipment is by and large unique and the costs of replacing the same with similar items from a different country, often entails setting up of completely new infrastructure with its testing and maintenance facilities. The purchase prices are not easy to compare, they depend to a large extent upon the relationships between the supplier and the recipient state.

States engage in defence purchases to hedge against the eventuality of confronting perceived /actual adversaries, so they need assurances of continued and quick supplies during break out of hostilities. They also expect that the supplier being a developed country would exert influence in their favour in the international forum, and if need be, they reciprocate by taking stances as called upon to by the supplier state. The military equipment supply contracts are  mutually complex, dependent upon foreign policy and impinge upon national interests of both the countries, they are not necessarily available to a state with just a large amount of surplus cash. Such contracts thus create a strategic mutual interdependency for the states.

France has been a major arms supplier to the region enveloping the Indian Ocean, as can be illustratively deciphered from the EU report for Arms Export[1] pertaining to declarations by member countries for the year 2009. France has exported military equipment to following regions during 2009:-

NE Asia (comprising China, Both Koreas, Japan, Mongolia and Taiwan) – €432687787/-.

S Asia (Comprising of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) – € 1144433941/-.

SE Asia (Comprising of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, Vietnam) – € 662697312/-.

In addition to the above, military equipment sales in the general region buffeting the Indian Ocean, i.e. to Sub Saharan Africa (€ 206824042/-) and Oceania (€ 669510368/-) indicate seriousness of strategic interests of France in the Indian Ocean Region. In fact France has created an overarching umbrella of strategic relationships in this region which can only be out matched by USA.

Coming to arms sales to India and Pakistan in 2009, the EU report reveals that France sold defence equipment worth € 224144732/- to Pakistan and worth         € 914654240/- to India. As far as Pakistan is concerned, since April 2010, France has suspended sale of Missiles and other electronic equipment worth € 6 billion meant for JF-17 aircraft. It is understood that France was worried about protection of its technology as the items were to be assembled in Pakistan.

Franco-Indian Naval Links.            Indian Navy has been carrying out joint naval exercises with French Navy since 1993, however it is to the credit of the French Navy that it was the first navy to re-commence the exercises in 2000, post the 1998 Pokhran blasts. The joint exercise was carried out with the aim to validate tactical doctrines and new weapons and sensors, it was titled ‘Springex 2000’.Indian Navy has subsequently institutionalised the annual exercises with French Navy and they are called ‘Varuna’. The last Varuna exercise in 2012 was carried out in the Mediterranean. It comprised replenishment at sea, surface and air target strikes, helicopter operations, and anti submarine warfare amongst others. Such exercises have led to development of joint operating doctrines in carrying out Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and anti piracy operations.

Another very significant strategic factor for the Indian Navy is the technology transfer in respect of the French Scorpene submarines, a contract for the same was inked by India in 2005, with Armaris (Thales) and Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) for construction of 6 Scorpene class submarines in India, at a cost of € 3 billion. The submarines would be assembled at Mazagon Dockyard Limited MDL, but all the critical parts like torpedo tubes, missile launchers, sonars, propellers, etc. would be manufactured by DCN and the electronic packages would be provided by Thales. The Scorpenes are supposed to be better than the Agosta 90B’s supplied by France to Pakistan. The Scorpene has a heavier hull, higher speed and a lesser manning complement. It can be fitted with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system. The first four are likely to be the CM-2000 version with 12PA4 V 200 SMDS diesel electric propulsion system, having a length of 61.7 metres and a displacement of 1565 tons. The last two could be the AM-2000 version with both the diesel electric as well as the MESMA AIP system. The AIP version could be 70 meters in length with a displacement of 1870 tons. The submarines will be equipped with Submarine Tactical Integrated Combat System SUBTICS, Integrated long range sonar suite S-Cube, search and attack periscopes by Thales Optronic Systems, and SATCOM / VLS communication systems by Elbit systems.

The armament suite would comprise of up to four SM 39 Exocet (by MBDA) missiles (36 SM-39 have already been ordered) with a range of 180 kms and up to 16 torpedoes (not yet finalised) of the type Blackshark/Sea hake/Spearfish etc. The submarine delivery has however suffered delays due to problems at MDL, procurement of items from local sources and pulling out by the Spanish consultant Navantia. However $75 million worth of contract orders have already been placed by DCNS for Indigenous procurement with companies like Flash Forge, Visakhapatnam and SEC Industries Hyderabad. Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering Company Ltd is likely to forge strategic partnership with DCNS for building warships. The success of the submarine programme is imperative in realising blue water aspirations of the Indian Navy.  

Further, in February this year, France and India have signed a contract worth $6 billion to co-develop a Short Range Surface to Air Missile, by MBDA and DRDO, for deployment by both the Indian Navy and the Indian Air force.

Thus it can be seen that as far as the Indian Navy is concerned the Indo-French cooperative strategic relationship is well entrenched and likely to flourish more and more with passage of time and maturity.

The sphere of influence being desired by France in the Indian Ocean region has been shaped by a combination of its own energy and EEZ security requirements as well as by forging long term relationships with countries through supply of military equipment. In a way, France has sprinkled its gems wisely and commands influence far in access to its maritime forces in the area. Its major competitor today is the United States, with which it has friendly relations. However with China ramping up its own influence in the region by providing lucrative arms deals, affordable infrastructure and a rapidly growing PLA Navy, France would face a serious contender especially since it will not be able to match the prices offered by either China or the USA.

As far as India is concerned it is on a path of indigenous weapon development and production, therefore the foreign constituents in military procurement would rapidly reduce within the next decade. There appear no conflict of interests between aspirations of France and India in the IOR region. France has set the tone by engaging with India in a strategic outreach of transfer of technology and joint development ventures in defence, nuclear power and satellites, it only has to nurture this with foresight to become the main partner in the story of India’s indigenisation and its gradual rise as a regional power.


[1] Twelfth annual report according to article 8(2) of council common position 2008/944/cf sp defining common rules governing control of exports of military Technology and equipment. Official Journal of the European Un ion (2011/C 9/01)

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