Indian Military Aviation’s -French Connection

anil chopra. air power asia, Indo-French Military Aviation

The Initial French Connection

          The French arrived in India at Pondicherry in 1674. They later created colonies at Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanam, Mahe and Chandanagar. All these were peacefully transferred to India in 1954. Paris and New Delhi have had warm and business friendly relations from the very beginning. French supported us during cold war and have also tacitly supported India as a nuclear power. India and France signed a strategic partnership in January 1998. French have been pioneers of world aviation. After WW II, Aviation designer Marcel Dassault re-built the aviation industry. The MD 450 ‘Ouragan’ was the first French-designed jet fighter-bomber to enter production. It was later operated by France, Israel, India, and El Salvador. One real solid pillar in the Indo-French relationship since early fifties has been that of Aerospace.

Ouragans (Indian name Toofani). Picture Source: .jetphotos.com

Aviation – Bond Unfolds

          In June 1953, India ordered 71 Ouragans (Indian name Toofani). Additional 33 second-hand came in 1957 and the total became 104. Toofanis faced combat in 1961Goa operations. They were also used in ground attack missions against rebels in Assam and Nagaland, and in 1962 for reconnaissance missions in the Sino-Indian war. Ouragans were replaced by another Dassault aircraft, the Mystere IVA in 1957.Toofanis withdrew from active IAF service in 1965, although they continued to be used for training and Target Towing for a few years. India procured 104 Mystere and used them extensively in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.  On 7 September 1965 an Indian Mystere shot down a Pakistani Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in a raid over Sargodha. The fleet was phased out by 1973.

IAF’s Dassault Mystere IVA. Picture Source: abpic.co.uk. Picture Credit: Glyn Ramsden

          Breguet Alize was a French carrier-based anti-submarine warfare aircraft. 12 were acquired by Indian Navy and operated from aircraft carrier Vikrant. They took part in Goa operations and in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Alizes operated till 1991. The Aerospatiale Alouette III a single-engine, French light utility helicopter was manufactured under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as ‘Chetak’. Two more versions, lighter ‘Cheetah’ and re-engine ‘Cheetal’ were later developed for high altitude operations including the Siachen glacier. These aircraft are still in service in India’s all three Armed Services and Indian Coast Guard.

Breguet Alize carrier-based anti-submarine warfare aircraft of Indian Navy. Picture Source: aviadejavu.ru

SEPECAT Jaguar

          After initial Cold war years, the Indo-French aerospace linkage got re-established when IAF purchased the British led, Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar, Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) in the seventies. IAF would become the largest single export customer, with a $1 billion order for the aircraft in 1978, the Jaguar being chosen ahead of the Dassault Mirage F1 and the Saab Viggen after a long and difficult evaluation process. The order involved 40 Jaguars built in the UK at Warton, and 120 licence-built aircraft from HAL under the local name Shamsher (“Sword of Justice”).

IAF’s SEPECAT Jaguar. Picture source: sps-aviation.com

          In the following phases most of the aircraft was built in India with less European content. A total of 80 aircraft were built by HAL. IAF pursued instead the development of a total new nav-attack system, called DARIN, that combined several technology from France, UK and other sources. This system was about ten times more reliable and even more precise than the older NAWASS. All the current IAF Jaguars are powered by Adour Mk811. DARIN III upgrade will cause additional weight problems due to addition of new avionics and radar, resulting in it becoming underpowered. Later IAF took decisions not to upgrade the engines due to budget problems. India continues to be the largest operator of this aircraft and currently has six squadrons. The aircraft have been repeatedly upgraded.

IAF Mirage 2000. Picture Source: results.amarujala.com

Mirage 2000

          In October 1982, India placed an order for the French Dassault Mirage 2000. 36 single-seat Mirage 2000H and 4 twin-seat Mirage 2000TH (with H standing for “Hindustan”) were first ordered, with the possibility of a follow-on purchase of nine aircraft (eight single and one twin-seat aircraft) as war, maintenance and attrition reserve. India also had the option to produce Mirage 2000s under license, but that option was not exercised. The Soviet MiG-29s were inducted instead. With the delivery of the first seven aircraft on 29 June 1985 to No. 7 Squadron, the “Battleaxes”, the IAF became the first foreign user of the type, which they renamed the “Vajra” (Sanskrit: Lightning, Thunderbolt). The service’s early aircraft were powered by the Snecma M53-5 engine which were quickly replaced by the more-powerful M53-P2 engine. The second Squadron to convert to the Mirage 2000 was No. 1 Squadron, “The Tigers”. The follow-on order of nine aircraft was signed in 1986.

Initial Mirage 2000 Pilots Trained in France

The Mirage 2000 was the first fly-By-Wire controlled aircraft of the sub-continent. The refuelling probe gave it enhanced range and armament carrying capability. This 9 g capable aircraft had weapon-integrated multi-mode radar with look-down/shoot-down capabilities. Modern air-to-air missiles, Super R530 F/D and Magic 2 were inducted. IAF got the first comprehensive EW suite on any aircraft with a self-protection jammer, Radar Warning Receiver, Chaff and Flare Dispenser, an escort jammer and an Elint Pod. 6.3 tonnes payload on nine pylons was a significant weapon mix. In March 1998 an agreement was concluded between HAL and Dassault Aviation authorizing HAL to offer over-hauling facilities for Mirage to IAF and global customers.

            In 1999, Kargil war, Mirage 2000 became the aircraft of choice for precision guided bombs strikes. This multi-role aircraft, the most advanced in the IAF then, performed remarkably well and was considered the game changer in the two-month war. The Mirage used the Paveway Laser Guided Bombs to destroy enemy command bunkers. Destruction of the logistics node at Muntho Dhalo by aerial bombing stopped all supplies to the Pak ground troops in the area, and forced an eraly end to the conflict. In this two month operation the two Mirage squadrons flew a total of 514 sorties. No. 1 Squadron flew 274 air defence and strike escort missions, while No. 7 Squadron conducted 240 strike missions during which it dropped 55,000 kg (121,000 lb) of ordnance.

Mirage 2000 during Kargil War. Picture Source: defenceupdate.in

            Due to the morale-boosting service of the Mirage 2000 in Kargil, it prompted the IAF to propose the acquisition of a further 126 aircraft. But the Indian government proposed a contest for the Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) in which the Mirage 2000-5, the Mikoyan MiG 35, Lockheed F-16, and Saab JAS-39 Gripen were contenders. Meanwhile, in 2004, the Indian government approved purchase of ten Mirage 2000Hs, featuring improved avionics, including an upgraded RDM 7 radar; they were delivered in 2007, making the total of 50 aircraft. Dassault later replaced the Mirage 2000 with the Rafale as its contender for MRCA as the Mirage 2000 production line was to be closed. Ten more Mirage 2000Hs were bought in 2004.

            In 2004, India announced its intention to upgrade its existing Mirage 2000s and extending its operational life by another 20–25 years.  After a period of protracted negotiations a $2.2 billion upgrade contract was signed in July 2011. The upgrade would be to Mirage 2000-5 Mk. 2 standard, with night vision-capable glass cockpit, upgraded navigation and IFF systems, advanced multi-mode multi-layered radar, and fully integrated electronic warfare suite, among others. In addition, the fleet’s inventory of Super 530D and Magic II missiles would be replaced by MICA missiles. The first of the two IAF Mirages sent to France to be upgraded. The new jets were redesignated Mirage 2000I for the single-seat version and Mirage 2000TI for the twin-seat version. Rest of the aircraft were upgraded in India by HAL. Most of the fleet has since been upgraded. 12 non-upgraded Mirage 2000 aircraft were used to strike the Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Balakot, in Pakistan in February 2019. The aircraft used Israeli Spice 2000 glide bombs.

Mirage 2000 with Israeli Spice 2000. Picture Source: Twitter @VishnuNDTV

Dassault Rafale

          Dassault Rafale emerged is the winner IAF’s 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender on 31 January 2012, leaving Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D, Mikoyan MiG-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18 E/F super hornet, and Saab JAS 39 Gripen behind in one of the toughest contests. The MMRCA was to fill the gap between IAF’s then still under development Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ and its in-service Sukhoi Su-30 MKI air superiority fighter. Dassault Rafale won the competition due its specification compliance and lower life-cycle cost. This twin-engine delta-wing aircraft is being called an omni-role fighter with semi-stealth capabilities. It is capable of simultaneously packaging air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and the airborne nuclear deterrent missions. It has reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and low infra-red signature. The aircraft’s RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is operationally tested. Mirage 2000 upgrade inducted the MICA missiles. Induction of Rafale will bring the MBDA Meteor BVR and SCALP-EG cruise missiles. Rafale has been used in combat over Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and more recently in Iraq and Syria as part of the international coalition against Daesh/ISIS/ISIL.

Rafale aircraft. Picture Source: thehindu.com

          The price and work share negotiations between France and India for the 126 aircraft were repeatedly stalled during both the UPA and NDA governments. Finally 23 September 2016, a contract was signed for 36 Rafale to be purchased off-the-shelf Rafale in a deal worth €7.8 billion with an option for 18 more at the same inflation-adjusted price. The first aircraft was received by India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh during a formal ceremony at Dassault plant in Bordeaux–Merignac. Indian pilots and technicians are under training in France and as per contract the aircraft are to arrive in India in May 2020. In view of COVID-19, the Rafale arrival at home base Ambala, India is now scheduled on 27 July 2020. All Rafale should be in India by 2022.

Rafale aircraft. Picture Source: forbesindia.com

MMRCA 2

          Since only 36 Rafale MMRCA could be procured, a fresh round for procuring to be “Made-in-India” fighters has begun. Responses for IAF’s Request for Information (RFI) for 114 4th-generation-plus fighters were received in July 2018. In contention are Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed F-16 Block 70 (now desognated F-21), Boeing F/A-18 E/F, JAS 39 Gripen NG, MiG-35 and SU-35. The Boeing F-15EX could also be a possible contender. The RFP which was to be issued by late 2019 has got delayed and may go out by late 2020. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can induct is 2025. Most analysts believe that just 36 Rafale is an operationally unviable number, and considering infrastructure has been set up at two airbases, at least 36 more need to be bought.

Airbus Military Variants

          India considers France as the most reliable Western ‘friend’. IAF has initiated a fresh hunt for new-generation Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) to extend the reach of its fighter jets. European Airbus A330 MRTT, American (Boeing KC-46A), and Russian (Il-78) are the three contenders. DRDO and the Bengaluru-based Centre for Air Borne Systems (CABS) launched a new project to build larger and more capable AWACS. Initially, two AWACS aircraft were to be developed, with four more to follow at a later stage. Clearances for the project were received from the government in January 2013, and in March 2015 a decision was made to purchase two Airbus A330, which was expanded to six planes in February 2017, the planes will also double as aerial refueler. The order has still to be placed.

A330 MRTT Multi-Role Tanker/Transport. Picture Source: breakingdefense.com

Joint Air Exercises

          As part of the strategic initiative of 1998, regular joint military exercises began between the two countries. The first of the Indo-French joint air-exercises’ ‘Garuda’ series was held in February 2003 at Gwalior. Thereafter they were held alternatively at France and India. Garuda V was held in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in May 2014 where the Rafale and Su-30 MKI practised cooperative combat. The most recent Garuda VI, was held at Mont-de-Marsan (southwest of France), from 1st to 12th July 2019. It was aimed at enhancing the interoperability level of the French and Indian crews in air defence and ground attack missions. The French Air Force deployed Rafale, Alpha Jet, Mirage 2000, C135, E3F, C130, Casa, and IAF fielded 4 Sukhoi Su-30 and 1 Ilyushin – took off for the southwest of France. They were air refuelled in the Mediterranean by a French C135.

Indo-French joint air-exercises’ ‘Garuda V’ at Jodhpur, India. Picture Source: in.ambafrance.org

Other Military Aviation and Strategic Support

          France also supplies turbomeca TM 333 and jointly developed the HAL/Turbomeca Shakti helicopter engines for HAL Dhruv. DRDO’s 3D Multi-Function Control Radar (MFCR) was developed as part of the Indian anti-ballistic missile programme in cooperation with THALES of France. DCNS is building six Scorpène submarines of the Kalvari class, which will be armed with SM.39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, under a technology transfer agreement at Mazagon Docks in Mumbai.

HAL/Turbomeca Shakti helicopter engine on LCH. Picture Source: business-standard.com

          ISRO and CNES (French National Space Agency) have an umbrella agreement, operating successfully since 1993, under which joint missions like Megha-Tropiques and SARAL have been successfully developed. ISRO also launched French SPOT Satellites (Spot-6 & SPOT-7) on PSLV satellite launch vehicles. Arianespace based at France has been the major provider of launch services to Indian Geo-Stationary satellites. 18 Indian satellites have been launched by Arianespace. On 7 October 2016, GSAT-18 communication satellite was launched successfully on board an Ariane 5 VA-231 launcher from Kourou, French Guyana.

Multi-facet Relation

With the establishment of the strategic partnership in 1998, there has been significant progress in all areas of bilateral cooperation and growing commercial exchanges including in strategic areas such as defence, nuclear energy and space. France was the first country with which India entered into an agreement on nuclear energy following the waiver given by International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. There is also a growing and wide-ranging cooperation in areas such as trade and investment, culture, science and technology and education. France has consistently supported India’s permanent membership of the UNSC. Both India and France are proponents of a multi-polar world led by regional democracies.

Indian airline companies are major clients for Airbus & ATR aircraft, and significant part of India’s civil airline fleet is composed of their aircraft. The Airbus engineering centre in Bangalore is a flagship site in India with 1800 employees. Airbus R&D focus in India is on high-end engineering and design activities that include flight physics, structures, systems and testing. Last 55 years French have supported Indian companies to autonomously produce aircraft, helicopters, radars and antitank missiles in India through transfer of technologies, transfer of licence and transfer of know-how. France is an all-weather friend ready to support PM Modi’s desire for ‘Make in India’.

– The Author was among the first few pilots originally trained in France on Mirage 2000.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

24 thoughts on “Indian Military Aviation’s -French Connection

  1. 35 years after its induction, the Mirage 2000 retains its exceptional potency as a frontline combat fleet of the IAF. Its capability, dependability and availability never in doubt. Kudos to the technical and logistic support guys for their inspiring efforts in enabling this. From Poomalai in 1987 to avenging Pulwama in 2019 with Kargil’s decisive winning strike by Namby, this platform of grace and might has never failed us. In its upgraded form, Dash5 Mk2, for sure the Mirage will remain a deadly and versatile asset of the IAF for some time to come.

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