MMRCA deal still some way off as irritants remain

Written by Huma Siddiqui | New Delhi | Updated: Jul 27 2013, 16:39pm hrs
Though India and France failed to ink the much-awaited $10.4-billion 126 MMRCA deal during the French defence minister's visit on Friday, the two sides discussed military cooperation, including high-technology areas involving joint research and development, and transfer of technology as well as the security situation in the Af-Pak region.

During the 90-minute talks, defence minister AK Antony and his counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, highlighted the ongoing military hardware cooperation, including the Dassault's Rafale combat aircraft deal. Besides the $6-billion Maitri surface-to-air missile defence system, delays in several deals, involving French interests such as the Rs 15,000-crore 197 light utility helicopters (LUH), Rs 7,500-crore six midair refuelers and Rs 13,000-crore six Scorpene conventional submarines, came up during the talks.

The LUH deal, too, has been cancelled twice in the last decade. It is again in a limbo now as the defence ministry has ordered a probe into alleged bribe demanded by an Indian Army Brigadier from the one of the initial bidders -- the Scorpene submarines.

The project, being carried out by French firm DCNS in collaboration with defence shipyard Mumbai-based Mazagon Docks, has been delayed by over four years.

Defence business apart, Le Drian discussed emerging conventional and non-conventional security risk scenarios in the South-Asian region, apart from maritime threats in the Indian Ocean region.

French firm Dassault Aviation bagged the deal for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) last year after being declared the lowest bidder, against EAD's Eurofighter.

The MMRCA deal is "complicated" and the contract has "technicalities and legal issues", including offsets and supply chain, to be worked out, a reliable source said, adding that France is "confident" of the deal being concluded. Eighteen of the 126 planes are to be purchased directly from Dassault, while Hindustan Aeronatics (HAL) is to manufacture the other 108 under a licence at a facility in Bangalore.

It is Le Drian's second visit to India. He will also visit the Indian Air Force station at Gwalior to see the French Mirage 2000s being used by the IAF and discuss their upgrade, estimated at Rs11,000 crore. He would also interact with pilots, officers and technicians who fly and maintain the fleet.

Later in the day, the visiting minister presented France White Paper on Defence At IDSA, that was released in April 2013. Delhi becomes the third venue around the world where the White Paper is being released, after London and Washington. He also gave a lecture on "Indo-French Defence Partnership: the Choice of Strategic Autonomy".