New Delhi: French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in New Delhi on Friday as India's chief guest on the occasion of the country's Republic Day, which falls on 26 January of each year. He is expected to make use of his visit to buttress existing strategic ties between the two countries and also, on the sidelines, to reassert traditional French presence in the lucrative Indian arms market.
India has become one of the largest arms importers in recent times as its defence services undergo long overdue modernisation, and also seek to match the rapid build up of offensive capabilities in the immediate neighbourhood. Indian defence sources have pointed out in recent times that India is set to spend $30 billion between 2007 and 2012 on defence preparedness.
Interested observers have let it be known that French companies are likely to be the sole bidders for a contract to upgrade the Indian Air Force's fleet of Mirage 2000 fighters. The contract is expected to be worth up to 1.5 billion euros. "We are expecting an announcement from India on Friday that they will soon launch a tender reserved for French companies," said Francois Dupont, India director for French defence firm Thales.
The Indian Air Force has a fleet of 52 Dassault Aviation-built Mirage-2000 fighters, which are due for a major upgrade.
President Sarkozy, in his talks with Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, may likely touch upon a source of recent irritation when a tender for the supply of 197 helicopters to the Indian Army was scrapped in controversial circumstances, after US firm Bell lost out to European company Eurocopter. A re-tender has been asked for and the French are keen that they not miss out on this deal, as it is likely to be expanded with the inclusion of the requirements of the Indian Air Force. This would make the number of units to be tendered for very impressive indeed.
The original Army deal was to be worth at least $600 million.
France is also in the race for the IAF's medium range multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender along with US, Russian and European rivals. The contract, expected to be worth at least $11 billion over its lifetime, will see the supply of at least 126 fighter jets to India.
The French are in contention with Dassault's Rafale fighter.
Once again Thales' India director, Francois Dupont, has been quoted as saying that Dassault Aviation would put in an "excellent bid" before bidding closes in March.
Thales is part of a consortium with Dassault and missile-maker MBDA backing the Rafale.
President Sarkozy is expected to touch upon old relationships that both countries share even as India is expected to mind the fact that the French have time and again helped out strategically. The Mirage 2000 was India's counter to the supply of F-16s to Pakistan and the French also stood by India in 1998, refusing to back US-led sanctions after India carried out a series of nuclear weapons tests.