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France-India naval exercise deepens strategic partnership


France and India concluded the latest iteration of their long-running naval exercise Varuna in the Indian Ocean in late January 2023 as they celebrate 25 years of strategic partnership and work toward “an ambitious agenda for renewing, expanding and deepening their cooperation.”

A French Navy carrier strike group (CSG) led by the nuclear-powered flagship Charles de Gaulle joined Indian Navy vessels and aircraft from January 16-23 for anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface drills, as well as air combat and replenishment-at-sea operations off the coast of Goa in southwest India. (Pictured: Rafale fighter jets are readied aboard the French Navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during exercise Varuna at Mormugao, India, in January 2023.)

“This joint deployment in the Indian Ocean contributes to ensuring stability in this region in line with France and India’s shared approach of collective security based on respect for international law at sea and in the air,” the French Embassy in New Delhi said in a statement.

The annual bilateral exercise dates to 1983 and in 2001 was renamed Varuna, a Hindu deity of the oceans and sky. “Strengthening military cooperation between two maritime forces, this exercise has demonstrated the resolve and commitment to bolstering regional maritime security and stability,” the Indian Navy said in a January 22 statement.

The two governments are discussing a potential deal for 26 French-made Rafale fighter jets to replace the Indian Navy’s fleet of Russian-made MiG fighters, The Hindu Businessline website reported in early January 2023. The Indian Air Force in late 2022 received the last of 36 Rafales under a 2016 agreement.

“The best way to assert our strategic autonomy is by cooperating together,” French Ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain said aboard the Charles de Gaulle a day after Varuna ended, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. “The two countries can co-produce lots of equipment for the defense and space sectors.”

The French Navy CSG is deployed in the Indian Ocean as part of its Antares mission, which began in November 2022 in the Mediterranean Sea and comprises a multilateral air and maritime force of 3,000 troops, according to the French Armed Forces Ministry.

In December 2022, the United States Navy destroyer USS Truxtun joined the CSG in the western Arabian Sea, where they sailed with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Suzutsuki, the U.S. Naval Institute’s USNI News reported. During Varuna, three French Navy Rafale fighters aboard the Charles de Gaulle flew 3,200 kilometers to Singapore for exercises with the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

The CSG and the JS Suzutsuki also conducted anti-aircraft warfare and other exercises in the Gulf of Aden with the Spanish frigate Santa Maria, which is deployed to the region as part of the European Union Naval Force’s counterpiracy operation Atalanta, according to the Spanish Navy.

“The Antares mission participates in strategic posturing by maintaining a visible and assumed presence of France in maritime areas,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement. “As a leading military player, France thus demonstrates that it can intervene in its areas of interest with significant capabilities, relying on the freedom of action allowed by the high seas.”



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