A joint air force exercise between India and France concluded a few days ago. The exercise, called Garuda VII, was held in Jodhpur, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. The Indian Air Force’s Jodhpur Station hosted the bilateral exercise. The two countries began the Garuda series in India in 2003; Garuda VII was the seventh iteration. The previous editions were held in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2019.
According to an Indian Ministry of Defence press release, the exercise was held from October 26 to November 12. It involved the participation of a contingent of 220 personnel from France, with four Rafale fighter aircraft, and one A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft. The Indian side included the participation of Su-30 MKI, Rafale, LCA Tejas, Jaguar fighter aircraft, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), and Mi-17 helicopters. The press release said the Indian side would additionally include combat enabling assets like airborne refueling aircraft, AWACS and AEW&C.
The joint exercise was undertaken with the goal of augmenting the “operational capability and interoperability, while also sharing best practices.” Prior to the exercise, the IAF tweeted that: “The two week exercise will provide a platform to both the participating forces to enhance their operational synergy and exchange best practices.”
Demonstrating the level of ease between the two militaries, the two chiefs also flew jets, with Indian Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari flying a Rafale fighter aircraft and the French Air and Space Force Chief General Stephane Mille a Su-30 MKI fighter jet. The IAF tweeted that the “Chiefs from both the #IAF & @Armee_de_lair took to the skies in one of the multi-aircraft missions flown during #ExerciseGaruda. The unique flight provided the perfect overview of the Exercise to both the Commanders.”
With France one of India’s closest strategic partners, these exercises have become another important means to convey the breadth and depth of their bilateral security relations. During his visit to France in May 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that France is “one of India’s strongest partners” with their partnership encompassing a number of critical sectors including nuclear, defense, and space cooperation.
Even in broader terms, the two countries are more aligned, with a similar world view. For instance, the joint statement from the Modi visit underlined the fundamentals of their partnership as founded on mutual trust, respect for rule of law, their shared conceptualization of a multipolar world order, and their emphasis on multilateralism. The two leaders have also used every opportunity to highlight their commitment to basic tenets of the liberal world order including democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
The Garuda VII exercise should also be seen in the context of the growing defense cooperation between India and France. The recently concluded exercise is a display of what Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron said in their May 2022 joint statement. The joint statement noted the various joint exercises undertaken by the armed forces of the two countries (Shakti, Varuna, Pegase, Desert Knight, and Garuda), saying that these are “efforts towards better integration and interoperability wherever possible.”
France’s standing in the Indian Ocean as one of the more invested European partners means that India is very keen to build up the momentum in India-France maritime cooperation, which the two leaders said “has reached new levels of trust.” A joint strategic vision document specifically on the Indian Ocean brings out the imperative by highlighting that India has a “coastline of 7500 kms, more than 1380 islands and two million sq. km of Exclusive Economic Zone.” Similarly, France’s interests come from the fact that this is a region where 1.6 million of its citizens reside, in addition to its exclusive economic zone, “spanning 9.1 million sq. km in the Indo-Pacific.”
In fact, the Garuda VII Exercise comes in the backdrop of the 20th edition of the India-France VARUNA exercise conducted in the Arabian Sea in March-April 2022. These exercises have been conducted since 1993 and have become an important component of the deepening India-France bilateral partnership. Like the other series of exercises, VARUNA was undertaken with the goal “to enhance and hone their operational skills in maritime theatre, augment inter-operability to undertake maritime security operations and demonstrate their commitment to promote peace, security and stability in the region as an integrated force.”
In July this year, in another iteration of their close defense engagement, the Indian and French navies undertook a Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) in the North Atlantic Ocean. Naval ships from both sides engaged in replenishment at sea operations, which were followed by a joint air operation involving the “maritime surveillance aircraft Falcon 50 participating in multiple simulated missile engagements and air defence drills.”
Then in August, a contingent of the French Air and Space Force (FASF), including three Rafale fighter aircrafts, made a strategically important stop at the IAF’s Sulur base in Tamil Nadu on their way to a major military exercise, Exercise Pitch Black 2022 in Australia. The support provided by the IAF was made possible with the mutual logistics support agreement signed by the two countries in 2018 as a means to strengthen military cooperation. These are also demonstrative of the comfort level between the two sides, which has facilitated greater interoperability between the Indian and French navies.
The strong strategic and political foundation as well as the trust between India and France provide for accelerated defense and security ties in the coming years. Both New Delhi and Paris have concerns about the worsening security environment in the Indo-Pacific, and the role that China plays in fomenting this. This shared understanding will likely push for strengthened political consultations, security dialogues and military exercises that enhance their capacities to jointly address the security threats in the Indo-Pacific.