France’s President Francois Hollande cemented a new era in Franco-Indian relations by agreeing to collaborate on India’s space programme, as he met Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi yesterday. President Hollande was greeted as the guest of honour in time for the two-day festivities to mark India’s national day today. France has committed to aid India in its quest to place a lander on the surface of Mars, among fourteen agreements signed between the two countries. “After India’s Mars orbiter, the next step has to be a lander,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, President of CNES, France’s space agency, “a lander on Mars is not easy, but it will be interesting to undertake.”
India’s space programme has been gaining significant pace in recent years. The thrifty yet functional Mangalyan rocket, with its $74m price tag, succeeded in attaining orbit around Mars in 2014. As one of only four entities, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, to enter a Martian orbit, the Mangalyan mission propelled India into the upper tiers of the space community. “Mangalyan is a good example of Make in India and of low-cost space exploration” continued Le Gall. At a mere fraction of the US equivalent, which cost $671m, India has demonstrated its ability to make meaningful extra-terrestrial progress at a low cost. This is something France is willing to get a slice of – or is it?
Though much has been made of this cooperation, details are scarce. It is not yet revealed how exactly the space industries of the two nations will work together. However, what is certainly clear is France’s appetite for selling military equipment to India. There was a lucrative contract to provide military jets to the Asian country. India has now agreed to purchase a total of 126 Rafale fighter jets for the cost of $12bn. President Hollande stressed the importance of security cooperation between the “two great democracies”, alluding to future plans to work with India in surveillance against “terrorists who cannot abide liberty, democracy, or culture.”
Some may point to the apparent imbalance between these two sides of the deal. While a very detailed agreement with large figures surrounds the fighter jet deal, the aerospace cooperation and security plans are much less clear-cut. While the secrecy of the security deal may be due to confidential details, the cynics may suspect that the space agreement is little more than talk. With the Rafale deal netting France the equivalent of 162 Mangalyan missions, a little bit of space cooperation is a very small price to pay.