Thursday, July 23, 2009

French connection, déjà vu


By Taj M Khattak, former vice chief of the Naval Staff PN
Admiral Edouard Guillaud, military personal staff officer to French president Nicolas Sarkozi, heading a delegation on the follow-up of President Asif Ali Zardari's recent visit to Paris, called on the Pakistani president a few days ago and conveyed his government's decision to provide Tiger combat helicopters and other equipment to Pakistan to strengthen its abilities against the Taliban. None of the news agencies elaborated whether these will be ex-stock French army or newly built. But since its own operational requirements are not fully met, (the French Army has or will be placing a follow-on order for another 40), it would appear that these helicopters, in all probability, will be new. Since the start of the on-going military action against the Taliban, our leaders and officials say that these operations will be over soon. If that is so, then the French helicopters will be in the long-time service of the Pakistan Army. The Tigers will be equipped with air-to-ground missiles with semi-active laser-seekers with a range of several kilometres. A squadron or so of the "tank buster" can cause serious disruptions to the enemy's armoured divisions, so it should be good news for the Army.We have been using French weaponry for as long as my generation of officers can remember. The Pakistani Navy inducted Daphne-class submarines back in 1971, and made its mark almost immediately after its induction when the PNS/M Hangor sank INS Kukri in the 1971 Indo-PakistanI war, the first in an action of this nature since World War II. The Daphnes were followed by the Agosta 70 and later by Agosta 90 submarines, which are equipped with SM-39 Exocet subsurface-to-surface missile. The other success story had been the French AM-39 missile system onboard the British Sea King helicopters. Pakistan paid for the research and development of installing the Exocet onboard the Sea King helicopters, since this had never been attempted before and the idea originated from Vice Admiral H H Ahmed, who was chief of the Naval Staff after the 1971 fiasco. Under an agreement, Pakistan was to receive royalty from any Sea King sales with Exocets installed, but it is not known how many sales fell in this category or how much was paid to the government of Pakistan on this count, if at all. Considering the global population of these helicopters, something should have come into the national kitty for the labours of the late "Admiral H H," as we all fondly called him. The French-built Breaguet Atlantique long-range maritime surveillance aircraft had been in the service of the Navy for nearly three decades and are only now being replaced by the US P3C Orions. The PAF had been operating the Mirage aircraft for nearly three decades which, before the induction of the F-16s, had served its high-tech inventory vis-a-vis the Chinese aircraft of earlier vintage. One squadron of the Mirages had been fitted out to carry the Exocet for rapid response against any hostile threat at sea. The only blemish on this otherwise healthy relationship between France and Pakistan was the detention of the Pakistani Navy's submarine, PNS/M Khalid, after our nuclear explosion, when it had been handed over to the Navy and was flying the Pakistani ensign. This was an unheard-of breach of international law and norms. The earlier French acquisitions were relatively free from corrupt practices. The French not having perfected the art of commercial marketing in their early forays into Pakistan or the officials negotiating contracts were not for sale in the good-old days. The French military industrial conglomerate improved its reach beyond the service headquarters onto political offices. Recent reports suggest that the killing of the French technicians in Karachi on May 8, 2002, could have been ordered by someone not receiving what had been pledged. The French Parliament has formally constituted a committee to investigate the matter. The French niche market in submarine sales to Pakistan and some other traditional customers has also been adversely affected with the coming of age of the German competition. It is difficult to shake off the impression that the French downturn is unrelated to the acrimonious debate in the UN in the run-up to mustering support for the US attack on Iraq, where French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin passionately responded to Donald Rumsfeld's taunts to the EU to shake off the mindset of "old Europe." As if the French submarines losing competition was not bad enough, the United States' propping up of another European competitor, Spain, where US-based firms are supplying the crucial command and control systems for its S-80 submarine programme, has further dimmed the prospects for France to maintain its erstwhile near-total global monopoly on the sale of diesel submarines. So far just over two hundreds of the Tiger helicopters have been sold to the French, German, Spanish and Australian armies. This is not an impressive sales figure for a helicopter like Tiger. The French may be exploiting genuine business opportunities; given the lower level of US enthusiasm to sell the Apache helicopter to Pakistan, which is a fair effort. Pakistan's defence market, it is worthwhile to note, has not been too gainful for the French military industry in the last ten years or so. Apart from other, one of the main factors for this had been the opening of US origin equipment options post 9/11 after a spell of US sanctions which had been imposed in the wake of nuclear explosions by Pakistan in 1998.The Tiger can also fire Mistral ground-to-air missiles which should pose a threat to the Drones/UAVs activity in certain flight envelopes at low level. In the wake of President Zardari's visit to France, there have also been reports of French assistance to Pakistan in nuclear programmes, the details of which have not yet emerged but it is generally believed to relate to improve safeties, and where our efforts with the US had not been too successful. Whether or not France cocks a snoot at the US and arms the Tigers with Mistrals and goes ahead with nuclear assistance, however, remains to be seen. The celebrated writer Fredrick Forsyth's Dogs of War and the war merchants of the first world may push their carts of modern military wherewithal any way they wish, for such are the ways of the world. With the global economic crisis, jobs have to be maintained everywhere, France being no exception. What we are concerned with, however, is that the stink of corruption is in the air, and it is Pakistan's misfortune that today it is in trouble from more quarters than one. The French helicopters, or whatever other equipment there may be on sale as honest business practice to help us tide over our difficulties, is more than welcome. But if the helicopter or other defence sales, running into hundreds of millions of dollars, turn out to be the proverbial one man's misfortune becoming another person's paradise, then it should be resisted with full force. Déjà vu, it shouldn't be.
The write is a retired vice admiral and former vice chief of the Naval Staff. Email: tajkhattak@ymail.com

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