MELBOURNE, Australia ― France will be deploying a detachment of combat aircraft to the Indo-Pacific region for a major air exercise in Australia and for additional interactions with Asian air forces, as France seeks to increase its presence in the region.

According to an announcement by the French Air Force, three Dassault Rafale fighters will leave France for Darwin in northern Australia in late July via stopovers in Al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

The Rafales will be joined by a French Air Force Boeing C-135FR Stratotanker, an Airbus A400M strategic airlifter and an Airbus A310 passenger transport aircraft for the deployment. From the UAE, a single Royal Australian Air Force Airbus KC-30A multirole tanker transport will accompany the French aircraft for the journey to Australia.

In Australia, the French will participate in Exercise Pitch Black, a biannual large-scale multinational air-combat exercise involving approximately 80 aircraft and personnel from 16 countries that will take place during three weeks in August.

Following Pitch Black, the French contingent will visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and then India before the Rafales return to Al-Dhafra between Aug. 19 and Sept. 4. The French deployment, code-named PEGASE 2018, will involve 90 French airmen and commandos along with 40 tons of technical and support equipment.

The PEGASE 2018 deployment is the largest French Air Force deployment to the region since six Dassault Mirage 2000s were deployed to the region in 2004, where they also took part in an earlier iteration of Exercise Pitch Black.

According to the French Air Force, the objectives of this deployment are to hone the ability of the French Air Force to deploy its air power globally, strengthen France’s presence in the strategic Indo-Pacific region and deepen relations with key regional countries.

The deployment will also serve as an opportunity to showcase the French defense and aerospace industry, with Indonesia and Malaysia being seen as like export opportunities for the Rafale and India looking for more fighters, having already purchased 36 of the French jets.

Singapore is also a possible candidate for A400M sales, with the oldest of its fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules airlifters approaching 60 years old.

The deployment is another sign of a growing French military presence in the region. French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, speaking at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore, noted that in 2017 no less than five French warships sailed through the Indo-Pacific, which is also where 3.5 million square miles of French exclusive economic zone, along with the territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, are located.

During her speech, Parly also indicated France will continue to step up its involvement in the region in areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism and upholding international law, as well as continuing efforts to deepen her country’s ties with regional nations.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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