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Assessing Indo-US defence ties

Manoj JoshiThere is an interesting, but uncomfortable dichotomy in United States’ relations with India and Pakistan. For India, there is untrammelled praise, soaring rhetoric about the two great democracies and our destiny as natural allies. But there is little else. Pakistan gets a lot of harsh words and complaints, but along with that comes generous dollops of aid —both military and developmental.

All of these have been on display in recent weeks in the visits of senior US officials to New Delhi on one hand, and the well-choreographed drama wherein the Pakistan Army has launched an offensive in North Waziristan, and the US has released $8 million in aid and will soon be forthcoming with the latest tranche of Coalition Support Funds, reportedly of the order of $300 million, with perhaps even more coming by way of security assistance and humanitarian aid in the coming months.

The US has emerged as a major supplier of defence equipment and  US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel pointed out that India had bought some $9 billion worth of US equipment. Pic/AFP
The US has emerged as a major supplier of defence equipment and  US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel pointed out that India had bought some $9 billion worth of US equipment. Pic/AFP

As for India, the rhetoric has soared even higher with US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel developing a connectedness between two countries, wherein one a tea-seller’s son becomes prime minister, and in another, the child of a Kenyan father becomes president. But for those looking at the substance of the relationship, it would be hard going. Yes, the US has emerged as a major supplier of defence equipment and as Hagel himself pointed out, India had bought some $9 billion worth of US equipment, mainly aircraft for the Navy and the Air Force. The US is also hoping to quickly close a number of other deals — $1.4 billion worth of Apache attack helicopters, $1.1 billion for 15 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, 4 more P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and so on.

But when it comes to India’s deepest desire — to become a defence industrial power, the US is somewhat circumspect. In October 2013, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington DC, we were conferred the title of “closest partner”. But as for actual agreements on these transfers, we are still some distance away. The Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation that was released at the time, committed the two countries to identify “collaborative projects in advanced defence technologies and systems, within the next year.”

A year before that, the then Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had announced a Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) whose self-stated goal of the initiative was to shift from a buyer-seller relationship to one involving co-production and co-development. As last year’s joint declaration put it, the “closest partners” would collaborate in “defence technology transfer, trade, research, co-development and co-production for defence articles and services, including the most advanced and sophisticated technology.”

But the search for collaborative projects has run up against the wall of an understandable US desire to keep its high-quality technology to itself. As it is, US licensing procedures and the Indian refusal to sign certain agreements such as the Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), have made forward movement difficult. The US, like all countries, which possess top-quality technology is not likely to share it with anyone. In that context, India’s decision to allow 49 per cent FDI means little.

Just how restricted the American perspective is likely to be is evident from what is on offer. In June this year, Frank Kendall, US Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the point man for the DTTI, said that the US had a “ground breaking offer” to share the next generation Javelin missile for co-development and co-production, a helicopter programme and an unmanned aerial vehicle programme and an artillery gun.

The gun, is presumably the M777 155 mm which the US is offering for direct sale. As for the Javelin, there is nothing particularly earth-shaking about the offer, since it is really about developing another kind of a warhead for the missile which is already in service with the US and several other countries. Further, the offer seems aimed at stymieing the sale of the Israeli Spike, which is a global competitor of the Javelin. The helicopter and the UAV, too, are items that are on a list for acquisition by India through a competitive process, since there are several potential vendors for the items.

There is nothing on the list which is unique, such as, for example, the nuclear propelled ballistic missile submarine or the supersonic Brahmos missile that Russia has helped India to build, or the long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) which is being co-developed with Israel. The Americans seem to be using the DTTI to push aside competing vendors, rather than offering something we would not be able to get elsewhere. If so, India needs to tread carefully because it has important arms and technology transfer relationships with some of the countries like Israel and Russia which it also needs to preserve since they have stood by us in difficult times in the past.

A lot of the things are hanging in the air because Indo-US relations are doing so as well. Given India’s reticence in giving any kind of political shape to the partnership with the US, Washington is understandably stringing New Delhi along with promises. Modi’s forthcoming visit to Washington DC could be an opportunity to move forward in some of the issues. But the problem today is the enormous geopolitical flux generated, in part by China’s growth and assertiveness, and in part by the chaos in the Middle East. Handled wisely, it could advance India’s cause, but if not, could well lead us to a dead-end.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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