The United States has placed India in the category of ‘closest partners’ for defence cooperation. The official spin, that came out of Washington, following the meetings between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama last week, was that New Delhi would now be on the same footing as the closest allies of the US such as Britain when it comes to the transfer of defence technology.
That may be the endpoint that New Delhi and Washington have decided upon, but it is far from the current reality. Both sides would need to do an enormous amount of work to attain that goal.
The Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation arrived at between the two sides sets up an ambitious agenda when it says that they “look forward to the identification of specific opportunities for cooperative and collaborative projects in advanced defence technologies and systems, within the next year.”
The declaration goes on to add that the principle of ‘closest partners’ will apply in relation to “defence technology transfer, trade, research, co-development and co-production for defence articles and services, including the most advanced and sophisticated technology.”
But the caveats are contained in the next sentence which notes that “they will work to improve licensing processes” and that they “are also committed to protecting each other’s sensitive technology and information”.
These are both important issues, but in the main they require burning night oil and, in the case of sensitive information, some creative diplomacy. What is important is that the US has clearly signaled its strategic intent to build special ties with India. Few will deny the importance of the US, or any other country, needing to protect their sensitive technology and processes. This is not unique and the Russians are equally tough on this issue. But instead of pinning down India to its existing agreements such as the Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Americans could be well advised to work around the Indian skittishness by working out a new India-specific agreement which will protect its sensitive information and technology instead of fitting us into the CISMOA straitjacket. A rose by another name, smells as sweet.
As part of this process, the US has reiterated it support for India’s full membership in the four international export control regimes-which cover virtually every area of high tech in the world — which would further facilitate technology sharing. Most of America’s allies are part of these regimes and India’s entry would enable technology sharing and development as many companies dealing with defence technologies have subsidiaries or supply chains which extend to other countries who are close to the US.
But the biggest obstacle before us is India’s inability to identify the opportunities the US is offering, and then work the American system to take advantage of it. At present, India’s defence acquisition, design and development and production systems are ossified. You can present them the best of options and they will reject them. Without deep and enduring reform in the institutions and processes related to identifying and prioritising India’s defence needs and then acquiring them — either through import, or through domestic development — the US option will remain sterile.
The third clause of the joint declaration addresses this issue when it says, “The two sides will continue their efforts to strengthen mutual understanding of their respective procurement systems and approval processes, and to address process-related difficulties in defence trade, technology transfer and collaboration.” In other words, the US will continue to nudge India’s Ministry of Defence to undertake reform.
The US is clearly keen on pinning down India to specific projects which can be seen as Indo-US endeavours just as the Brahmos is an Indo-Russian one.
Brahmos missiles, a derivative of the Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missile is now a standard fitment in the most modern Indian Navy warships. Taking off from that, India and Russia are also collaborating on a fifth generation fighter and a medium multirole transport aircraft, both important projects.
There is nothing so ambitious in the Indo-US horizon as the FGFA or a MRTA as of now, but India needs to get down and do its homework. Though, of course, unlike the case with Russia, where the collaborations are between state owned companies, the Americans would prefer a hook up with the private sector, or, at least, the Indian public sector will have to learn with a private sector American partner. One of the easier options is the one being offered by the US to co-develop more lethal versions of the Javelin anti-tank missile. At the other end of the scale could be collaboration on aircraft carriers and nuclear propelled submarines.
In the last couple of years, the Ministry of Defence under the leadership of A K Antony, has appeared to shy away from any association with the United States. As part of this, India has avoided multilateral naval exercises involving US, Australia and Japan. However, an important element of confidence building this time was the announcement that India will participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise hosted by US Pacific Command in 2014.
How this ‘closest partner’ relationship unfolds remains to be seen. There should be no illusions that it will match the relationship that exists between the US and UK which is too unique to be replicated. Not only does it involve close business and technology associations, but almost seamless intelligence cooperation and it goes back 100 years to World War I. Neither, hopefully, will the relationship be of the ‘close’ type that the US has enjoyed with Pakistan.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi