Friday, 5 June 2020

The Indo-US military courtship

Updated: April 20, 2016 10:01 am

Predictably, the agreement “in principle” to sign a “Logistics Support Agreement” that allows the Indian and American militaries to use each other’s land, air and naval bases for resupplies, repair and rest has evoked angry reactions in certain quarters in India. This agreement was reached during the just-concluded visit of the US Secretary for Defence Ashton Carter to India. Of course, the exact wordings of this agreement are still being worked out and this exercise may take few weeks more. But for the Left parties and habitual bashers of the present regime, this agreement will make India a client state of the United States. However, such an apprehension is misplaced.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has rightly pointed out that concerns that the agreement would end up in US troops being based in India are unwarranted since the agreement pertains only to sharing of resources like fuel, water and food and is needed as bilateral engagements between India and the United States have gone up of late, both in quality and number. In fact, but for the pressures from the Communist parties, the previous UPA government would have signed such an agreement. In any case, American military was given access to Indian resources in the past by none other than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. After the military debacle against China in 1962, Nehru had allowed not only the US aircraft to maintain and supply troops in Leh (Jammu and Kashmir) and in the northeast but also secret US spy missions through U-2 aircraft that overflew periodically into China and were stationed at the Charbatia airbase in the state of Odisha.

It may be noted here that Parrikar and Carter have met three times within last 12 months, with Parrikar going to America once and Carter coming to India twice. This, in itself, is an important development. This implies, among others, that since 1998 when India faced many sanctions for its nuclear tests, the military or for that matter the overall strategic relationship between India and the United states has made significant strides. If Carter is to be believed then America’s military cooperation with India is qualitatively much higher than its military ties with Pakistan. He says that Pakistan’s military importance for the US is limited to fighting terrorism whereas India is seen by America as a global partner in more senses than one.

In the  blog that he wrote in The Times of India  on the eve of his three-day visit to India, (commencing on April 10), Carter argued that the United States and India did not only  have a shared vision for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, they also “share another handshake, a technological one. In 2012, our two countries created the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), a unique initiative that is unlike anything the United States does with any other partner. The kind of co-production and co-development that the DTTI encourages – and is beginning to facilitate – directly complements Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The United States welcomes India’s entry into global defence supply chains and endeavours to support India’s efforts to contribute not only its own security but others’ as well.”

Some features of current Indo-Us military ties are worth noting. First, Indo-US military exercises have grown dramatically in size, scope and sophistication over the years.  The two have regular exercises across all services that help deepen their military and defence, and the number of such exercises (more than 50 every year) is said to be higher than similar bilateral exercises with other countries.

Secondly, the U.S. has already become the largest arms supplier to India over the last five years, overtaking Russia.  From a mere $200 million in 2009, India’s defence imports from the US increased to $ 2 billion in 2013. Over the last five years, the US has sold to India over $ 10 billion (Rs.60, 000 crore) worth military components and materials, including C-130J Super Hercules transport planes, the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the C-17 Globemasters. But this is not all. India has agreed not only to buy more C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster, it will also acquire Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters for the Indian Air Force, valued at $2.5 billion. If one views the overall air-assets, India is also favourably disposed to acquiring American Sikorsky-70B choppers to fulfill the Navy’s Multi-Role Helicopter requirement for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.

Other American technologies on offer for India include design and build of hand-launched “Raven Mini” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), roll-on roll-off surveillance and other kits for C-130J Hercules transporters, Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Source (MEHPS) for grid-independent power generation in remote areas, and Uniform Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment 2 (UIPE-I2) apparel for protection of soldiers against chemical and biological weapons. Besides, India and the US are exploring “joint development” of aircraft carrier technologies and jet engines.

But then there is a catch. So far, all the US systems that India has acquired have come through the tried-and-tested Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, the route that does not involve other competitors from other nations. Of course, this route has eliminated the scope of the potential corruption that is often noticed in big military deals; but the fact also remains that the FMS model does not involve transfer of technology (ToT) or local assembly options that are otherwise essential in modern defence deals between the seller and the buyer, particularly so if the buyer happens to be a developing country.

However, the US is now more than willing to transform its defence cooperation with India from “simply buying and selling” to “co-production, co-development, and freer exchange of technology”. The US says that it wants “a defence industrial partnership” with India. And this fits well with Modi’s “Make in India” programme, inviting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the defence sector. To this end, the role of DTTI in developing new areas of technology cooperation in the defence sector including through co-development and co-production assumes significance.

Of course, one has to be a little cautious with regard to actual progress of the Indo-US defence industrial partnership. How the DTTI will overcome the bureaucratic hurdles in both the countries remains to be seen. It may work with low-end products such as Raven Mini UAV, arguably the world’s most sold and battle tested mini UAVs in operation since 2005 and the roll-on-roll-off suites for the Hercules 130J that can be rapidly placed on board the transporter when required for surveillance (or weaponisation and self-protection suites). But what about the high or cutting-edge technologies that are debarred for exports or collaborations by various US departments and nonproliferation regimes such as Missile and Technology Control Regime (MTCR)? It may be noted that Indian Navy’s P-8I aircraft did not have key communications system and Combat Management system fitted in the original American ones on the ground that India was not a signatory to many control regimes. US Company Moog Inc, which specialises in designing and manufacturer of motion and fluid controls and control systems for applications in aerospace, did not supply Rotary Actuator for Rustom-2 UAV as it failed to get the export clearance licence by US authorities.  All told, the US is usually loath to part with its most puissant capabilities unless it believes that it shares a fundamental affinity of interests with another nation. In fact, the US is thinking of limiting its sharing of high technologies with its European allies, Israel and South Korea, suspecting as it does that these countries are selling defence technologies to China!

Secondly, when one talks of US investment in Indian defence sector, it should be realised that the ability of the American government to be a source of investment is quite limited. It simply does not have enough investible reserves. Instead, the investible resources are in the US private sectors, which, in turn, make their own judgments of where to invest, depending on the recipient country’s infrastructures, legal regime, administrative machinery, and above all broad political consensus on liberalisation of the economy. There is then another limiting factor of the present inabilities of the India’s arms industries to absorb the technologies that foreign companies are prepared to transfer.

It may be noted in this context that if India and France have still not been able to fructify the Rafale MMRCA deal, it is due to as much monetary factor as the lack of absorptive capability for the licensed production of the Rafale.

Unfortunately, the Modi government has a lot to do on all these fronts. As Indian American strategic expert Ashley J Tellis rightly argues, in the ultimate analysis it all boils down to “how Modi pictures India positioning itself as a partner that is valuable enough to the United States to warrant giving it privileged access to America’s most sophisticated capabilities”.

 Prakash Nanda

 By Prakash Nanda

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