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Revisiting Indo-US defence proposals

Trump regime not keen to pass high technology to India, writes Arun Srivastava.

Revisiting Indo-US defence proposals
Defence related deals primarily drive the strategic partnership between India and US. There is no other propelling element. It is a vibrant deal till India responds positively to the American requirements. The strength of this partnership is judged by the nature and quantum of defence contracts. An analysis of the 'strategic partnership' between India and US and the defence deals struck, raises some serious questions regarding their utility and effects on achieving India's strategic interests. The Modi government had signed 147 procurement contracts worth over Rs 2.96 lakh crore in three years.

Though New Delhi is still not one of the top three importers from the USA, India's acquisitions from the USA have seen a manifold upswing during recent years. Before 2005, when the two countries signed the 10-year Defence Cooperation Framework, India barely acquired any major weapons from the USA. Imports in the last five years were 15 times higher than in the period 2005 to 2009 and included advanced systems such as the C-130J Hercules, C-17 Globemaster, and P-8I aircraft. The Indian defence budget is expected to reach $64.8 billion by 2020 with procurement expenditure projected to grow faster than overall spending.

In fact signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) last year, which allows the two militaries to access each other's logistic facilities, has virtually opened the floodgate for the USA. The latest deal which the Modi government has been contemplating to sign is the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). Initially, India was not ready to sign the deal. But now in the changed political scenario, India is not averse to the idea of having a new relationship with the USA. The government is no more scared of the domestic resentment to the new deal. Just before signing the LEMOA, the government was faced with a similar dilemma; of facing public criticism and outcry. But the Indians' reluctance to question the government of the ethical implication of the earlier deal, has further emboldened the government.

The prevailing mood in the ministry and government is quite satisfactory. It is now agreeable to signing the deal. In fact, the USA army officials nurse the view that COMCASA might be signed first, as "it deals with interoperability and stuff that we really need". This would amount to an Indian statement that would provide serious impetus to US-India defence ties in the early days of Trump. The signing of a second deal would not be much of a problem. The second agreement called the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation, facilitates secure digital mapping, because of intrusive security measures that come with safeguarded equipment, including inspections on Indian bases.

Though Jaitley is on the mission to accomplish the unfinished task of the former Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, the fact remains that the prime task for Jaitley is to test the water and prepare the future ground for the signing of the COMCASA deal. New Delhi does not intend to send the message that it was no more interested in having defence relations with the USA or impede the operational cooperation with America.

In fact, the US and Indian navies were cooperatively tracking Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, using the Boeing P-8 maritime aircraft. However, India's non-signature of COMCASA meant its P-8I (I for India) was supplied without the communications equipment needed to "talk" to the US Navy's P-8A (A for America). Parrikar was busy preparing a detailed policy on 'Make in India' in the defence sector by May, but his shift to Goa has virtually shelved the project.

The primary challenge before Jaitley is to ensure effective handling of the Make in India issue. It is an open secret that notwithstanding his flamboyance, Parrikar could not convince the bureaucrats of the USA intentions and take them along with him. Still, Make in India has to pick up the right direction and momentum. True enough taking advantage of the make in India slogan the American companies are also moving in the direction of turning into a junkyard. The bureaucracy objected to this US move.

India remains world's largest arms importer, with 14 per cent of total share. This includes the direct purchase of 36 French Rafale fighters for over Rs 60,000 crore. Since it came to office in May 2014, the Modi government has launched a major "Make in India" drive in the defence sector, but it's yet to translate into anything concrete on the ground. The import bill is further set to zoom upwards with some major deals, without any Make in India component, in the pipeline. The three forces need some 800 helicopters which also hinge on the strategic partnership and so does the production of fighter jets–some 300 are required to be produced in the next ten years.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the strategic dialogue between India and US remains, largely a platform for negotiating defence deals and provide further market access to the US companies. Recently the Indian government decided to modernise the ageing helicopter fleet through a deal of $2.5 billion for the US-made Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters. India will also buy 16 Sikorsky S-70B Sea Hawk helicopters. These deals underline the swiftness with which India is arming itself with U.S defence hardware. This alacrity makes it clear that in future India will have to depend on US arms and supplies.

Parrikar during his tenure of over two years managed to clear several critical purchases including the purchase of 21 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers along with 145 howitzers and bulk production of 18 Dhanush artillery guns to strengthen its artillery firepower, which has been seen any purchases since Bofors scandal. Parrikar also made the biggest deal of his tenure in September last year, when India had inked a Euro 7.87 billion (approx Rs 59,000 crore) deal with France for purchasing 36 Rafale warplanes. In fact, Jaitley had earlier held the additional responsibility of defence from May to November 2014."We have a continuous government, and I will take it up from where Parrikar has left it," he told reporters here.

India has bought significant aircraft from the US. The more India plays the Pakistan card, the more India is limiting itself in strategic terms as a South Asian power rather than the supposed projection of India as an Indian Ocean power.

After his arrival in Washington, Jaitley told in clear words that India is formulating policy to help major global defence companies set up manufacturing units in the country in collaboration with Indian firms. It leaves little ambiguity about the government's intentions. Jaitley also said. "Hopefully in the years to come, the impact of this change as far as defence manufacturing policy is concerned would be visible in India. It is receiving a good response from major manufacturers," Jaitley said without giving any details.

Meanwhile, two senators have written letters to the Trump administration to push for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to India as well as to approve a drone sale to the country. Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner sent letters this week to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis in this regards.

On April 18, almost three months after Donald Trump was sworn in as US President, his National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, visited New Delhi - the first high-level US official to visit India to pick up the strings of defence and security ties that had flourished under Barack Obama. Surprisingly the US officials have been goading India: "Don't you think India should buy the F-16 fighter to demonstrate support to the new President?" This is a ridiculous proposal. Since India is not a US ally, the Trump administration should refrain from dictating the terms. However, it is unfortunate that the Indian political leadership has not been seriously resisting such US offers. The USA officials raising this issue owes primarily to the Trump administration's default mindset which is transactional, rather than strategic.

Going by the recent developments, it is sure that America is not too willing to help India strategically. While New Delhi looks at the US defence relationship as a source of high technology for building indigenous defence weaponry, American Defence Secretary Mattis wants to shift the relationship's focus from technology transfer to operational cooperation between the two militaries. In other words, the USA wants India to act as a military ally.

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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