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India-US defence ties grow with assertive Modi govt

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has continued the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s strategic policy of multi-alignment, pursuing close ties with each of the world’s major power centres; leveraging each relationship with the combined weight of the others. Even so, New Delhi is nurturing some ties more carefully, especially those with the US and Japan – which have strategic and military components, as well as powerful economic drivers. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the chief guest at Republic Day last year, and US President Barack Obama will attend the parade in New Delhi this year.

The Washington-New Delhi embrace had already built up steam under the UPA, with US officials visiting India practically every week. However, former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s administration carefully underplayed the engagement – largely due to opposition from within his party, especially from his defence minister, A K Antony. Influential US thinkers like Ashley Tellis complained: “The bilateral partnership is not going forward, only sideways.”

That is in the past. Now the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, with a confident prime minister in the driving seat, has rebranded the US-India relationship with the vibrant symbolism of Narendra Modi’s jamboree at Madison Square Garden in New York. This would only be enhanced next week by President Obama’s two-hour appearance amid Indian throngs on January 26.

While the two governments engage across a plethora of issues, both see defence and security as holding the greatest promise for mutual benefit. So far, only intelligence cooperation has seen a real convergence, driven partly by the domain expertise of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Top Indian intelligence officials say there is an unprecedented level of intelligence sharing, including on topics that both sides earlier regarded as off-limits. New Delhi is especially pleased with information about India-focused groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

In contrast, defence cooperation has not achieved its potential. Both sides agree privately that China constitutes a common challenge. Yet, with New Delhi unwilling to align overtly with Washington, cooperation is couched in the rubric of humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) and “protection of the global commons”, through counter-piracy missions and upholding the right to navigation through international waters.

Even so, US-India bilateral army, navy and air force exercises have grown in frequency, scope and sophistication. The US now does more exercises with India than with any other country, such as the annual Exercise Malabar that involves both navies. In 2007, the scope of Malabar had been vastly expanded with the additional participation of the Australian, Japanese and Singapore navies. After China expressed concern, New Delhi hastily reverted to a bilateral Malabar. But India again invited Japan in 2014 and appears likely to expand Malabar further.

The US-India equipment relationship has so far remained a buyer-seller one. Last February, Jane’s Defence Group named the US as India’s biggest arms supplier in 2013, supplanting Russia, France and Israel. Interpreting arms sales is an inexact science but various compilations, such as one by Dinshaw Mistry of the US-based East-West Center, concludes US sales have topped $ 9 billion over the past decade.

India’s arms purchases of $ 400 million in 2001-2004 expanded during the 2005-2008 period to over $ 3.2 billion. This includes the USS Trenton, an amphibious ship, for $ 50 million, twenty General Electric F-404 engines for the Tejas fighter for $ 100 million, six C-130J Super Hercules special mission aircraft for almost $ 1 billion, and eight Boeing P-8I maritime control aircraft for $ 2.1 billion.

From 2009 to 2013, India’s defence purchases from the US grew to $ 5.7 billion. These include 500 CBU-97 sensor-fuzed weapons for Jaguar aircraft for $ 250 million, 40 Harpoon anti-ship missiles for $ 370 million, six additional C-130J Hercules for about $ 1 billion and 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster-III transport aircraft for $ 4.12 billion.

Over the coming year or two, India could buy another $ 8.3 billion worth of US kit. In the procurement pipeline are 145 howitzers from BAE Systems for about $ 700 million, 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters for $ 1.4 billion. 275 F-125 aircraft engines for Jaguars for about $ 2 billion, 50 F-404 aircraft engines worth $ 250 million, four additional P-8I aircraft for $ 1 billion, 15 Chinook CH-47F heavy-lift helicopters for $ 1 billion, and six more C-17 transport aircraft for $ 2 billion.

Now Modi’s Make in India campaign is reinforcing New Delhi’s longstanding preference for co-manufacturing and co-developing weaponry, rather than simply buying equipment from the US. This faces structural constraints, given America’s rigid export control regimes that condition technology transfer on close scrutiny and time-consuming permissions. To bridge this gap between New Delhi’s and Washington’s bureaucracies, and to jointly identify opportunities for defence cooperation, the two governments set up the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012, co-chaired by senior officials from both sides.

Though the DTTI was driven hard from Washington by the then deputy secretary of state, Ashley Carter, it achieved little due to the UPA defence ministry’s reluctance to engage on this platform. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon co-chaired DTTI from the Indian side, with the ministry playing almost no role.

Now, circumstances are again propitious for a rejuvenated DTTI. The India-friendly Ashley Carter has been named US Secretary of Defense, while the NDA government has named Secretary of Defence Production

G Mohan Kumar to co-chair the DTTI, alongside US Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Licensing Frank Kendall.

A highlight of Obama’s visit could be the signing of a New Framework Defence Agreement between the two countries, which would be valid for a decade from mid-2015. The earlier agreement, signed in Washington in 2005, mandated 13 areas of cooperation, but the Pentagon believes New Delhi has stonewalled throughout. US negotiators are now trying to incorporate oversight and review mechanisms in the new framework agreement, so that cooperation targets can be set and monitored.

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