Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached the United States where he will address the US Congress along with the various meetings with US leaders and industry heads. Much expectations have been built back home for the outcome of the visit and the US industry is also quite excited at the prospects of cooperation in the business front expanding in many horizons.
One of the major factors of such prospects is the focus on technology cooperation across many areas including the strategic avenues of defence, space, cyber security, Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing, advanced materials, semiconductors, next-gen telecom, and biotech.
The bilateral strategic partnership between India and the US practically was established with the signing of the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) agreement in 2005. Post the agreement, many avenues of technology cooperation started primarily in the nuclear and defence sectors and India purchased many US defence equipment and platforms.
Defence Ties Take Centre stage
In 2016, the US government declared India as a 'Major Defence Partner’ (MDP) which allowed India to receive defence technologies at par with those provided to the US’ closest allies in Natoplus-5. In the same year, India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lemoa) –one of the three foundational defence pacts needed to be signed by a country to obtain hi-tech military hardware from the US and then in September 2018, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa) was signed and in October 2020, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation too was effected.
Apart from the foundational agreements, the signing of the Memorandum of Intent (MoI) between the US Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation-Innovations for Defence Excellence (DIO-iDEX) in December 2018, has set the roadmap for possible defence research on a sustained basis. A further boost was provided with the signing of the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) during the 2+2 dialogue in December 2019, which provided the framework for exchange and collaboration between private industries from both countries.
Defence cooperation and the focus on transforming that relationship from a buyer-seller relationship to that of partnership where some elements of the equipment and supply chain ecosystem could be met from India was supported by both countries and DIO-iDEX gave the right fillip to look at the various possibilities where technology made in India could find their space in the systems that went to the equipment.
With the fostering of the INDUS X platform, Indian & American defence start-ups can work more closely with co-production and procurement opportunities in both countries and explore and expand technological developments.
But harnessing strengths in technology in related areas besides the core defence sector was also seen as a natural step forward. With US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Modi announcing the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) in May 2022 to elevate and expand the strategic technology partnership and defence industrial cooperation between the governments, businesses, and academic institutions of the two countries, the scope expanded for wider areas of technology cooperation. The two-track 1.5 discussions that happened in January and June this year in Washington DC and New Delhi respectively attended by the national security advisers of both countries have set the achievable goals more realistically and in the shortest time possible.
Technology, AI To Bolster Bilateralism
Clearly, these steps work to mutual advantage. India’s tryst with digital technologies and the participation of Indian companies in this domain have been transformative and many Indian companies have leveraged AI technologies and contributed in enhancing the capabilities of weapons and equipment.
Quite a few US companies, across industries including those in the Big Tech sector, have established large R&D centers in India, engaging Indian talent in cutting-edge projects. The emerging opportunities to harness Indian talents and technological build-ups as well as the geopolitical challenges arising out of China's assertiveness in harnessing critical and emerging technologies for belligerence have necessitated a tighter response and capacity building.
The semiconductor sector is an area where India not only showed interest but took steps to incentivise investments in technology and manufacturing setup after announcing India’s Semiconductor Mission (ISM) in March 2022.
In March this year, India and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on semiconductor supply chain and innovation partnership during the Commercial Dialogue 2023 and under that, agreed to establish a collaborative mechanism between the two governments on semiconductor supply chain resilience and diversification in view of the US' CHIPS and Science Act and ISM.
The task force involving ISM, India Electronics Semiconductor Association (IESA), and the US Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) to develop a "readiness assessment” to identify near-term opportunities and facilitate longer-term development of semiconductor ecosystems will be a step in the right direction to determine possible areas of cooperation.
The US has already indicated its support for the development of a fabrication ecosystem in India and has encouraged joint ventures and partnerships for mature technology nodes and advanced packaging.
Indo-US Joint Strategic Ventures
A focus on quantum technologies has already been envisaged and both sides have established a quantum coordination mechanism with participation from industry and academia. This is very crucial as there are capabilities available in India for quantum key generations and related technologies that can be used by both the countries the establish secure networks across sectors.
With India opening up the space sector, the possibilities of ISRO working together with NASA on human space flight opportunities, NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project and STEM talent exchanges could enhance further opportunities have been identified. The inaugural US-India Advanced Domains Defense Dialogue (AD3) in Mat this year has identified areas for deepening collaboration on evolving new defense domains, with an emphasis on space and AI and iCET would provide an opportunity to work on identified areas.
AI offers significant opportunities to collaborate on many fronts right from setting standards to using the technology for specific areas of strategic usage. Already a lot of projects are working in both countries for using AI to optimise performance and they could be jointly harnessed for specified projects. At the same time, focus on accelerated computing should also be envisaged so that the usage of specialised processors like GPUs that are cost-effective and more efficient are enhanced. On High-Performance Computing (HPC), the US should be more forthright to transfer technology to India so that mission mode projects like the Hydrogen mission can be undertaken more optimally.
In next generation telecommunications, 5G and 6G discussions have been on the table and the deployment of the Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) for these telecom networks in select Indian cities is likely to see bilateral cooperation. These pilot projects could be taken to other countries and will be a trusted network compared to the scare around the Huawei systems.
Looking ahead, there is a substantial agenda to be undertaken in the coming years, with defined areas of cooperation and a supportive tech community. For now, the much-awaited transfer of technology of the GE-F414 fighter aircraft engine for manufacturing in India to go on board India’s indigenous LCA ‘Tejas’ Mk II and other future fighters will be a big confidence booster. This will ensure that export control regulations and bureaucratic processes do not impede the progress of the India-US strategic technology cooperation.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around Northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)