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With Deals for Drones & Jet Engines, India's Talks With US Boost Defence Sector

The big takeaway as far as defence deals go is the agreement on the transfer of jet engine manufacturing knowhow.

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PM Modi’s state visit to the USA from 21-22 June was rich in diplomatic protocol and media optics. The fact that he is now one of the few global leaders to have addressed the US Congress twice is testimony to his political profile.

The underlying determinant for the very successful Modi visit is an implicit acknowledgement by Washington of India’s critical relevance in the larger global strategic framework which has been convulsed by both the COVID 19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

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Focus on Defence Sector 

The Joint statement issued at the end of the visit (on 22 June) is expansive –at 58 paragraphs, totalling 6465 words. Predictably, the defence sector received detailed mention in the opening section and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, as a grouping is referenced in the very first paragraph, providing the contextual underpinning to the Biden-Modi summit. It notes: “Our cooperation will serve the global good as we work through a range of multilateral and regional groupings – particularly the Quad – to contribute toward a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific.”

The big take-away as far as defence deals go is the agreement on the transfer of jet engine manufacturing knowhow, and both leaders “hailed the landmark signing of an MoU between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the manufacture of GE F-414 jet engines in India, for the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Light Combat Aircraft Mk 2. This trailblazing initiative to manufacture F-414 engines in India will enable greater transfer of U.S. jet engine technology than ever before.”

Another major inventory item that has been brought back into summit  focus is the supply of armed drones by the USA which had been mooted in the past, but remained dormant due to the lack of agreement on certain technology transfer clauses.

The Modi visit has enabled an agreement to be inked for a government-to- government, or G2G supply of 31 MQ-9B armed drones worth USD 3 billion.

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A History of India-US Bilateral Relations

Every bilateral summit builds on the progress made in past decades and the India-US defence relationship is illustrative of this.

The post-Cold War foundation for anchoring the then ‘estranged’ India-US partnership was laid by the economic liberalisation ushered in by PM Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, and infused with traction by the May 1998 nuclear tests under the stewardship of PM Vajpayee.

While the initial US reaction to India going nuclear was one of anger and outrage, India’s quiet resolve to safeguard its core strategic interests in the Asian framework led to a gradual rapprochement symbolised by the visit of President Bill Clinton to India in early 2000. His address to the Indian parliament received a standing ovation at the time symbolising a closure to 'estrangement.'

The major transformation of the bilateral relationship occurred in the 2005-08 period when PM Manmohan Singh was able to consolidate the historic accommodation on the long-festering nuclear issue provided by President George W Bush in late 2008.

The estranged bilateral relationship moved to one of cautious engagement – the equivalent of two prickly ‘democratic’ porcupines trying to become friends, slowly, a quill at a time – and has since gathered momentum in a steady manner.

PM Modi in his remarks at Washington acknowledged the contribution of past Indian and US leaders in steering the bilateral to its present comfort level, but also added that specific to defence: “Indeed, we were strangers in defence cooperation at the turn of the century. Now, the US has become one of our most important defence partners.”

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Technological Cooperation

Since 2009 (Obama watch), the US has emerged as a significant supplier of military inventory and India has acquired almost USD 20 billion worth of modern equipment and platforms. These include maritime reconnaissance aircraft, heavy lift transport aircraft (C 130 J Hercules), helicopters (Apache and Chinook), and lightweight 155 mm Howitzers (M 777).

While these plans to manufacture the jet engine (F-414) and the drones over the next few years are very welcome, the real substance and potential is in the primacy accorded high-tech cooperation. In his address to the US Congress, Modi asserted: “Technology will determine security, prosperity and leadership in the 21st century” and this domain has been flagged for a variety of partnerships with the US private sector.

The Joint statement recalls many of the areas for engagement that have been identified in the past, but one track that merits notice is the primacy accorded to new technologies that will shape the military capabilities of major nations. 

The two leaders “reiterated their resolve to strengthen maritime security cooperation, including through enhanced underwater domain awareness and welcomed the launch of dialogues in new defence domains including space and AI, which will enhance capacity building, knowledge, and expertise.”

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New protocols have been evolved for bilateral cooperation and training of Indian HR in critical technologies, and also enhanced defence manufacturers interaction. While there is promising potential for scaling up what has been envisaged in the Biden-Modi blueprint such that India’s core military capabilities are enhanced progressively – particularly the trans-border component, Delhi (PMO) will have to ensure that the traditional roadblocks and bureaucratic  ‘hesitations of history’ are dealt with appropriately.

The degree to which India can maximise the lofty hi-tech contour of the outcomes indicated in the Joint statement will shape Delhi’s ability to protect its core security interests and ward off what Modi described as ‘the dark clouds of coercion and confrontation’.

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As Stanford University don Professor Arogyaswami J Paulraj and Marconi Prize winner (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in telecommunications) opined: “Today, a strong commercial technology base, is an essential prerequisite to build a sustainable advanced military technology industry. Therefore, an important goal for India is to first enter and successfully compete in advanced technology manufacturing industries like semiconductors and commercial jets. These industries have very high entry barriers due to their R&D, innovation, and IP intensity. To succeed, India must build a truly world-class foundational R&D infrastructure. The US, with its superb research universities and labs, can be an effective partner for India.”

The ball is in India’s court and Delhi must demonstrate its resolve to walk the talk.

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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