US President Donald Trump has just concluded his maiden visit to India. Clearly, the optics and optimism complement the opportunities that still define the growing bilateral relationship between these two countries. This relationship, as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the joint news conference with President Trump on Tuesday, will now be elevated to a comprehensive global strategic partnership (CGSP).
One of the key areas of this engagement is the defence and strategic partnership, which is centred around increased military exercises, selling of defence equipment and capacity building, strategic bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and homeland security. The continuation of the “2+2 dialogue” – meetings between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US – from the last one held in Washington in December 2019 (the first “2+2” having taken place in September 2018 in New Delhi, after Modi and Trump green-signalled the mechanism in August 2017), expanded to India’s two other 2+2s (with Japan and Australia) are stepping stones towards CGSP.
During this presidential visit, defence deals worth $3 billion were inked. These include the purchase of 24 Sikorsky MH-60 multi-role Romeo helicopters for the Indian Navy under the foreign military sales (FMS) route of the US, and six Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army, which would be a follow-on from 22 Apaches for the Indian Air Force, 17 of which have already been delivered.
With these deals, India’s defence sales from the US have now exceeded $20 billion in just over a decade. While most of the deals have been through the FMS route, other mechanisms like the direct commercial sale (DCS) route and hybrid procurements are also increasing – as is the case with the Apaches, a DCS between Boeing and the Indian defence ministry and an FMS between the government of India and the US government.
The fuselage and aerostructures of the Apache choppers will be manufactured by Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL) in Hyderabad. Both TBAL and Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Ltd (TLMAL) manufacturing hubs are harbingers for more engaging and symbiotic relations, moving away from the buyer-seller relationship.
This also provides a fillip to the “Make in India” and “Make for the World” initiatives of Prime Minister Modi’s administration. It will also take forward the recommendations made by the July 2015 Dhirendra Singh Committee report looking into “Make in India” within the defence sector. The report emphasised on building India’s defence manufacturing capacity at multiple tiers in its 43 recommendations.
In 2016, the US government declared India as a “Major Defence Partner” (MDP). This 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), the first of the three foundational defence pacts that needs to be signed by a country to obtain hi-tech military hardware from the US.
In September 2018, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa) was also signed, and very soon, the remaining pact, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation will also be signed. Simultaneously, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) that was started in 2012 between the two countries has also set its target to look at avenues to facilitate a collaborative approach towards joint development, and then ultimately take it to production stage.
The four areas in the first phase and the next two have been now supplemented with the signing of another three projects during the 2+2 dialogue. Standard operating procedures for setting forth future implementation guidelines have also been finalised.
In December 2018, 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) had also 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, which provides the framework for exchange and collaboration between private industries from both the countries.
Despite the steady progress in many areas, a remaining need was to optimise the possibilities with a more focused approach. Defence technology transfers from the US, and subsequent manufacturing in India under licensing, have to be fostered with the ISA signed. This is crucial to bring the Indian military industrial ecosystem to scale, and also to support the nascent and aspirational Indian private sector to invest further in the defence sector. Clearly, CGSP will have to factor all this in more closely.
The writer is a defence and cybersecurity analyst, ECONOMIC TIMES OF INDIA