Indo-US Defence Ties - retain the high

Photo(s): By Boeing, US Army
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


James Mattis, US Defense Secretary
Apache attack helicopter
CH-47F Chinook helicopter

There was some speculation as to how the Indo-US defence relationship would pan out under the new US President, as relationships do undergo change with new administrations. Not that there was any reason for any apprehensions considering the indications from the US post election of President Trump. President Trump had already called Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 24, four days after his swearing in as President, wherein he emphasized that the US considers India a true friend, and he looked forward to hosting PM Modi in the US later this year. The two leaders reportedly discussed opportunities to strengthen the bilateral partnership in broad areas like economy and defence. Then in February 9, the new US Defence Secretary General James Mattis called up Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. General Mattis committed to build upon the tremendous progress in bilateral defense cooperation made in recent years, underscoring the strategic importance of the US-India relationship and India's role in advancing global peace and security. The Pentagon Press Secretary Capt Jeff Davis released a press statement after the conversation saying, "Secretary Mattis and Minister Parrikar affirmed their commitment to sustain the momentum on key bilateral defense efforts to include the defense technology and trade initiative," Davis said after the phone call between the two leaders which took place yesterday. Earlier, Defence Minister Parrikar had written a letter congratulating Gen Mattis after his appointment. However, dates of a future meeting between Parrikar and Mattis are not indicated yet, especially since some changes are expected in the US defence set up. For example, the portfolio of Frank Kendall, Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) with India) is likely to be bifurcated.

Indo-US defence relationship have been growing strong with fluid geopolitical dynamics of the region and the Indo-Pacific, including the aggressive act of a bullish China. For example, while Chinese nuclear submarines are prowling the Indian Ocean and docking at Pakistani ports, Admiral Harry B Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, had stated on January 19, 2017 that US and Indian navies have been sharing information on the movement of Chinese submarines and ships in the Indian Ocean. He also said India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region. The 'Make in India' project offers tremendous scope for enlarging the Indo-US defence relationship. The US had proposed in December 2016 joint development and production of futuristic military helicopters as well as infantry combat vehicles in the first such big-ticket programs under the DTTI. The US had suggested that the future infantry combat vehicle (FICV) project can be a trilateral venture with the inclusion of Israel. However, this offer comes at a time when India is hiccupping its way through and indigenous FICV project with six bidders in the fray: OFB; L&T; Mahindra; Pipavav Defence & Offshore Engineering; five, Tata Motors-Bharat Forge consortium; and, Tata Power SED-Titagarh Wagons consortium. Whether India will let these bidders free to pick up their foreign partners (including American or Israeli or both) or review the project afresh in view of the US offer is the moot question. Reviewing the FICV project afresh will certainly delay the project by another few years.

The second US offer is for participation in its "future vertical-lift (FVL) aircraft" program, in which India has already shown interest. This program includes development of five different helicopters or "capability sets" over the next 15 years at a cost of around $8 billion. However, India is unlikely to go for all the five types of helicopters, which range from light-weight to heavy-lift ones. India has already inked $3.1 billion deal for 22 Apache attack and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from the US, which are slated for delivery in 2019-2020. At the same time, India and Russia have finalized joint production of 200 Kamov-226T light-utility helicopters worth $1 billion albeit getting this joint venture (JV) appears delayed, with Russians showing concern over the delay during the recent visit of NSA Ajit Doval to Russia. The problem may well be finances with the second successive negative defence allocation this year.

The Indian Armed Forces are in the hunt for 1,200 helicopters of different types over the next 15-20 years to replace their ageing fleets at an estimated cost of over 1.5 lakh crores. So while, Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) is also independently tasked to develop 187 Kamov type helicopters, the requirements are large. The US can certainly bring down its own defence budget by moving part of its arms industry to India, even as some of the skilled technicians may have to be brought in till skill development picks up in India. At the same time, the US must review its assistance to Pakistan as the hatchery of Islamic terrorism, which is backed by China. Taming the 'deep state' of Pakistan cannot be ignored if the Indo-US defence partnership is really to grow.