By Ajai Shukla
Defence & Security of India (DSI) magazine,
India’s defence relationship with the United Kingdom has been a roller coaster ride. While all three wings of the Indian military existed as independent entities long before independence, they were inextricably interlinked with the British armed forces in terms of organisation, ethos and equipment profile. This tradition continued after independence in 1947, with British officers initially commanding India’s army, navy and air force (not without controversy, but that’s another story!) and with British equipment --- emblemized by Centurion tanks, Hunter and Gnat fighters; and Leander class frigates --- continuing to equip major sections of this country’s military. But India’s embrace of the Soviet Union and its growing distrust of the western camp after sanctions were first imposed in 1974 saw the military tilt towards the eastern bloc, particularly in its equipment profile.
Today, the wheel has turned full circle. From a barely-disguised Soviet ally, India is pursuing a policy of multi-alignment, strengthening its relationship with every major global power centre. And with 9/11 focusing western attention towards South Asia, a stable, democratic and economically vibrant India has become an irresistible partner --- both strategic and economic --- for the United States and, in its wake, the United Kingdom. That multi-alignment is beginning to be reflected in India’s equipment procurement profile, with a rapidly growing share sourced from the United States, Israel and Europe.
Cameron’s drive on India
The current British “surge” to India is unmistakeably the initiative of Prime Minister David Cameron. But he only built on a steady, if unspectacular, foundation provided by the preceding Labour Party governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Building on the path breaking “New Delhi Declaration” of 2002, Blair had signed a strategic partnership agreement with India in 2004. But the key drivers during the Labour years were economic ties; the large Indian Diaspora in the UK; and soft issues like education, climate change and development. The strategic heft that Cameron has brought in simply did not exist.
Even while Cameron was in opposition, he realised that Britain was not capitalising on its potential relationship with India. He vocally advocated an intensified engagement, declaring that India would feature larger in British calculations were a conservative government to capture power in the 2010 elections. In implementing that strategic agenda and his plan to engage India as a future superpower Cameron’s Conservative Party had faced no opposition from its coalition partner the Liberal Democrats.
Cameron signalled his commitment to the UK-India relationship during his very first trip abroad, which included a three-day stay in India. In tow behind the British prime minister was the largest UK trade delegation in living memory… including Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Secretary, William Hague; Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne; Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vincent Cable; Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, Jeremy Hunt; Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Wiletts; Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, Gregory Barker; and National Security Advisor, Peter Ricketts.
Cameron chose the tested method of winning over New Delhi: accusing the Pakistani establishment of knowingly sponsoring terrorism. Speaking to Indian business leaders in Bangalore, Cameron declared, “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able to promote the export of terror, whether to India or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.”
Cameron also named the groups that India has long accused of cross-border terrorism: “We --- like you --- are determined that groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lakshar-e-Taiba should not be allowed to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or in Britain.”
Writing in The Hindu, Cameron proclaimed, "Your country has the whole world beating a path to its door. But I believe Britain should be India's partner of choice in the years ahead. Starting this week, that is what we are determined to deliver.”
Cameron wisely understood that a sustainable strategic relationship, with all the compromises that it entails, must be kept afloat by the ballast of economics. Terming his visit to India as a “jobs mission”, Cameron noted that 90,000 people were employed in the UK by Indian firms, and many more due to British firms operating in India.
A growing defence relationship
Cameron’s visit saw the two sides signing a deal worth 700 million pounds (500 million pounds for BAE Systems, 200 million pounds for Rolls-Royce) for building 57 Hawk trainer aircraft in HAL Bangalore. These would supplement the 66 Hawks already contracted by India. But a notable absence in Cameron’s heavyweight delegation was Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. This was because of a clever political calculation: Whitehall knew that Cameron and Hague would hog the limelight, especially once the British prime minister had made his attention-grabbing statements on Kashmir. And so 10 Downing Street decided that Fox would make a full-fledged visit to India later.
While that visit was delayed by a couple of weeks because of Britain’s intense focus on its new Strategic Defence and Security Review, Fox travelled to New Delhi last November and talked up an enhanced partnership with India. The UK defence secretary took note of the joint training exercises between the British and Indian militaries, which include the “Indra Dhanush” series of air force exercises; the “Konkan” naval exercises; and, for the first time in 60 years, a British Army infantry company trained in India in June 2010 alongside an Indian company in exercise “Shamsheer Bugle”. That training has continued this year, with an Indian Army infantry company having just completed an exercise in the UK.
The atmospherics of the current engagement leaves little to be desired. Joint exercises continue, and both militaries have a longstanding tradition of exchanging officers for key professional courses in each other’s countries. This year, a group of cadets from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst visited the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and vice versa. But one of the most promising initiatives for bringing the two defence establishments closer lies in a proposal for joint R&D in high-technology areas between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
Joint R&D for a high-technology partnership
Much of the British R&D relating to building weapons platforms is done by high-tech companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, which were privatised years ago. Those companies, being publicly held, are guided by commercial logic and cannot be induced into joint R&D to fulfil strategic aims. In contrast DSTL remains a British government establishment that has retained key capabilities in advanced fields like NBC planning and equipping, war gaming, and operational analysis for activities like equipment procurement. The DSTL also hands out government funding for sub-contracted research. New Delhi and London have agreed that the DSTL’s technological know-how complements the DRDO’s pool of competent engineers for jointly tackling projects in the realm of pure research.
Sir Mark Edward Welland, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the British MoD, has travelled to India twice recently, during which he has held discussions with the DRDO chief, Dr VK Saraswat, and paid visits to DRDO laboratories. But the actual operationalising of this partnership remains merely an intention, with the Indian MoD dragging its feet over signing an agreement that would cover joint R&D. Negotiations have been held over a “Defence Science & Technology Letter of Arrangement”, which is merely a high-level Memorandum of Understanding for the activities to follow. But, over the last 18 months, India has not yet signed the MoU. Sources in the MoD say that the draft has already been sent up to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which returned it for redrafting. The MoD is now about to resubmit the draft Letter of Arrangement for CCS approval.
Says a senior British MoD official, “There is a great deal of momentum today, and even funding, for taking forward this relationship. But bureaucratic foot-dragging over non-controversial matters cannot be allowed to drag the process down.”
Driving this new British openness to high-tech cooperation with India are the interests of Britain’s 2600-odd defence companies. With a turnover of 22.2 billion pounds in 2009, the UK has Europe’s largest defence industry and the second largest in the world, behind only the US. A British company, BAE Systems, is the world’s third largest defence company behind Lockheed Martin and Boeing. For the UK economy, defence is a major employer, with 100,000 direct employees and 220,000 benefiting from jobs indirectly.
Promoting the interests of the British Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space industries, is a trade organisation, ADS with a well-established branch in Delhi. British companies like BAE Systems; GKN Aerospace; Doncasters; Cobham and Meggitt have already made significant investments in India. These companies are steadily eroding the once unchallenged market share of Russia.
“The British defence industry’s world-class solutions are well-suited for the Indian military which shares a common heritage and operating practices with its British counterpart. The Indian government’s mindset, which once favoured cheap Eastern bloc equipment, is now changing in favour of quality equipment for India’s defence forces,” says Gobinder Singh, Regional Director South Asia for ADS.
Global Combat Ship
The Global Combat Ship project is another potential game-changer, with the British MoD keen on bringing Indian into a consortium for jointly developing a flexible-role frigate for the future. London believes that a joint development project of this nature would bind together the two defence production establishments; while operating a common warship would strategically link the two navies.
The British MoD’s plan to develop the GCS (termed the Type 26 frigate) involves working in a coalition to spread the development costs. The specifications of the GCS would be framed jointly by the development partners, but with a high degree of commonality, ideally above 80%. That would still leave about 20% of the frigate to cater for individual country requirements that are specific to their respective operational environments.
After developing a broadly common design, and then customising that for individual needs, each partner country would build its requirement of GCS vessels through its indigenous defence industry. While Britain evolved the GCS concept to build a series of frigates that were similar, yet different, the environment of defence budget cuts imposed by its Strategic Defence and Security Review has forced Whitehall to move forward in coalition.
As a country that needs many more warships than its shipyards can currently produce, India is clearly an attractive partner for such an initiative. London has also approached other countries to participate in the GCS project, amongst them Brazil. India’s potentially large requirements of frigates for an expanding navy would allow this country an especially large influence in shaping the GCS design.
Says Andrew Gallagher, President, BAE Systems India: “This is an entirely new approach to building a new class of warships. For now, all we are saying (to the Indian government) is: this is how we are thinking. How do you think? Would they want to be involved on that basis?... There are ongoing discussions with the Indian government. There has been clear interest from the Indian Navy. But nobody has made a commitment yet.”
Indian MoD sources say they are “gestating this idea… it is still at the very early stages”. But a joint team from the British MoD and the Royal Navy is expected to visit New Delhi in September, to take forward this proposal.
While BAE Systems looks set to be the British partner in this project, the Indian MoD would nominate an Indian shipyard for building its requirement of GCS frigates. Since the two defence shipyards that have the capacity and capability to build a frigate --- Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) --- are already working to capacity in constructing India’s existing orders for Project 28, Project 15A, Project 17 and Project 75 warships, any GCS order could well go to one of India’s new private sector shipyards. Pipavav Shipyard and ABG Shipyard have idle capacities on the Gujarat coast, while L&T is close to completing a spanking new shipyard at Katupalli in Tamil Nadu. While all three are keen to expand their warship building business lines, none have any experience in building a complex frigate.
While the MoD has not approached any shipyard, and a GCS partnership is still no more than a proposal, it is clear that the GCS would offer India’s emerging private shipyards a safe launch project for developing such a capability, and also the specialisations that would accrue from such an experience. Peter Luff, Britain’s Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, who visited India for the Aero India 2011 air show in Bangalore in February, met with L&T Chairman, AM Naik.
“The 20% indigenous component would allow partner countries to develop specialisations in specific aspects of the GCS… for example, the Indian shipyard might specialise in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) systems… which would lead to the development of improved ASW systems in a Centre of Excellence in India. All of the partners could benefit from such Centres of Excellence,” says Gallagher.
If the GCS project is cleared, it promises to be an important driver of the growing strategic partnership between London and New Delhi. Besides the relationship that develops from operating a common platform, there would be significant operational benefits between the two navies. A common build design would enable such frigates to operate from far-away naval bases in friendly countries that operate the same ship. For example, if South Africa joins the GCS project, an Indian Navy GCS frigate could easily operate for extended durations in the Southern Indian Ocean, drawing logistical sustenance from a South African naval base. As New Delhi looks to extend the reach of the Indian Navy, the logistical flexibility of such arrangements would greatly facilitate the development of Blue Water capability.
India’s purchase of the Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) in the mid-2000s was regarded in Whitehall as an important triumph. This was not just because BAE Systems’ Hawk production line at Brough, Yorkshire got a lease of life but also because it rejuvenated the air-force-to-air-force relationship. London believes that a similar lift would be provided by an Indian decision to buy the Eurofighter Typhoon in the multi-billion dollar tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
“The Jaguar was pivotal in revitalising the relationship with the equipment oriented Indian Air Force. And if India chooses to buy the Eurofighter Typhoon, that would be another massive boost to relations between the two air forces. And with the Typhoon slated to have a service life of 40 years, India would play a significant role all through that period in developing and upgrading the aircraft,” says a senior British MoD official.
Even as the Typhoon duels with the Rafale for the Indian order, the Hawk is a clear priority area for the growing aerospace partnership between the two countries. The British MoD is evaluating the possibility of granting HAL a license for providing service backup, equipment upgrades and even mid-life upgrades, to the many Hawk users in the Asia-Pacific region. With some 900 Hawks in service with 18 customers worldwide, this represents a significant business opportunity for HAL.
Say’s BAE’s Gallagher: “We have a commitment under the contract for 57 Hawks to develop our relationship with HAL, going forward, to create a pipeline of work for HAL in relation to the Hawk programme. We are exploring the possibility of taking on significant manufacturing work with HAL, with an eye on the emerging export market.”
Artillery purchase jinxed
BAE Systems’ impressive portfolio of artillery gun systems has failed to provide the British-headquartered company with headway in India’s badly delayed, artillery modernisation programme worth about Rs 20,000 crore. After the MoD’s failure to select a suitable 155 millimetre towed howitzer, even in successive rounds of trials since 2002, BAE Systems has decided to stay out of the latest tender worth an estimated Rs 8000 crore for the outright supply of 400 towed guns; and the licensed production in India of another 1180.
Explaining why BAE Systems decided to stay out of the competition, Gallagher says, “My technical colleagues were absolutely clear that we were not likely to win. We had developed the 155 mm gun for Indian conditions over the last 9 years. So when the RfP (tender) specifications were reduced --- and I understand that was to bring in other competitors --- we were going to be more the more expensive gun. We were no longer confident that we would be L1. But it is the right of the government to run their procurement programmes any way they like.”
Meanwhile, BAE Systems hopes to win a Rs 3000 crore contract for 140 ultralight howitzers (ULHs), which is being progressed through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route by the United States government.
Nevertheless, indigenous capabilities are being assiduously set up for larger prizes in the future. BAE Systems had joined hands with the Mahindra group to establish a joint venture (74% Mahindra: 26% BAE Systems) called Defence Land Systems India (DLSI). This has set up a Centre of Excellence for artillery products, which aims at designing and manufacturing artillery products in India. Regarding the development of a home-grown 155 mm artillery gun, BAE’s Gallagher says, “If there is an indigenous programme to develop a 155 mm gun, we want to develop artillery in India. If there was any opportunity to work with DLSI, DRDO, ARDE… and other R&D establishments, we would like to take it.”
A year after David Cameron’s outreach to India, concrete results are hard to find in the development of the India-UK defence relationship. There are, however, several promising projects in gestation --- joint R&D; the Global Combat Ship initiative; the Hawk; and the development of artillery --- which could yield results in the period ahead.
For almost a decade, London has been obsessed with its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has left little bandwidth for careful development of the engagement with India. Nor has New Delhi’s focus on the US relationship and the management of its multiple regional problems permitted a well-considered approach to the UK partnership. As the two countries engage more deliberately they are likely to discover a set of intrinsically attractive joint ventures. And these, if taken forward productively, could form the building blocks of an important partnership.