Friday, 26 September 2014

Beyond the Hype: Belying optimism, US-India defence cooperation struggles

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Sept 14

The US-India defence relationship has been talked up as one of the highlights of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US from Sept 26-30. Yet, with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government having spent just four months in office, there has been little time to reverse the “arms-length” policies of Mr AK Antony’s 8-year custodianship of the defence ministry (MoD) that ended in May.

Mr Modi’s visit, therefore, is unlikely to achieve the “deliverables” and “outcomes” in defence cooperation that are used to measure a visit’s success.

Aware of the embarrassing absence of substance and big-ticket signings, New Delhi last month initiated the draft of a fresh agreement to renew the defence framework agreement that expires in June. The “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship”, signed on June 28, 2005, was valid for ten years.

The proposed agreement is referred to --- tongue-in-cheek --- as the “New New Defence Framework”. With Washington and New Delhi still negotiating drafts, there is little prospect of the agreement being signed during Mr Modi’s visit.

Nor is there any big-ticket defence contract to sign. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley told parliament in July that India’s proposed purchase of M777 ultralight howitzers from BAE Systems is mired in disagreement over the price.

The two big contracts that the MoD recently cleared --- for 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters; and 15 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, together worth about Rs 15,000 crore --- have not been cleared by the union cabinet. There could be an announcement that India has selected the two Boeing helicopters, but a contract signature is unlikely.

Boeing CEO, James McNerney, will have a one-on-one meeting with Mr Modi in New York on Sept 29. Company sources suggest that Boeing will outline its plans to design and manufacture defence equipment in India.

Another CEO with interests in defence who will meet Mr Modi that morning is Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric.

“India and US are strategic partners and cooperating across a wide canvas…. We cooperate from issues relating to the atom to issues relating to outer space,” said India’s foreign office spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, on September 23.

Yet, US officials complain that the empty agenda reflects the Indian MoD’s reluctance to respond to repeated US defence cooperation proposals.

To be sure, much of that stonewalling took place under Antony. After US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, visited Delhi last month, American officials said they encountered a far more engaged and receptive Indian MoD.

Even so, progress seems unlikely before Jaitley travels to Washington next month for a meeting of the Defence Policy Group (DPG) --- the apex US-India defence cooperation forum, co-chaired by India’s defence minister and the US secretary of defence.

It is a measure of how moribund the defence partnership had become under the United Progressive Alliance that the DPG, which is supposed to meet every year, has not met since Feb 2012.

As their best hope in resuscitating the defence relationship, New Delhi and Washington are looking to the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Proposed by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012, the DTTI’s role has never been formally spelt out. Even so, both sides informally agree that its basic role should be to overcome bureaucratic hurdles that arise due to the different working styles of the two defence establishments.

Under the DTTI, the Pentagon made a dozen proposals to the MoD during Chuck Hagel’s visit last month. He said these would “transfer significant qualitative capability, technology, and production know-how” to India.

Of these, the one that might come up during Mr Modi’s visit is a first-ever US offer to co-produce the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile in India; and to co-develop a “next-generation Javelin” with Indian defence R&D agencies. The Indian Army was poised to buy the Spike anti-tank missile from Israel, but the Javelin offer has caused New Delhi to reconsider.

India’s secretary for defence production, G Mohan Kumar, was in Washington on Sept 23, apparently discussing the Javelin proposal. It remains unclear, however, whether any announcement will be made during Mr Modi’s visit.

In talking up the DTTI, Washington will cite Secretary Hagel’s invitation to Mr Jaitley to a summit level inter-agency meeting in October, where Secretary of State, John Kerry; and Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, would join them. This high-power forum could discuss every dimension of the US technology control regime, which has been a major bugbear in US-India relations. 

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