India wanted armed Predator drone (pictured), but US is offering unarmed Guardian maritime drone instead
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Jun 17
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets US President Donald Trump for the first time on Monday in Washington DC, healthy defence ties between the two countries are expected to buoy the discussions.
Key issues that will be discussed include: Operationalizing India’s unique status as a “major defence partner” of America; the proposed $2 billion sale of Guardian remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) to India; and negotiation of a security agreement that would allow the US to import sensitive communications equipment to India.
Officials on both sides are playing down expectations of concrete outcomes, given the unpredictability of Trump and Modi. “I don’t see their meeting as being driven by the need for ‘deliverables’. This will be the first time they sit down face-to-face, and they would do well to establish a personal bond that will help them work cooperatively.
As Business Standard reported on Saturday (“No F-16 deal during PM Modi's visit to US”) there would be no forward movement on the proposal from US aerospace major, Lockheed Martin, to build F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft in India. Instead, as part of a multi-vendor procurement, India’s defence ministry will process the F-16 offer according to the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016.
Major defence partner
Last December, in the twilight of the Barack Obama administration, the US Congress passed an amendment titled, “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA) – an annual bill that allocates funding to the US military.
The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDAA, designates India a “major defence partner” of the US, and requires US secretaries of defence and state to designate an official to manage Indo-US cooperation. All US administrations must appoint an official who will report 6-monthly to Congress on the defence relationship.
In April, US National Security Advisor, General HR McMaster, affirmed the new designation when he visited New Delhi. How Trump and Modi operationalize the “major defence partnership” will be carefully watched, as that would signal the real content of the relationship.
There is potential for conflict, given Trump concerns like jobs and visas. Yet, India’s need for defence modernisation could also create more jobs in America. For example, moving the F-16 integration line to India to build 100-200 fighters could allow US workers to continue making systems, avionics, engines and other parts in America.
Sale of Guardian drones
Washington and New Delhi are discussing the sale of 22 Guardian RPVs to India, which both sides could use to demonstrate the value of the partnership.
US officials point out that these RPVs are “Category 1” systems under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), for the export of which member countries must assume “presumption of denial”, except on pressing national security grounds.
“An offer of a ‘Category 1’ RPV –exported so far only to US allies engaged in combat operations of critical national security importance – would demonstrate that India is being provided unprecedented technology under ‘major defence partner’ status”, says Benjamin Schwartz of the US-India Business Council (USIBC).
The MTCR tightly controls Category 1 systems because of their ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
America has sold such RPVs to western allies, including France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the UK. However, India’s procurement of the Guardian would be the first sale of an RPV of this category outside the NATO framework.
The Guardian, built by General Atomics, is the naval version of the legendary Predator B armed drone (also termed the MQ-9 Reaper), with which the US has killed terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. India had asked for the armed Predator drone. However, Washington turned down that request and instead offered the unarmed Guardian, which performs maritime surveillance.
The Guardian, like the Reaper, cruises at 300 kilometres per hour at 50,000 feet, and flies 14-hour missions during which it can travel to and observe oceanic areas up to 1,800 kilometres from base. It is monitored and controlled remotely from a ground control room, which exchanges imagery in real time with the RPV, over a two-way data link.
Says a US official anonymously: “This offer represents an outstretched arm to India by its friends in Washington. If New Delhi were to reject this, it would severely weaken pro-India voices within the US government and do real damage to the defence relationship.”
The New York Times reports that India has asked the Pentagon for drone sales thrice in the past year. That led to pro-India senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner writing to urge Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to clear the sale, which “would advance U.S. national security interests and protect U.S. jobs.”
Since 2005, the US has urged India to sign an agreement called Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), which lays down stringent safeguards for sensitive radio equipment provided by America.
India’s refusal has caused its military to get key platforms like the C-130J transporter and the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft with CISMOA-protected communications kit replaced by lower-grade, less secure, commercially-available equipment.
India objects to some safeguards, like inspections of CISMOA-protected equipment on Indian military bases. As negotiations have progressed, Washington has agreed to rename the agreement COMCASA --- or Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement --- to allow India a country-specific agreement, different from what the US Department of Defense (DoD, or Pentagon) has signed with dozens of other countries.
Pentagon sources say their draft of the COMCASA is now with New Delhi, but there is no telling when the defence ministry will act on it.
“During the trilateral US-India-Japan Malabar exercise in July, we have to come up with customised solutions for intercommunications. This happens also in disaster relief situations. After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Indian C-17 Globemaster III aircraft flying aid to Nepal could not communicate with US Air Force C-17s operating there because they had no CISMOA-protected radio sets.
Neither side is holding its breath on CISMOA/COMCASA. Modi and Trump could agree on the need to expedite negotiations, but an actual agreement is unlikely.