Author : Deba Mohanty

Occasional PapersPublished on Jul 23, 2023 PDF Download
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India-US Defence Relations: In Search of a Direction

  • Deba Mohanty

    The strong reactions to the non-inclusion of American firms in a major Indian military procurement tender, in the backdrop of proposed aggressive weapons sales by the Americans, paint a contrasting picture that could influence India-US defence relations in the near future. This Paper looks at the entire gambit of Indo-US Defence relations and, based on past experiences and ongoing deliberations, the challenges ahead.

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   2011 Observer Research Foundation. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from ORF.

On April 29, 2011 India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that only two companies with their designated products–European Aeronautics Defence Space Agency (EADS) with Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Aviation with Rafael–would be extended commercial bids for the much publicized global tender for the acquisition of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (hereafter, MMRCA) at a provisional cost of USD 10.4 billion. Washington, taken totally by surprise, reacted with deep consternation. New Delhi, a US analyst said, had “settled for a plane, not a relationship”. Another source commented that if “India had settled for an aircraft over a strategic relationship, there is no reason why the US administration should bend backwards to accommodate India on strategic 2 matters”. Within 24 hours of the decision on MMRCA, US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer–coincidentally or otherwise–announced his resignation citing “personal commitments”. The reactions to the MMRCA verdict within India were equally strong.

“The potential for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the Indian state-owned aerospace company, the prime contractor ranked [among] the world’s top 100 arms companies for the past twenty years, to successfully partner with US firms on a truly advanced aircraft remains untested and suspect,” Timothy Roemer wrote in a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks and reported by the Financial Times. After a visit to the company’s plant in Bangalore in February 2010, he described India’s aviation industry as “two to three decades behind the United States and other western nations” despite advances. Mr Roemer was also struck by the lack of automation and safety precautions at the HAL plant, adding that US companies needed to “approach partnerships carefully to understand the management and technological experience of Indian firms. ” The very next day, the Indian side came out with a strong rebuttal. “If the Americans really think in this manner, it is self-contradictory to find them in the fray for the MMRCA deal,” said N.C. Agarwal, director of design and development at HAL’s design complex in Bangalore.

Despite this setback, the US has become a major supplier of military weapons to India in the last few years, with signed contracts worth over USD 7 billion for six C-130J aircraft, eight P-8I aircraft, 10 C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft and a few other items, besides about an equivalent sum earmarked for military supplies. Moreover, the Senate Armed Services Committee (hereafter, SASC) recently asked the Pentagon to submit by November 1, 2011 a detailed assessment of the current state of US-India security co-operation, as well as a five-year plan for enhancing bilateral cooperation. Noteworthy in this is the bipartisan belief within the Committee that “it is in the national interest of the US, through military-tomilitary relations, arms sales, bilateral and multilateral joint exercises, and other means, to support India’s rise and build a strategic and military culture of cooperation and interoperability between our two countries, in particular with regard to the Indo-Pacific region”. The SASC has also ordered “a detailed assessment of the desirability and feasibility of the sale of F-35 joint strike fighters to India in the future and a potential US partnership with India to co-develop one or more military weapon systems, including but not limited to the anticipated program to replace the US Air Force T-38 trainer jet”.

The strong reactions to the non-inclusion of American firms in a major Indian military procurement tender, in the backdrop of the proposed aggressive weapons sales by the Americans, paint a contrasting picture that could influence India-US defence relations in the near future. At the same time, this calls for a comprehensive assessment of the relationship— whether it is likely to deepen or weaken or muddle through in the future. Before such an endeavour is undertaken, it is important to put together both micro and macro developments impinging India-US defence relations in a larger framework. This is not as simple an exercise as it seems, for there is an involvement of inter-twined subjective factors that impinge on international relations in general and bilateral relations in particular.

This paper is divided into four major sections. The first section explains conceptual nuances of the bilateral ‘strategic partnership’ and tries to locate India-US defence relations in this framework. The second section narrates the history of this relationship and attempts to find out whether it has the backing of history to deepen the ties in future. This section sketches these important milestones in bilateral defence relations to understand how the ties have shaped up. The third section maps the current status of the bilateral defence relations and tries to examine the evolving trends. The fourth section assesses the plus and minus points in the relationship and tries to see whether the differences allow for space for a further deepening of ties.

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Deba Mohanty

Deba Mohanty

Deba Mohanty is a Vice President at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC) ...

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