Event ReportsPublished on Apr 03, 2015
Though domestic politics have not always promoted closer US-India defence cooperation, changed geopolitical context, regional and global advances now pull India and America together, says the US co-chair of the DTTI, Frank Kendall. Even perceptions of security challenges of both the countries are increasingly converging.
Indo-US defence cooperation: Challenges ahead

The evolving India-US Strategic Partnership is going through an interesting period and has garnered visible momentum with President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the chief guest on Republic Day celebrations. There is also a sense of optimism of growth in India-US strategic ties and the relationship is posited to move beyond mere symbolism. Defence is one of the arenas wherein India-US Strategic Partnership has found maximum convergence. Within less than a decade, India-US bilateral defence trade has registered a significant $9 billion and there is a sense of genuine willingness to make the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) the centre-piece of swifter defence procurement processes.

To discuss, explain and seek clarification on the DTTI, Observer Research Foundation on February 26 organized an interaction with Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defence (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) and the US Government - Department of Defence’s entire section staff, for an interaction with a highly select group of Indian Small and Medium sector Entrepreneurs (SMEs) and defence journalists. The idea of connecting the US Department of Defence delegation with the Indian SMEs for a closed door interaction was to create concord and delineate an actionable path forward so that both sides can benefit from better understanding of each other’s position. The panelists consisted of Frank Kendall (the US co-chair of the DTTI), Kenneth Handelman, Keith Webster, Alan Shaffer and Manoj Joshi. It was moderated by Ajay Sukhla.

Manoj Joshi, Head of the National Security Initiative of ORF, at the outset of his presentation underscored the importance of the Indian SMEs and stated that the real strength of the country’s defence sector lies on the depth and expanse of its defence SMEs. SMEs provide the necessary modularity for the massive economies of scale and allow the kind of hyper specialization that contribute to the process of innovation and value addition in ways that multi-national companies simply cannot match. And it is due to this reason that ORF undertook the opportunity to connect the US Defence delegation with the Indian SMEs. Joshi also mentioned that Indian SMEs are far more nimble than the government and would open a whole new world of possibilities for American businesses.

In the backdrop of the progress made in India-US defence cooperation under the leadership of the Obama administration, Joshi explained the opportunities and challenges in the path ahead. He pointed out that there are several positive developments in defence cooperation, for instance, India specific approvals has come down to an average of mere 19 days less than any of the US allies and it includes UK, Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, on the Indian side, the case of the M777 Howitzers remain undecided. Joshi also mentioned that India has the lowest weapons rejection rate (less than one percent) which is better than Israel and is in the same category as the United Kingdom. However, the challenge is, in India, 40% of the requests are kept pending because Indian people aren’t acquainted with the exact nature of questions asked in the export licensing forms or sometimes are unaware of how to fill them.

In his overview of the challenges in the path of greater synergy between India-US defence cooperation, he mentioned India’s reluctance in signing the foundational agreements and the West’s restriction on India from joining the technical denial regimes. In his concluding remarks, Joshi noted that whilst there are challenges in the path of collaboration, the US has to understand that India now is under a new administration and there is room for enhanced cooperation in the defence sector.

Kendall outlined in his presentation the fact that former and present Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter respectively asked him to spend more time in India which is a clear indication of the growing importance of the US-Indian defence cooperation. Kendall stated that the road to an abundant partnership is not one without hurdles. Historically, national interests of both the countries have not always overlapped in every respect. Moreover, domestic politics have not always promoted closer defence cooperation. However, changed geopolitical context, regional and global advances, pull India and America together. Even perceptions of security challenges of both the countries are increasingly converging. Both the countries want security and stability of Asia and the Indian Ocean and a rules based international order.

Kendall noted that as political leadership in both the countries want India and America to move forward together, Defence Secretary Ash Carter is motivated to overcome the challenges of defence cooperation. Although, both the nations have bureaucracy that can at times be equal part engines for change and impediments to progress. Stating that a true partnership is not created through rhetoric and positive language, Kendall reflected that India-US ties would grow through shared vision, shared experiences, shared struggles and shared actions. And according to Kendall, the best way to build partnership is by building something together and sustaining partnership over time.

Commenting on the DTTI, Kendall stated that DTTI through senior level leadership would help reduce bureaucratic obstacles, promote technology exchange and promote co-production and co-development on select defence systems. The objectives of the DTTI fit within the other goals of US-India cooperation which is strengthening India-US military to military relationships, reenergizing defence partnerships and expanding regional cooperation. Emphasizing that the DTTI is about much more than business deals, Kendall reiterated that he has come to India not as a salesman for US defence firms but rather as a supporter of a robust Indian defence industrial manufacturing base. He added that a strong India is in the interest of both the nations and as the US Undersecretary for Defence, he would do his best to support the cause.

The DTTI which is aimed at promoting India-US cooperation in science and technology research, co-development and co-production and hopefully even defence exports, matches with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own vision of a vibrant and a self-sufficient defence industrial base. Highlighting the $9 billion defence contracts signed between India-US defence cooperation as a good base to build new vistas of cooperation, Kendall mentioned about the four path finder projects and two supporting cooperative activities. The four path finder projects announced jointly by the US and India include an industry initiated mini UAV; an industry initiated roll on and roll off mission module; government to government cooperation on mobile hybrid electric power sources; and government to government cooperation on uniform integrated protection ensembles for soldiers. Both the countries are also exploring potential cooperation on jet engine technology and aircraft carrier technology where there exists a significant potential for technology transfer. Kendall underlined the importance of the stand alone values of each of the path finder projects which would serve as a pilot for deeper levels of cooperation between businesses and militaries. In conclusion, Kendall stated that he envisions a day in the near future when American and Indian engineers would sit side by side virtually producing, cutting edge designs to be produced in partnership by both the countries.

Kendall’s talk was followed by a stimulating question and answer session in which members of the Indian SMEs and defence journalists sought answers on the status of the four path finder projects; the possibilities of Transfer of Technology (ToT) on jet engine technology; the mood of the present Indian government on signing the foundational agreements; challenges of the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime in ToT; and possibilities of India-US co-production of technologies that are higher in the value chain. The interaction of the US Department of Defence delegation with the Indian SMEs highlighted that in spite of the procedural challenges, there is immense potential and strategic momentum for deeper cooperation between India and the United States in defence cooperation.

(This report is prepared by Sylvia Mishra, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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