Opinion

India-US defence ties yield major gains

Subimal Bhattacharjee | Updated on December 30, 2019 Published on December 30, 2019

The Indian private sector’s role in defence production has picked up with significant technology spin-offs

India and the US just concluded the second edition of the ‘2+2 dialogue’ in Washington DC, almost 15 months after the inaugural one in New Delhi. This dialogue had begun with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump’s meeting in June 2017. It has resulted in India going ahead with other similar efforts with Japan and Australia — both of which concluded in the last month. Except the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the other individuals — Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and US Defence Secretary Mark Asper — are new in their respective roles.

India’s close defence and strategic partnership with the US, now over a decade old with more than $18 billion in equipment sales and more than 19 military exercises conducted — including the recently concluded tri-services exercise, ‘Tiger Triumph’ in November — has been growing steadily. Much of the serious ground work in this direction was done by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar and the then US defence secretary Ashton Carter.

Defence ecosystem

In 2016, the US government declared India a “major defence partner”, which made India eligible for receiving defence technologies at par with those provided to the US’ closest allies — the NATO+5. During that same year, India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the first of the three foundational defence pacts that needs to be signed by a country to obtain high-tech military hardware from the US.

Last year, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was also signed, and the remaining pact, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), will also be signed soon.

Besides these, the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) that was started under the Barack Obama regime in 2012 facilitates a collaborative approach towards joint development.

But despite the steady progress in many areas, a more focussed approach is needed. India’s focus on indigenisation, carried out with the ‘Make in India’ initiative of the Modi government, called for diverse US technology to be transferred and manufactured in India under licensing or other mechanisms.

This was required to bring the military industrial ecosystem to scale and support the nascent Indian private sector in this field, in order to shed the overarching dominance of defence public sector units. The latter are overburdened with delivering past orders and not receptive to embracing newer technologies.

This is where the signing of the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) is a very important milestone.

The ISA will provide the right momentum for collaboration between private industries from both the countries. In the last few years, the success of the projects that the private sector has taken up, such as those of Tata Boeing Aerospace Ltd and Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Ltd, are positive signs.

Industrial advancement

The ISA ensures a regime of technology licensing and further development that will facilitate capacity building domestically. It will provide protection and comfort to the US companies engaged in licensing technology and foster a regime where technology development can be harnessed in India.

At a time when the application of artificial intelligence is gaining ground by the day, the Indian experience and expertise in these areas can be optimally leveraged. Likewise, the focus on cyber security and 5G are of strategic importance, and they have to be formalised into a joint working group. A DTTI project to address ‘attribution’ in cyberspace will be a fulfilling one.

Besides the technology aspects, the possibilities of picking up and building the defence manufacturing ecosystem with the US experience will be useful. The Dhirendra Singh committee’s report in July 2015 had emphasised this aspect in its 43 recommendations. The Tata Boeing Aerospace and Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures projects both involved a couple of tiers that engaged Indian micro and small and medium enterprises. The two defence manufacturing corridors in Tamil Nadu and UP can be built up with dedicated capacity.

Needless to say, the second edition of the 2+2 has moved forward. The hallmark of this relationship has also been to address many issues that still remain thorny. The maturity in dealing with issues like Iran and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), as well as the S-400 Triumf missile system from Russia gives hope to such cooperation.

The writer is a former country head of a defence multinational

Published on December 30, 2019
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