Asia Defense

Assessing US-India Defense Relations: The Technological Handshake

Recent Features

Asia Defense

Assessing US-India Defense Relations: The Technological Handshake

A closer look at the second handshake that U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter referred to.

Assessing US-India Defense Relations: The Technological Handshake
Credit: Flickr/IANS/RB

In the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, two “handshakes” now define the increasingly intimate Indo-U.S. defense partnership. The “strategic handshake” was examined in detail in my last article for The Diplomat. We will now turn our attention to the “technological handshake,” shorthand for the growth in arms sales, technical cooperation, and defense co-production and co-development.

Decades of political estrangement deprived the United States and India of any meaningful defense relationship during the latter half of the Cold War. To make up for lost time, just one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union the two held the first edition of their now-popular Malabar joint naval exercise. A modest defense cooperation framework followed in 1995, sandwiched by two more Malabar exercises in 1995 and 1996. Yet this early courtship proved fleeting. Another decade of trust-building would pass before Delhi and Washington began to explore the true potential of a defense partnership.

In 2001, President George W. Bush brought to the White House the first contemporary Indophile foreign policy team. Their impulse to seek a strategic rapprochement with India was further reinforced by the 9/11 terror attacks, and they found a willing partner in the Atal Vajpayee-led BJP government in Delhi. The Next Steps For Strategic Partnership (NSSP) signed in 2004 served as the foundation for a groundbreaking 10-year defense partnership reached a year later with Vajpayee’s successor.

Unlike the civil nuclear deal signed the same year, the defense pact quickly reaped dividends. By 2008 defense trade exceeded $1 billion, after cumulatively totaling some $300 million in the 55 years prior. Since 2008, the total has swelled to a $15 billion, as India has become the world’s largest importer of arms atop a $50 billion annual defense budget.

Practically, India’s initial raft of purchases—including eight P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, six C-130J, and ten C-17 heavy lift aircraft—offered it some of America’s most capable military platforms. Symbolically, the sales marked an important departure from India’s philosophical attachment to Non-Alignment. Yet the initial euphoria was followed by a lull in defense ties.

Both sides realized there were still formidable political and bureaucratic obstacles limiting the potential for defense cooperation in both capitals.  Washington’s highly legalistic defense and export control regime often proved inhospitable to India, which sought privileged treatment despite lacking the institutional benefits of American defense partners or the perks of membership in the international arms control and non-proliferation architecture. Meanwhile, India’s defense industrial complex, a sluggish Leviathan by any measure, was undermined by the lack of a viable private sector, poor civil-military coordination, a highly-bureaucratized and burdensome regulatory regime, and a zealous anti-corruption campaign arguably as paralyzing as actual corruption.

In recent years both sides have witnessed success in diminishing these barriers. The Modi administration’s multi-layered effort to reform India’s defense sector will be the subject of a third article to follow. To date, the prime minister is making his biggest impact outside the purview of institutional reform, through his personal intervention in advancing defense cooperation when and where the Indian bureaucracy has proven resistant. Pentagon officials say the combination of Prime Minister Modi, Defense Minister Parrikar, and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar is about as good as the United States is ever going to get.

For India the same could be said of Secretary Carter, who has transformed the Pentagon’s “mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of ‘presumptive no’ to one of presumptive ‘yes’.” As Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011-2013, Carter served as point- man on Indo-U.S. defense ties, overseeing reforms that expedited the Pentagon’s review process for defense exports to India and dropping India’s prominent Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) from an “entities list” that limited technical cooperation. In 2012 Carter was tasked with heading a new Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) designed to surmount the bureaucratic obstacles inhibiting defense trade in both capitals.

In 2015, Carter was promoted to Defense Secretary and quickly created an Indian Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC), the first-ever country-specific “cell” of its kind in the Pentagon. The IRRC carries a staff of six; three are attached to the cell on a long-term basis and three rotate through the office every six months.

By 2015, the DTTI had identified four “pathfinder” projects for Indo-U.S. co-development. Two of the four were government-to-government initiatives between the Pentagon and India’s DRDO. They included mobile electric hybrid power sources (MEHPS) developed for the U.S. Marine Corps, and advanced chemical, biological warfare protection gear for the U.S. Army.  Contracts for both were signed in August 2015 and have been hailed as a success. In May 2017 they will reach their two-year life cycle and Washington and Delhi will soon determine whether to move forward with co-production.

The remaining two pathfinder projects were joint private-sector initiatives. These included a joint venture between India’s Dynamatic Technologies and America’s AeroVironment to co-develop an advanced version of the RQ-11 Raven hand-launched drone. The second focused on “roll-on, roll-off” kits for Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Hercules.

Unlike the government initiatives, the drones and C-130J kits never saw the light of day. “Those were cases where our government wasn’t planning to buy the product and we were facilitating industry-to-industry cooperation,” notes U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall. “It is hard to move those forward when there is no government commitment.”

The Indian military was apparently unsatisfied with the Raven mini-drones, and has made no secret of its desire to purchase more advanced armed American UAVs like the Reaper and Global Hawk drones. To date, U.S. export control laws prohibited the sale of armed UAVs to India. However, India’s accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in June 2016 has opened the door to new opportunities for defense collaboration and arms transfers, including potentially armed drones. (U.S. officials caution that the sale of armed drones will not be quick or easy, and India’s entry into the MTCR is only the first of many hurdles that must be cleared.)

In the interim, the two sides have launched a pair of new government-to-government DTTI co-development projects. They include a digital helmet-mounted display and a joint biological tactical detection system. Both were approved during Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to India in April 2016.

At a July 2016 meeting of the DTTI, Delhi and Washington agreed to establish five new joint working groups, including Naval Systems; Air Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Chemical and Biological Protection; and Other Systems. Moving forward, the United States has proposed 11 new ideas for defense cooperation under the DTTI while India has proposed six of its own. For now, both sides prefer those proposals go unnamed, as they quietly explore each platform’s potential at various working group meetings.

Outside the DTTI, India and the United States have established two important new initiatives to collaborate on advanced technology. Both the Jet Engine Technology Joint Working Group (JETJWG) and the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology (JWGACT) were proposed by Delhi and were initially considered by many Washington insiders to be non-starters.

Secretary Carter disagreed, and the Jet Engine Technology Joint Working Group (JETJWG) held its first meeting in India in December 2015. Pentagon insiders say the JETJWG has to date been hobbled by India’s insistence on full tech-transfer of advanced jet engines but that Washington has proposed a way forward that is “instructive, informative, and productive.”  In fact, Washington recently amended its policy guidelines on military jet engine tech-transfer to put India on par with NATO allies, though even that falls short of full transfer of advanced jet engine tech. Like India’s perennial interest in U.S. nuclear submarine technology, that is likely to remain a non-starter for the foreseeable future.

The Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Co-operation (JWGACTC), meanwhile, has witnessed more progress. The JWGACTC is exploring the potential for sharing the technology behind EMALS, a system designed to launch aircraft from naval carriers at a higher rate and with less stress on the aircraft than the legacy steam-catapult systems currently in use. With India’s 57-year-old, Centaur-class carrier Viraat headed for retirement in the coming months, it will soon begin sea-trials for its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, the Vikrant. (India also operates a 1980s-era Russian-built carrier, the Vikramaditya, commissioned in 2013).

The JWGACTC has met twice thus far (a third meeting of the JWGACTC was planned for this summer but was canceled by India last-minute and had to be rescheduled), and during Prime Minister Modi’s June visit to Washington the two sides reached agreement on an Information Exchange Annex to the joint working group that will deal with confidential information. This is significant, as India is the only non-treaty ally of the United States with such an arrangement in place and a privilege shared by only two of America’s closest allies. The two sides are also exploring the possibility of having Washington “test and certify” the flight deck of India’s indigenous carriers, and the United States has offered to lead courses on carrier operations for the Indian Navy at the Defense Acquisition University in New Delhi.

Finally, U.S. defense giants Boeing and Lockheed are aggressively pursuing opportunities to establish manufacturing lines in India for their F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft, both for sale to India and as exports to third parties. In April 2016 Delhi and Washington organized the first “government-facilitated talks on producing an American fighter jet in India” where Boeing and Lockheed executives, accompanied by Pentagon point-man Keith Webster, jointly met with Indian Defense Ministry officials. “We are looking at establishing a complete manufacturing base ecosystem,” says one Lockheed official, with the company  “offering India the exclusive opportunity to produce, operate and export F-16 Block 70 aircraft.”

Meanwhile Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have partnered with Tata Power to jointly manufacture the world’s most advanced anti-tank guided missile, the 4,000-meter range “fire and forget” Javelin. Representing an “important precedent for future technology transfer to India,” Washington has committed to having 70 percent of the value of the Javelin built in India. As Ajai Shukla reports, that includes “manufacturing smokeless propellant, and assembling the missile seeker—the Holy Grail of missile technology.”

In September 2015, Delhi announced terms had been reached on a $3 billion deal five years in the making to purchase 15 Chinook and 22 Apache helicopters (including Longbow fire-control radar), while India continues to express interest in the KC-46 strategic mid-air refueling tanker, as well as armed Predator drones and advanced surveillance drones. In the coming years India will take delivery of six additional C-130J Hercules heavy lift aircraft, four additional P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, two dozen Harpoon anti-ship missiles, as well as hundreds of Stinger and Hellfire missiles.

It’s unlikely Delhi and Washington will unveil any major new defense initiatives or big-ticket arms sales in the waning months of the Obama administration, and for both capitals that’s quite alright. U.S. officials feel there are enough promising proposals on the table and are taking a “wait and see” approach; the ball, as they say, is in Delhi’s court. How India responds may depend a great deal on the success of Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to reform India’s underperforming defense sector, the subject of the next article to follow.

Jeff M. Smith is the Director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC). Alex Werman is a research assistant at AFPC.