The agreement signed between US President Biden and Indian PM Modi on 22nd June 2023, marks a new beginning in the defense partnership between the oldest and biggest democratic countries. It has been marked by a clear difference in approach to our relationships by the PMs at the helm. While Nehru was needlessly squeamish and taciturn to the American overtures when he visited the US during the Presidency of Eisenhower, he was far more warmly disposed to Kennedy.
Modi had a discreet voyage with Obama but has now taken Indo-US relations by the scruff of its neck, and chosen defense collaboration as the new signage for a bolstered relationship
In fact, during the Chinese aggression in 1962, he pleaded through Galbraith, the US Ambassador to India for massive help from Kennedy. It’s another matter that before the supplies could come in, the Chinese declared a unilateral truce.
Kennedy was a tad uncomfortable, though, with Nehru’s rambling crusade for nonalignment, finer points of democracy and place of emerging countries in the global scheme of things. Dr. Manmohan Singh had a marvelous breakthrough in Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation (123 Agreement) in 2005. He was also hugely respected for his views on how to handle the US financial crisis in 2007 by President Obama. Modi is a different kettle of fish. He was well aware of how the USA put a ban on his US visit as CM, of Gujarat, during the riots. But as an astute Gujarati, he knew how commercial interests can transcend the cerebral script of secularism and democracy.
The US was aware of his star power as a leader, who had no peers on the political stage of India. Modi had a discreet voyage with Obama but has now taken Indo-US relations by the scruff of its neck, and chosen defense collaboration as the new signage for a bolstered relationship.
In the matter of Defense dealings, India and USA are governed by acquisitions, with Pakistan as the preferred ally. Unlike the Soviet Union, they were not technology transfer partners. After the Chinese debacle in 1962, India consciously opted for a strategic defense partnership with the Soviet Union, with the induction of MIG-21 aircraft and technology transfer thereof.
Instead of boosting our R&D and design capability and Make in India, Nehru consciously opted for the Technology Transfer route (Buy Technology and Make in India) as the predominant policy for building Military Industry Complex. Be it frigates for the Navy, tanks for the Army, or fighter aircraft for IAF, it was USSR all the way. Despite his political posturing as nonaligned, Nehru’s clear predilection for Socialism and Russian tryst with Centralised Planning drove our defense technology cooperation with USSR.
In weapon acquisition, the relationship has been largely driven by Foreign Military Sales (FMS) arrangements under the aegis of DSCA, where India gets its preferred military equipment sourced from the USA.
The 1971 war with Pakistan, when the Nixon Administration took a stridently anti-Indian position by sending the 7th Fleet, took the Indo-Soviet cooperation to a crescendo, inking the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship & Cooperation. No wonder close to 85% of defense inventory is of Russian origin. There have been outliers, though when India acquired the Jaguars from the UK in 1978 and Mirage 2000 from France in 1982 as a rebuff to Pakistan buying F16 aircraft from the US. Both in Jaguar and Mirage, there has been no provision for technology transfer.
Given India’s bitter experience with the Americans in the 1971 war and the ban it imposed on the export of several critical items after Bajpai’s nuclear bomb test in 1998, the civil nuclear agreement in 2005 between the two countries during the Manmohan regime can be termed a watershed turnaround moment.
In weapon acquisition, the relationship has been largely driven by Foreign Military Sales (FMS) arrangements under the aegis of DSCA, where India gets its preferred military equipment sourced from the USA. The FMS route saves India from the tortuous process of framing QRs, and going for extensive field trials. Many of the frontline acquisitions like gun locating radar, surveillance aircraft, and heavy lift aircraft have been sourced through the FMS route accounting for nearly 20 billion dollars since 2002.
The popular impression has been that the USA doesn’t believe in technological collaboration and knowledge transfer, except to countries like Japan, Israel and South Korea, but as a seller of critical platforms and equipment. On the other hand, the Israelis who have benefited immensely due to their partnership with the USA have been the major supplier of arms and platforms to India. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to all three services is a reflection of the growing military relationship with Israel. In communication devices, the Israelis have a near monopoly in supplying to the Indians.
As a matter of fact, Israel has emerged as the second largest defense partner of India, particularly after the Kargil war when the AMRs (Anti Material Rifles) to bust bunkers came in very handy and established as a very credible Defense ally, thanks to the political overtures shown by the ruling Party.
…the proposed TOT collaboration for a G414 engine would be timely because India is only familiar with the technology of Russian engines.
Given this backdrop, the MOU which has been signed for powering the LCA aircraft with a G414 engine and that 11 critical technologies would be transferred to HAL can be called historic. It is worth recalling that India ventured into the Kaveri engine program in 1986 to power the LCA aircraft with an indigenous engine. However, due to its design failure after auditing by Snecma, the initial LCA prototype aircraft are being powered by G404 engines. Against this backdrop, the proposed TOT collaboration for a G414 engine would be timely because India is only familiar with the technology of Russian engines. It may be noted that the DRDO is still going for an upgraded version of the Kaveri engine called Ghatak.
Given our bitter experience in design and lack of adequate expertise, it would be far more advisable to have a technological collaboration with the USA for engines. It would, however, be necessary to have a proper assessment of the range and depth of technology being transferred and to what extent HAL would be able to absorb the critical technologies like special coating and FADEC (Full Automatic Digital Engine Control).
One’s memory goes back to how MMOC (Martin Merreita Overseas Corporation) reneged from its contract to provide FCS (Flight Control System) to ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) after the nuclear bomb test in 1998. That put back the indigenization program of LCA by several years. And now, the USA will power the LCA upgrade with a GE 414 engine!
The other collaboration being envisaged is to make India a hub for Maintenance & Repair for forward deployed US Navy assets and Master Ship Repair agreements with Indian shipyards. Even for the UAVs, a comprehensive MRO facility in India is being contemplated. With our skilled power which is considerably cheaper than the Western counterparts ($8 MHR vs $60), Setting up an MRO facility in India is the most cost-effective and convenient.
The willingness of the USA to transfer critical technology was triggered by the MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (Buy &Make ) tender when President Obama during his India visit in 2010 promised to transfer key technologies of AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar as also the engine if F16 or F18 was chosen as the preferred aircraft. It’s ironic that the government, instead of exercising the Buy and Make option for MMRCA opted for Buying Rafale aircraft from France without any technology transfer. The policy preference for Make in India was supplanted by import leading to complaints regarding its high cost and potential corruption.
DRDO, India’s premier agency for the design and development of critical systems, has a rather poor record in propulsion systems (Kaveri Engine), Sensors like AESA Radar & Weapons like Air to Air Missiles.
The other highlight of the Biden-Modi agreement is India’s plan to procure thirty-one MQ9B predators from General Atomics at a cost of 3 billion dollars. This is a major development since all the UAVs of the HALE variety have been procured from IAI Israel. MQ9B is a hunter-killer UAV where it moves from surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance role to a hunter-killer role. Operating from a service ceiling of 50,000 feet as against 35000 feet of Israeli UAVs. This procurement would be a major game changer in India’s capability for surveillance coupled with lethality. A joint production of jet engines, long-range artillery, and ICVs is also being contemplated.
From being sellers, Americans have come a long way to become technology and production partners with India. The harsh reality of few competitors bidding for the same system as a cash-rich country like India, which wears patriotism on its sleeves has made the USA to be so benign in the matter of technology transfer. Of course, one should be sure that the technology being transferred is obsolete or state-of-the-art!
DRDO, India’s premier agency for the design and development of critical systems, has a rather poor record in propulsion systems (Kaveri Engine), Sensors like AESA Radar & Weapons like Air to Air Missiles. In the area of passive seekers, and focal plane array, DRDO‘s record is dismal. Our import dependence for weapons, sensors and propulsion systems is almost 90%. That is mainly responsible for our Self Reliance Index of 30 percent calculated by the Kalam Committee in 1993, with a fond hope that we reach 70 percent by 2003. A decade later, the SRI has not moved much, because of our design capability for critical subsystems, ability to have co-production arrangements with reputed OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), Joint R&D with well-known design houses have not moved at the requisite pace.
The problem is further compounded by our inefficient Defence PSUs who have a poor record in terms of quality, delivery commitment as also price. The private players like the Tatas, L&T, and M&M still are pariahs in terms of access to critical technology. The level playing field which was championed by the Kelkar Committee in 2005 and further buttressed by the Dhirendra Singh Committee recommendation (2016) for strategic partnership between DPSUs, Private Sector & OEMs to bolster Make in India has still not fully fructified.
The sane voice and vision of Dr. Kalam could not have been very salient for India. When the FCS contract was cancelled by MMOC, USA, he foresaw an opportunity to rev up our indigenization effort. Though Made in India FCS has taken a few more years, it has clearly proved how a crisis can be an opportunity. He clearly foresaw the limitation of ToT arrangements with Defense PSUs, particularly HAL and the need to forge alliances with OEMs and design houses to foster our military industry capability. Joint R&D collaboration with the Israelis for manufacturing MRSAM (Medium Range Surface to Air Missile) is one such initiation. This imaginative design & development collaboration found fruition when the first batch of MRSAM has been delivered to the IAF in 2021.
John Foster Dulles said: There are no permanent enemies or friends, there are only permanent interests. In this transactional approach to arms buying and building, economic liberalization has buried the last wisp of socialism in India.
Kalam also sowed the seeds of a joint venture for cruise missiles (BRHAMOS) with Russia in 1998. This has been a salutary move by India when these missile systems are in heavy demand both by our Services and foreign countries. Quite clearly, instead of reinventing the wheel, Joint Ventures, and partnerships with reputed OEMs and design houses, will help both our private sector and public sector players to have credible collaboration and potentially make India a global hub of defense manufacturing instead of being the largest importer of arms globally as per the SIPRI report (2022).
It is interesting to glance through our past effort for building our Military Industry Capability through IGA and ToTs with Soviet Union giving way to competitive tendering and the thrust towards import substitution by Making in India. Competitive tendering has widened our choice of technology& coalescence of Soviet systems with Western Systems. Israel was the first country to break the monopoly of the Soviet Union & USA is the latest player who came out of the selling mode to technology transfer mode. It also did not do a song and dance when India opted to buy the S400 missile system in 2018 at $ 5.4 billion though it would have ordinarily attracted the CAATSA (Countering Americas Adversaries Through Sanction Act) .
This is real politics where as John Foster Dulles said: There are no permanent enemies or friends, there are only permanent interests. In this transactional approach to arms buying and building, economic liberalization has buried the last wisp of socialism in India.
Henry Kissinger wrote in his book ‘World Order’ that there is no longer balance of power but the balance of equilibrium. India’s defense ties with Russia and USA is emblematic of this equilibrium act. All the same, the Biden-Modi honeymoon in defense cooperation & technology undoes the ghastly specter of the Seventh Fleet trying to twist India’s arm in its war engagement with Pakistan in 1971and US ban, post-nuclear bomb test in 1998.
One can never crystal gaze into the future and how the wheels of history can turn socialism on its head by disintegrating the USSR, prompting Francis Fukuyama to write in his iconic book ‘End of History’ that the fall of the Berlin Wall & disintegration of the USSR will now make every country liberal democracy and opt for a free market model of Adam Smith. Who knew that Narasimha Rao the Nehru acolyte would turn Nehru’s Fabian socialism on its head and ask his FM Dr Manmohan Singh to adopt a new path of economic liberalism?
However, given India’s bitter experience with the USA in defense & strategic matters in 1971 and 1998, India not putting all its defense requirements in the nest of the Soviet Union & USA considered India as a serious technology partner in lieu of Pakistan, its erstwhile military alliance partner in SEATO is a metamorphic moment and paradigm shift in Indo US defense collaboration. As Victor Hugo: No one force on earth can stop a moment whose time has come! The balance of equilibrium, Kissinger would rue, has ironically shifted in favor of India.