Indo-US defense lockstep

In the latest development, the Indian Navy is buying about Rs85 billion (US$1.74 billion) worth of eight Boeing P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft to replace eight ageing and fuel-guzzling Russian-origin Tupolev-142Ms that India bought from Russia years ago.

Configured for India and based on the Boeing 737 commercial jetliner, the radar-heavy P-8I aircraft will plug gaps in the navy's maritime surveillance abilities with a range of over 600 nautical miles.

The reconnaissance aircraft sale continues a slow but definite deepening of Indo-US defense relations in the past few years, an expansion that has obvious ramifications all the way across the world as well as domestically. In October 2007, a massive 20-day joint exercise between India, Japan, Australia, Singapore and the US kicked off a political storm in India, especially as US special forces troops taught military tactics to the Indians in the Mizoram jungle.

Pakistan, India’s subcontinental rival, for decades has been the recipient of billions of dollars of US military technology and largesse, while India previously aligned itself with the former Soviet Union. US defense contractors are anticipating additional sales, Pakistan is viewing the realignment with suspicion and the Russians are seeing a longtime customer cut its purchases. China is concerned as well as it sees the US growing closer to its traditional rival for hegemony in Asia.

In the past, New Delhi has been suspicious of Washington’s sanctions-ridden international defense policies, which severely impacted India’s space program, among others, due to a clampdown on access to dual-use technologies for fear of use in India’s missile program. However, particularly under the outgoing UWS administration of George W Bush, matters have been changing. Since 2005 in particular, under the 10-year Defense Framework Agreement signed between the US and India, Indo-US strategic relations have moved beyond the Cold War prism of India’s previous Soviet-bloc alignment.

In the wake of the emergence of China as a regional economic and military powerhouse, Washington has been looking at India as the countervailing presence in the Asian region that Pakistan had been unable to fulfill. That has resulted in India being sought for a strategic depth that moves beyond just a South Asian axis and the standard response of “how would long-time US ally Pakistan respond to Washington’s overtures to India,’’ as has been in the past.

India and America are also increasingly finding themselves pitted together in what the US called the global fight against terror, especially in the wake of the murderous Mumbai attacks in November, which conclusively established that Pakistan was unable to control the rogue players who orchestrated the violence.

The fact that an increasingly wealthy Indian government’s defense market has grown by leaps and bounds helps. India's defense purchases are expected to be in the range of US$50 billion over the next five years, even as the country has embarked on a massive defense modernization exercise for its Army, Air Force and Navy.

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The absence of an indigenous defense industry means that most heavy armaments are going to be imported. Indian officials say that Washington, as the new strategic ally, is now looking to supply a quarter of India's military hardware over the next decade.

Presently, the US considerably lags Russia, Israel and France in supplying military hardware and software to India. While Russia clocks sales about US$1.5 billion to India every year, Israel notches annual sales of around US$1 billion.

However, New Delhi has been keen to diversify the stable of countries from which it buys arms and to move away from over-dependence on traditional supplier Russia, which has increased its defense hardware exports to China.

Indeed, the Indo-US reconnaissance aircraft sale supersedes last year's US$1-billion contract signed with US for six C-130J `Super Hercules' aircraft for use by Indian special-forces. The Hercules transaction has opened the possibility of an Indo-US joint missile defense system, which would be a significant engagement should it work out. Talks are at an early stage involving a joint analysis of India's needs.

India has been focusing on the development of an effective missile shield to guard against perceived threats from Pakistan. This has opened a potential multi-billion dollar market to American manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

Apart from the C-130J deal, America’s only substantial (and comparatively less in value) arms deal with India in recent years has been a US$190-million contract in 2002 to supply 12 AN/TPQ-37 fire finder weapon-locating radars.

Last year, India purchased the amphibious transport vessel USS Trenton (re-christened Jalashwa) for nearly $50 million with six-UH-3H helicopters to operate alongside costing another $49 million. The Jalashwa is the first-ever warship acquired by the Indian Navy from the US and the second-biggest that India now possesses after the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, a 50-year-old craft commissioned by the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959.

The Indo-US defense lockstep is only expected to deepen. Both Lockheed and Boeing are principal bidders in the estimated US$11 billion deal for India's procurement of 126 medium fighter jet aircraft. US defense firms are also eyeing a 312 light helicopter tender worth $1 billion floated by India.

India's state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is upbeat about export opportunities following a deal with Boeing last year, for the development of sub-systems for Boeing fighter planes. Earlier this year (2008), US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited India and made it apparent that given India's status as the US's strategic partner in the Asian region, Washington was looking to expand military-to-military relationships independent of the civilian nuclear agreement.

After his visit to India last year, during which he said the Hercules sale “marks a major policy change in India's armament procurement, Gates said the US is not looking for "quick results" or "big leaps forward", but rather a steady expansion of the relationship, at a pace comfortable to both the countries. President-elect Barack Obama, who has retained Gates as Secretary of Defense, shows every sign that he will only continue to deepen the process.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com