Armed by America

US is challenging Russia's dominance as India's biggest arms supplier

BEFORE US SECRETARY of State Michael Pompeo met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on June 26, he called on National Security Adviser Ajit Doval at the latter's office in South Block. Pompeo had defence deals worth $25 billion on his mind.

While the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal and the Rafale deal have been mired in controversy, India’s deals with the US have been noncontroversial.

Though Russia has traditionally been India's biggest arms supplier, the US is now challenging that hegemony. As per figures complied by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India's defence purchases from the US have increased by a whopping 569 per cent from 2013 to 2018. India now buys 15 per cent of its defence equipment from the US. In the same time, defence imports from Russia came down to 58 per cent. In the 10 years prior, India had imported 76 per cent of its defence equipment from Russia.

Doval, who heads the Defence Planning Committee—the highest body that decides on military purchases—came down from his Raisina Hill office to personally receive Pompeo. Observers said it was a rare gesture from Doval, which indicated that the relationship between Delhi and Washington was going to be at an all-time high during Modi's second term.

In 2018 alone, Pentagon and the Indian military participated in five major war games and executed more than 50 other military exchanges. The maiden tri-services exercise is scheduled for the end of this year. Last year, India and the US signed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) and further operationalised the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is also expected to be signed soon. The US had given India the status of major defence partner in 2016, and observers say America's role in India's defence matrix has grown significantly.

One critical issue is how the Indian military, which is used to operating Russian equipment, would adapt to US systems. But, many in the military have said that Russian equipment is rugged and lacks the sophistication of the American systems.

“We had problems with Russian equipment at times, particularly after their break-up,” Lt. Gen Mohinder Puri, former deputy chief of Army staff, told THE WEEK. “Certainly, it is a good move to diversify military equipment and not be dependent on one source. You cannot be putting all your eggs in one basket. As far as adaptability and training are concerned, I do not think it is going to be much of a problem.”

During Pompeo's visit, the biggest concern among Indian officials was how to negotiate the US sanctions over India's ongoing $5 billion deal to procure the S-400 air defence system from Russia. Pompeo admitted that his country had a divergence of view with Delhi on issues such as trade, but downplayed the S-400 deal by saying that “great friends are bound to have differences” and that they would explore ways to work through these issues.

The several defence deals on the horizon would help. The most recent was South Block's approval to acquire 10 more Boeing Poseidon-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The deal, worth more than $3 billion, will be finalised under the foreign military sales programme with the US. Designed to protect the vast coastline and territorial waters of India, the P-8I can conduct anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence operations, maritime patrol, and surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Official sources claimed that the Indian Navy was already using 12 such P-8I aircraft for its maritime surveillance and these were part of the 312A Naval Air Squadron based in Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu. “Additional P-8I will be armed with more advanced features,” said an official.

Then comes the critical deal to acquire 30 armed Sea Guardian (Predator-B) drones for more than $2.5 billion, for all the three services. The US administration recently approved the sale of Predator-B armed drones to India. If it happens, India would become the first country outside the NATO alliance to get such a weapon from Washington.

Recently, the US Senate passed a legislative provision that puts India at par with America's NATO allies for the purpose of military exports, similar to countries like Israel and South Korea.

India and the US are also at an advanced stage of discussion to finalise the procurement of an advanced air defence system to protect parts of New Delhi from hostile aircraft and missiles. Likely to cost more than $1 billion, the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) can track and shoot down multiple aerial threats in a 9/11 type of attack.

Pentagon has also agreed to sell two missile defence systems to Air India One for an estimated cost of $190 million, a move that will enhance the security of planes flying the prime minister and the president.

Another deal on the anvil is the sale of 24 MH 60 Romeo Seahawk helicopters for about $2.6 billion. The helicopters, built by Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky Aircraft, will be procured under the 'government-to-government' route. Official sources claim that an agreement will be finalised in a few months and delivery can be expected by next year.

Another proposal is to buy six more Apache attack helicopters worth $1billion. Apache, a twin-engined helicopter, is operated by two pilots and, with its array of modern electronics, it is considered one of the most advanced combat helicopters.

Additionally, the Indian Navy needs 57 multi-role combat fighter jets, and Boeing's F/A18 jets are being considered for this role. Lockheed Martin has also offered to make its F-21 jets exclusive to the Indian Air Force. The F-21 is in the race to get the IAF's 114 medium multi-role jets tender.

“I think the BJP administration has the political flexibility to more seriously engage with Lockheed Martin's F-21 offer, including determining the level of support within the US administration for India's selection of this package,” Frank O’Donnell, fellow at the US Naval War College, told The WEEK. “However, the planned relocation of the global manufacturing hub (F-16 production line) to India, and the job losses that would likely follow in the US, is a real [obstacle for the deal]. Delhi should not be shy in referring to the S-400 case and highlighting that the US needs to make competitive advanced technologies available to India if it wants Delhi to curtail buying Russian technologies, rather than decrying a Russian offer with no competitive US counter-offer.”

Said Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation and a professor of international relations at King's College London: “Defence is the strongest part of the India-US relationship at the moment. Even if relations are less than positive on trade and geopolitical issues like Iran, defence is something where both countries have an interest and I think India has been able to accommodate American interests. The trajectory indicates that there is a clear shift in where India is buying from.”

Also, at a time when the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal with an Anglo-Italian firm or the Rafale jet deal with France have been mired in allegations of corruption, India's defence deals with Washington have been noncontroversial.

Defence analysts, however, say that it is going to be a tightrope walk for India while deciding upcoming defence acquisitions. “Americans will step up pressure relentlessly,” said a defence official. “US weaponry is very expensive compared with Russian defence acquisitions.”