When US President Joe Biden hosts Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington, DC, on June 22, a key item on the table is a deal for the powerful GE F414 engines for the Tejas Mk-2 fighter. The deal is vital because the Indian Air Force is reeling under a critical shortage of fighters. It needs 756 fighters for a possible two-front war scenario as against the 560 aircraft it operates at present.
“Our insistence is on total transfer of technology, so we are working out the details. It is a definitive development and holds a lot of potential for manufacturing an entire range of fighter aircraft,” said an official. The state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited will partner US defence major GE in the new deal.
India had pursued the dream of an indigenous aero-engine on an indigenous aircraft since 1986. But the indigenous ‘Kaveri’ engine―despite nine prototypes―could not make the cut even after costing a lot time and money. The first indigenous fighter Tejas, inducted into the IAF in 2016, was, therefore, fitted with a GE F404 engine bought off the shelf. There was no transfer of technology. But in the new deal, only the initial batch of the F414 engines will be supplied by the US, the subsequent batches will be manufactured in India after total tech transfer.
The deal, however, is a loaded one. There is a strong likelihood that the F414 or its upgraded variants will be locked in as the engine of choice for several other types of fighter aircraft that India plans to produce. In effect, it will tie India to the US in a manner not seen before.
On June 5, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and visiting US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin chalked out a roadmap for bilateral industrial cooperation in defence. “This initiative aims to change the paradigm for cooperation between US and Indian defence sectors, including a set of specific proposals that could provide India access to cutting-edge technologies and support India’s defence modernisation plans,” said a US defence department release.
The latest developments beg a key question―is India replacing the traditionally close relationship with time-tested friend Russia with a closer bonding with the US? Said G. Parthasarathy, strategic analyst and former ambassador, “We have been buying US equipment for long, but this is the first time that we made it very clear to the US that we needed technology transfer.” He said as India felt threatened by China, it was natural that collaboration with the US would increase, as Russia was preoccupied in Ukraine.
“Amid warming ties with the US, the relationship with Russia continues. The Russians continue to provide us with huge amounts of oil at very reasonable prices. Both Russia and the US are aware of where we stand. We are not acting against Russian or American interests. We are dealing with an aggressive China,” said Parthasarathy.
With the world order gradually evolving into a multipolar one from the US-dominated unipolar moment, India’s position calls for prolific multilateral engagement. That is why India is a prominent member of several multilateral groupings from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation―where Russia and China are members―to the US-backed Quad. This has given India a lot of manoeuvrability and strategic depth.
“Despite unhappiness on the Indian position over Ukraine, the US is going ahead with the aero-engine deal,” said military analyst Lieutenant General Rakesh Sharma (retd). “The US also understands that India does not want to be called a frontline state against China. Yet it wants to help India out and hopes that India becomes some kind of a balancer against China.” Sharma said the US knew that it would take some time for India to come out of dependence on Russia. “If the US is keen to help India despite all these, it shows great pragmatism,” he said.
At the same time, there is a realisation that the US would not give India cutting-edge weaponry. The F414 is not the most advanced engine. The US frontline fighter F-35 uses the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. American weapon systems also come with a lot of conditions. Nuclear weapons cannot be fitted on US-supplied platforms nor can they be used in a war against US allies.
At the same time, the US and the west accept that they need India. “The US is facing a serious economic and military challenge it has never faced before. Just to tackle China, it has collapsed its four strategic zones―West Asia, South Asia, the ASEAN countries and the Pacific―and formed just one blanket strategic zone, the Indo-Pacific. That strategy hinges on two countries―India and Australia―the only countries in the region to slow down the pace of the Chinese challenge,” said Kumar Sanjay Singh, a modern history professor at a Delhi University college. “Because India is lagging far behind China militarily, the US wants to help India. Moreover, with the declining American influence in West Asia and Africa, India is the only stable strategic geography to manage the expanse from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal up to the ASEAN region―the reason why the US has elevated India to the status of a strategic partner. No other non-NATO country has this status,” he said.
At the same time, India is pivotal for the Russian effort to challenge the dollar’s dominance. Russia also needs India for a number of its strategic and economic goals. While Russia is the prime mover behind the de-dollarisation move, India is considered part of the broader push.
Armed with sufficient reasons, India has in recent years tried to broad-base its sources of weaponry and military equipment. Fighter aircraft engines, helicopters and transport aircraft from the US, air defence systems and aircraft from Russia, military transport aircraft from Spain, fighter aircraft from France and submarine engines from Germany―all these are part of a plan. The central idea is to avoid excessive reliance on one country and make sure that options are always available.