India & US: New Phase in Defence Partnership

To win Indian hearts and minds, Mattis talked of steadily expanding defence cooperation, underpinned by a strategic convergence based on common objectives and goals in the region

Issue No. 19 | October 1-15, 2017By Ranjit KumarPhoto(s): By PIB
Forging Ties: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with the US Secretary of Defence James Mattis in New Delhi

After defence relations between India and the United States (US) reached astounding heights towards the end of President Obama’s tenure, both the countries saw a lull in high level contacts creating a perception that the Trump administration believes more on transactional relationship than sharing something critical to India’s defence needs. The Trump administration could afford to send its Defense Secretary to India only after completing eight months of its four year tenure. Nonetheless, this long overdue visit of the US Defence Secretary James Mattis is expected to revitalise and provide a fresh momentum to the India-US Strategic and Defence partnership, especially in view of the new Afghan strategy of the Trump administration which is much closer to India’s heart.

Though after the talks held ont September 26 this year in South Block, Minjister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman bluntly refused to agree to the wishes of the Trump administration to contribute more in terms of strengthening security in the violence ridden Afghanistan. The two sides discussed ways to assist the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, which is an anathema to the Taliban and Pakistan. Mattis did not press for Indian troops presence in Afghanistan as the US perhaps recognises the sensitivities of the Indian government to ask its troops to land on the thorny grounds of Afghanistan.

With convergence of views on Afghanistan, Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region, it was natural for the US to agree to the Indian needs of cutting-edge defence technologies to be aqble to take on China, the main rival of the US. As China is trying to restrict the strategic space for the only super power i.e. US from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the US under Obama administration found it incumbent on them to grant India the status of Major Defence Partner, which will enable the Pentagon to share its top end defence technology with India. With this view, the US had also entered into a specific agreement called the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).

Nirmala Sitharaman disclosed that during the talks with James Mattis, both sides discussed ways to refocus and re-energise the DTTI as a mechanism to promote technology sharing as well as co-development and co-production efforts. Under the DTTI umbrella, the US side expressed their willingness to share cutting edge platforms, which would enhance India’s defence preparedness to meet current and emerging threats. Since there has been concern in India regarding the fate of the DTTI, this issue was discussed during the Mattis — Nirmala meeting. Though, Indian concerns were addressed to a large extent when the Trump administration cleared the National Defence Authorisation Act of 2017 (NDAA 2017), which institutionalised the DTTI mechanism.

According to Mattis, grant of Major Defence Partner status recognises India as a pillar of regional stability and security

Under the DTTI, both sides have nominated DRDO and US defence laboratories as lead agencies to fructify selected projects and plan joint work on other futuristic projects. Under the DTTI, the two sides are discussing the development of Next Generation Individual Protection Ensemble, Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Source, Digital Helmet Mounted Display and the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System. The first two projects have reached the agreement stage and the last two are in discussion stage. These four projects under DTTI were announced during President Obama’s visit to India as Chief Guest for the 2015 Republic Day parade.

These projects under DTTI were decided during the Obama regime. Under the Trump administration the two sides are still waiting for the next round of DTTI meeting planned to be held in the Pentagon. Under the DTTI, the US had proposed bilateral development of Future Vertical Lift Helicopter (FVLH). The US had also proposed to the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) that the two sides work on an agreement for US made fighter F-16 or F/A-18 under DTTI; but India declined the offer. However, since the IAF has invited Lockheed Martin as well as h SAAB of Sweden to manufacture single engine fighters in India. The US Defence Secretary is believed to have raised this issue with the Indian Minister of Defence.

According to reports, the US is still pressing Indian leaders to accept one of the two US fighters to be made in India for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The US arms companies however, have several concerns regarding the Strategic Partnership policy of making front-line fighters for the IAF or submarines for the Indian Navy in India. The US defence company Lockheed Martin has already written to the Indian MoD regarding the concerns relating to majority stake in the joint venture company to be set up in India besides issues relating to technology transfer. Significantly, Mattis disclosed that he discussed with Nirmala Sitharaman ways to further deepen the robust Defence Trade and Technologies through the DTTI. He emphasised that cooperation in these areas will improve the capabilities of both the militaries and reinforce the foundation for an enduring partnership.

In this context, the Indian Defence Minister said that both agreed on the need to expand on the progress already made by encouraging co-production and co-developmental efforts. Nirmala Sitharaman reiterated India’s deep interest in enhancing defence manufacturing in India under Prime Minister’s Make in India initiative. She thanked Mattis for his supportive position in this regard and looked forward to working closely with him to realise joint projects.

The US arms majors have tasted the fruits of Indian defence modernisation during last one decade with over $15 billion deals. They are now eyeing over $200 billion worth of arms acquisition plans during next one and half decades. They cannot afford to miss the Indian armed forces modernisation bus. The rival European and Russian defence firms are offering every thing under the sky to win Indian contracts.

To win Indian hearts and minds, Mattis talked of steadily expanding defence cooperation, underpinned by a strategic convergence based on common objectives and goals in the region. In this backdrop Mattis referred to grant of Major Defence Partner status to India reflecting the progress made in strengthening cooperation. According to Mattis, grant of Major Defence Partner status recognises India as a pillar of regional stability and security. This also reflects desire of the US for a long-term strategic partnership in the 21st century.

Mattis said that in the wide ranging new relationship, security is one of the key strategic pillars. This will help expand US–India cooperation in building partnerships across the region. In this context, Mattis talked of convergence of views on Afghanistan and lauded India’s invaluable contributions to the nation and welcome further efforts to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability and security. He also assuaged India’s concerns on terrorism, without naming Pakistan, by stating that there can be no tolerance of terrorist safe heavens.

Various pronouncements of Mattis after talks with Nirmala Sitharaman gave the impression that the US is eager to deepen its maritime partnership with India which will help counter China not only in Indian Ocean, but also in the South China Sea.

In this backdrop, Mattis also talked of India’s vital role in supporting South East Asia’s regional institutionsparticularly ASEAN and building partnership capacity across the region. He also appreciated India’s leadership role in the Indian Ocean and both sides seeking to work together to build a regional architecture.

Mattis said that expanding maritime engagement is among his top priorities. The two sides are already holding annual maritime dialogue which according to Mattis, is an important mechanism to develop shared understanding of the challenges both nations face and opportunities for cooperation in addressing them. Mattis referred to US–India annual maritime naval exercise with Japan, which he described as an example of deepening operational cooperation. Satisfied with the visit Nirmala Sitharaman commented that India and the US are entering a new phase in bilateral strategic defence partnership.


The writer is a Defence Analyst