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Indo-US Defence Cooperation: Harvesting Defence Technologies

Mr Amit Cowshish is a former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence and former Distinguished Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for Detailed Profile
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  • October 13, 2015

    It is raining defence technologies these days. On top of as many as 17 technologies offered by the United States for transfer to India, another 24 are believed to be on the cards, taking the tally to 41.

    This is not all. Some time back, four ‘path finder’ projects were identified by the two countries for co-production of defence products based on comparatively simpler technologies. These were: the Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), ‘roll-on, roll-off’ intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance modules for the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, mobile electric hybrid power sources, and uniform integrated protection ensemble increment-2 (chemical, biological warfare protection gear for soldiers).

    Meanwhile, a group of Indian and US officials has kicked off a dialogue for cooperating on design, development and manufacture of the third aircraft carrier for India. With such technologies as nuclear propulsion and electromagnetic aircraft launch systems, India could come to possess one of the most sophisticated aircraft carrier fleets in the region.

    It would be fair to assume that these are technologies that India requires but does not possess. If so, transfer of these technologies could give a much needed shot in the arm for modernisation of the armed forces, if one also factors in similar offers from some other countries.

    Raining technologies it is, but their harvesting poses a challenge. Consider the fact that the first 10 of 41 technologies were offered by the US two years back and the remaining seven within less than a year of the first offer. It has been long enough since then for some decision to have been taken on these offers.

    Last year, Frank Kendall, US Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, had told reporters that the ‘groundbreaking’ offers made by the US included co-development and co-production of Javelin missiles, apart from helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and artillery systems. Two of these offers seem to have run into rough waters.

    The Army is believed to have recently rejected the US offer of the Raven mini-UAV, although as many as 35 Indian companies have offered to make the mini-UAV as per the Army’s specifications. As for the missiles, India decided to go ahead with the Israeli offer of the Spike anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) and launchers instead of with the US offer of Javelin missiles which was projected as one of the ‘groundbreaking offers’.

    Not that these developments amount to a big setback. At least one India-US project for co-development of lightweight protective clothing for soldiers seems to have recently been cleared by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). But, for the present, that seems to be all, unless one considers the tremendous strides made by India-US defence trade sans transfer of technology.

    The US has emerged as the largest supplier of arms to India, surpassing Russia and Israel, thanks largely to its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Programme, under which the MoD buys military equipment following the procedure laid down by the US. There is apparently great comfort for MoD officials in procuring equipment through the FMS route as the procedural propriety is underwritten by US agencies. Even so, the history of the past three years of the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) of the US Government, started in 2012, raises issues that have implications for the further growth of defence cooperation between India and the US.

    The first issue arises from the piling up of US offers without corresponding Indian swiftness in responding to them. This flies in the face of DTTI’s objective of “strengthening India’s defense industrial base by moving away from the traditional ‘buyer-seller’ dynamic toward a more collaborative approach”. The UAV Raven and ATGM Spike episodes raise questions about the mechanism for identification of the technologies and projects for co-development and co-production.

    Flooding the MoD with offers may be of little use unless the offers are in response to specific requirement projected by it. Equally importantly, sitting over offers does no good for India’s image as a country that means business, both literally and figuratively. For things to move fast, it is important that the initiative be driven by a crack team in the MoD.

    Second, the Indian side has to be absolutely clear about what it wants and should place the specifics of the requirement on the table when talks take place in several groups that have been set up under the rubric of DTTI. There should be no more repeats of Raven and Spike episodes. There also has to be clarity within the MoD of where other countries, which want to do similar business with India, figure in the changing calculus of India’s strategic outreach.

    Third, there is no point in turning one’s back on the financials. The defence budget, especially the segment that funds capital acquisitions, is widely seen as inadequate for financing the modernisation needs of the armed forces. Any substantial increase in budgetary allocations seems unlikely. If anything, the pressure on the defence budget is likely to grow once the recommendations of the seventh pay commission start getting implemented, probably next year onward.

    Funds are also required for making up the shortage in ammunition, improving operational serviceability of the equipment held by the armed forces and discharging the committed liabilities in respect of several ongoing contracts.

    There is a need to do the math and press the co-development, co-production agenda to the extent it is financially viable. No one, at least from the private sector, would enter the monopsonic defence production market unless there are reasonable prospects of the products being bought. Eventually, therefore, it is the MoD which will have to pay for whatever is manufactured as a result of joint efforts.

    Fourth, even government-to-government talks cannot yield much unless there is clarity about procedures and the bureaucratic propensity to dawdle gives way to alacrity and boldness in decision-making.

    There are no laid down procedures for procurement of technology per se. The existing procedures relate to procurement of equipment, weapon systems, myriad platforms and other tangible capabilities. Technology is relevant only if it is tied to one of these. Therefore, the existing procedures will have to be realigned to impart momentum for co-development and co-production projects under the cooperation agreements with other countries.

    Ultimately, everything hinges on decision-making which has been the bane of defence acquisition in India. Something drastic needs to be done about it. It seems prophetic that one of the objectives of DTTI is to “transform the bilateral defense relationship into one that is limited only by independent strategic decisions, rather than bureaucratic obstacles or inefficient procedures”. This is the key to bilateral defence trade not just between India and the US but with every other country.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.