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US-India Defence Technologies for Transfer: Cultural Change

Group Captain Vivek Kapur was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 15, 2013

    Recent news reports suggest that the US has identified a list of 10 defence technologies for transfer to India. The government is reported to be “reviewing” these offers which could reach as high as 90. The US appears to be finally moving to realise its oft stated stand that it considers India an important strategic partner. It is a significant move from the earlier tightly controlled defence technology exports to India. In comparison to India countries like China, Pakistan and Turkey had much easier transfer process. With this radical change in policy, the US is putting India amongst the eight countries for whom technology exports are not restricted. Most of these countries comprise of close US allies such as the UK.

    There is little doubt that the US has the most advanced defence technology. Most of the cutting edge defence technologies since World War-II have originated in the US and setting a trend for other countries to emulate but yet maintaining a technological lead. By and large the US weaponry has been costlier than similar weapons sourced from other countries except where large economies of scale have been available to US manufacturers. The US arms sales have also traditionally been accompanied by political and diplomatic strings and many of the recipients have been required to align their policies with that of the US. It has also been seen that the US uses punitive measures like economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool and this in turn usually leads to cessation of spares support for US military equipment already delivered, Not surprisingly, the US’ global cop role has led to a fear amongst potential customers about the downside of buying US weaponry. Export controls, including clauses specifying intrusive on-site inspections of sold US weapons, make buyers jittery and nervous.

    India has in the past few years entered into several defence contracts with the US. These include purchase of Lockheed Martin LM2500 marine turbines to power warships, C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, C-17 Globemaster-III heavy cargo aircraft, and P-8I Poseidon Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance and Anti Submarine Warfare (LRMR and ASW) aircraft. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing for AH-64 Apache attack helicopters; CH47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters and M-777 light weight howitzers.

    The shift in Indian defence purchases from the traditional Russian/Soviet dependence has been driven by the need to diversify defence purchases and identifying the best globally available equipment for specific tasks. The domestic industry both in terms of global standards of technology and performance has been unable to meet the military needs, particularly of the army and the air force.

    While it is widely acknowledged that US defence technology is the most advanced, it is also accepted that often purchasing US defence equipments come with high restrictions. The US only shares most of its high-end defence technology with very few allied nations, for example, the UK, which gets open access to US defence technology. However, even the UK has started facing restrictions as is evident from the F-35 programme wherein sharing of the F-35 software source code with UK became a big issue.1 While India is not an ally of the US, the current US offer of technology transfer places India at a level of high trust and strategic importance with the US. However, the US-India proximity will be judged upon which US technologies are to be transferred to India. While India encourages defence technology transfer into the country, it reserves the right to determine which technologies it requires on a case to case basis. Clearly, India cannot accept obsolete technologies that are at the end of their potency. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) above 26% in the defence manufacturing sector as also been permitted with similar GoI oversight.

    Technology transfer is not open to sanctions to the extent that direct arms purchases are. The latter involves weapons manufactured in facilities under direct US control including the spares required to support the weaponry. The denial of this support can cripple the in-service equipment concerned. On the other hand, once technology is transferred it is internalised by the recipient to fit his requirements. Technology transfer primarily comprises knowledge including the “know-why” and “know-how” of developing a certain class of equipment. Sanctions are difficult to apply on this knowledge once it as been transferred and not surprisingly the US exercises a great degree of caution. For this reason alone it would be preferable to obtain technology from the US rather than ready built equipment. The recent reports about the lack of quality control in the F-35 programme detected in a US government audit2 should add weight to the preference for technology transfer rather than outright purchase, provided that the recipient is confident about avoiding similar lapses in his manufacturing facilities.

    The initial report on the US technology transfer is too sketchy to come to some firm conclusion. A lot will depend upon the specific technologies offered as well as the level of transfer envisaged. Co-development projects may also form part of the package similar to the India-Russian Brahmos project. What is important for India at this stage is to examine closely the emerging external situation and prepare domestically to wholly absorb the technology offered. Such an absorption strategy should include participation of India’s Defence Public Sector Unit as well as the identified and capable private sector companies under GoI oversight. Transfers of defence technology from the US to India could result in a win-win situation for both the countries through combining US technology with India’s well acknowledged strengths in information technology. In fact, several European and US aviation companies have R&D centres in India involved in high-end research projects. The fly-by-wire flight control system developed ab initio in India for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas has shown that India has the wherewithal to develop cutting edge technology in niche areas.

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