Where the Middle East starts on the Western border
India takes hard look at U.S. defense technology
Kolkata, India — India and the United States are exchanging expertise in two ongoing joint military exercises in India this month. Both nations’ armies launched a two-week joint ground combat exercise, codenamed Yudh Abhyas, or “war study,” at Babina in India’s Uttar Pradesh state on Oct. 12. Concurrently, both sides are conducting exercises in airlift, airland and airdrop delivery techniques, as well as aeromedical and disaster management practices, at the Indian Air Force's Agra airfield near New Delhi in an exercise named Cope India, from Oct. 15-24. While such exercises have been institutionalized as annual affairs, they have greatly expanded in scope.
Many analysts feel that beyond the rhetoric of interoperability, such exercises serve as a venue for the United States to showcase its defense technology to Indians looking to diversify their sources of military equipment. The U.S. pitch focuses on technologies that could allow India to counter China’s military development.
These joint field exercises include the first-ever maneuvers between U.S. mechanized units and their Indian equivalents. The U.S. Army brought in 17 Stryker 8x8 multirole vehicles of the type that have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They form the standard wheeled armored personnel carriers for the U.S. military and constitute a family of vehicles that can be deployed for diverse uses from direct fire support to mobile ambulances.
Incidentally, the joint exercises are happening at a time when the Indian Army has issued requests for proposals for light tanks and tank destroyers, both tracked and wheeled. A sudden requirement for these vehicles has apparently arisen over a need to counter Chinese moves along certain stretches of the disputed India-China border, using armored vehicles nimble enough to be deployed in mountainous terrain.
U.S. defense contractors see India as a huge market for a number of niche products in which the United States is clearly a world leader. Moreover, they do not need to spend time underlining the fact that China already has access to a number of Russian developments, and buying the same may not therefore give India an edge.
On the other hand, the Western embargo on weapons sales to China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 has ensured that China will not have anything comparable to the latest U.S. systems to which India is now being granted access, barring Chinese espionage of course.
The Indians, however, remain prudent in such matters. They will certainly not jeopardize their longstanding relationship with the Russians, now that both nations have extended their military-technical collaboration till 2021 and are currently engaged in over 200 joint development projects.
Nevertheless, India does require certain technologies from the United States to counter China’s expansionism. For example, both sides have deployed transport aircraft in their joint air force exercises. Included in the U.S. line-up are the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft. Interestingly, India has already ordered six of the latter and is seriously considering 10 of the former. Russia has aircraft in these classes, but does not have the U.S. equivalent operational capability.
Indians are also acutely aware that the United States is a world leader in sensors and electronic attack capability. In fact, one of the main reasons why India buys complete U.S. systems is because of this technology inside them, which is probably unmatched elsewhere and can give India an edge over the Chinese.
The deal for eight Boeing P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft, crucial in antisubmarine warfare, and the earlier purchase of weapon-locating radars from the United States, underlines this fact.
The U.S. lead in defense electronics may also swing the Indian Air Force’s tender for the US$11 billion-plus multirole medium-range combat aircraft in their favor. The IAF has repeatedly said that the avionics suite of the aircraft – which is seen in the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, UAC’s Mig-35, SAAB Gripen, Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Boeing F-18 aircraft – will be a key determinant in the final selection.
To be considered favorably, the fighter’s nose radar should be active electronically scanned array, the IAF says. Not surprisingly, the United States is a world leader in this technology, and its F-16 and F-18 aircraft field the mature AESA technology.
While AESA technology would be a key consideration in the final selection of a fighter plane for India, the degree to which technology transfer is agreed upon will be just as important. The Indians have made it clear throughout the aircraft selection process that the best technology may not necessarily win unless it is ready to be transferred in its entirety. This is where U.S. firms have a handicap.
In the past, the U.S. government has refused to share source code for radar even with close allies like the United Kingdom. However, with the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal in place and an End User Monitoring Agreement almost sown up, it seems that the United States could be willing to give up its old habits for the sake of the Indian market and the ensuing regional geopolitics.
The main thing the Indian military establishment remains wary of in engaging with the United States is the propensity of U.S. manufacturers to offer a system to India once an indigenous equivalent has crossed some significant milestones. To be fair, this is a tendency exhibited by other countries as well.