Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s U.S. Visit – Building Blocks for a India-U.S. Defence Partnership

By Nitin Gokhale

“India has done enough to simplify it’s defence procurement and other norms. It is time for US Govt and Industry to reciprocate. It is easy to blame Indian bureaucracy but in some cases, US bureaucracy is much worse” – Manohar Parrikar.This was possibly one of the first when a visiting dignitary (December 2015) did plain talking in the US. When the Indian Defence Minister said this, he touched a topic, which has remained unspoken in India’s dealings with the US on defence cooperation. He was quick to add that US can add a lot of value to Indian industry and laid down the path ahead, especially towards indigenous manufacturing.

Parrikar went on to add that enough was done to facilitate ease of doing business in India. He urged US industry to come forward in collaborating with Indian companies. He stressed upon the fact that Indian industry today is capable of maintaining highest standards and could easily become an important part of the Global Supply Chain of American Defence companies.

During the trip, Minister Parrikar also stressed on the major reforms that have been brought in India in the Defence sector and urged the Government of United States and the industry to reciprocate. He stressed that greater cooperation in Defence sector is a win-win situation for both countries.

Discussions with Minister and Government officials were around issues and concerns of the industry from both sides. However, industry from both sides have expressed satisfaction over the outcome of their meetings. Indian industry is upbeat about Make in India and keenly looking forward to more inflow of US investment and technology into India. More technology and manufacturing tie-ups are likely to come up in the near future as well.

Indian industry members were also of the opinion that India should now also deliberate on what Indian Defence companies can offer to US companies rather than just seeking investment and technology from their side. Joint Ventures like Tata-Lockheed or Mahindra Telephonics are a testimony to the fact that Indian manufacturing companies have come of age too and are ready to become an integral part of Global Supply Chain of top US defence companies.

This is a good development since the India-US defence partnership has been more about symbolism than substance for years. While the two countries conduct a spate of joint exercises across the three services, the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and especially its risk-averse defence minister AK Antony had prevented achieving full potential of their possible joint ventures.
However, Parrikar and his US counterpart Ashton Carter have already met thrice in the past one year. Parrikar’s recent US visit (December 2015) saw many firsts in Indo-US defence engagement. Parrikar began his visit from Hawaii, headquarter of the US Pacific Command, thus becoming the first Indian defence minister to do so. The Pacific Command, largest of the US commands is the fulcrum of America’s involvement in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, a new term being increasingly used to describe the vast stretch of area from Hawaii to India, covering most of Asia. He was also hosted on a US aircraft carrier, again a first for any Indian defence minister.

According to those who were privy to the discussions at the highest levels in Washington, the US defence establishment is now willing to take a re-look at its laws that will help India get the best defence technology. The US is now in fact pushing co-production ventures with India too. In Ashton Carter, India perhaps has the friendliest US Secretary of Defence. As Deputy Secretary of Defence from October 2011 to December 2013, Carter personally pushed defence ties between the two countries. Indeed, the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) was his brainchild. DTTI is now up and running again after lying dormant for the past couple of years.

During the DTTI Group’s fourth meeting at the Pentagon recently, the two sides committed to executing the project plans for two government-to-government pathfinder projects: the Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Sources (MEHPS) and the Next Generation Protective Ensemble (NGPE). Two other projects are nearing finalisation: terms of reference for the Jet Engine Technology Joint Working Group are ready, and the second meeting of the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC) will be held in February 2016.

The US side is arguing for India to sign the three foundational agreements– Communications Inter-Operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), LSA (Logistics Support Agreement), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA)—considered essential by Washington to allow transfer of high-end technology to India. The US argument is that these agreements ease the conduct of joint military exercises besides expanding their scope and ambition.

Apparently, Parrikar has conveyed to US that India has an open mind to discuss the contours of these agreements, signaling a shift in the MoD’s thinking. The traditional reluctance so far was that any such pact goes against India’s posture of military neutrality. In fact, on UPA Defence Minister AK Antony’s watch, the MoD was even reluctant to allow a third country to participate in the India-US Exercise Malabar. Under the NDA regime however, Japan has been allowed to join the exercise and the arrangement is now formalised for a trilateral exercise to be held annually even at the cost of earning Beijing’s wrath. Modi and Parrikar, it appears have decided not be constrained by the traditional thinking in South Block and have given a go ahead for Indian negotiators to discuss the foundational agreements.

Despite the incremental progress, critics would want to see more substantive progress between India and the US. The building blocks have been assembled; both sides can now speedily build the superstructure in coming months before the change of administration in Washington DC in the next one year.
(The author is veteran journalist, national security analyst & author)