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'The hard work starts now'

February 03, 2015 11:43 IST

In spite of the glowing headlines after Barack Obama's visit, there's little indication of forward movement in the Indo-US defence relations, says Ajai Shukla

There was diplomatic hyperbole in US ambassador Rahul Richard Verma's assertion that President Barack Obama's “transformative visit” to New Delhi over Republic Day was important “both symbolically and substantively”.

But he did not overstate whilst repeating what Mr Obama told him as he departed: “The hard work starts now.”

This is especially true of the US-India defence partnership, which has been exaggeratedly portrayed as a giant step forward. The Obama visit has seen little movement in this growing, yet fledgling, relationship. Celebrating the renewal of the Defence Framework Agreement might be premature, given that the terms of the new agreement have not been released.

It must also be remembered that the current agreement, while promising much (for example, military intelligence cooperation) has delivered little. The renewal itself was no more a triumph than the signing of the initial decade-long framework agreement in 1995, or its renewal in 2005.

Nor is the utility clear of the four pieces of military equipment that America and India will co-develop and co-manufacture as “pathfinder projects” under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative.

The foreign ministry says these include: (a) next-generation Raven mini-unmanned aerial vehicles (actually they are micro-UAVs) that infantry platoons can launch for battlefield surveillance; (b) roll-on, roll-off kits for US-supplied C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, which are changeable aircraft interiors that allow the C-130J to be quickly configured for different missions like para-dropping, cargo-carrying and medical evacuation; (c) a mobile electric hybrid power source for various utilisations, which could potentially be scaled up into an "air-independent power system" for submarines; and (d) Uniform Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment II, or protective clothing for soldiers in nuclear, chemical or biologically contaminated battlefields.

None of these require cutting-edge technology or engineering and, to that extent, are unexciting for India's military.

This list is more representative of the 17-odd proposals the United States has presented in the DTTI than the six-odd Indian proposals, which incorporate advanced technology.

However, New Delhi may have signed on because of the simultaneous creation of a “working group” for cooperation in two genuinely interesting areas: aircraft carrier technology and hot engine technology.

With the navy finalising the design of its second indigenous aircraft carrier -- a 65,000-tonne successor to the under-construction INS Vikrant -- US involvement would benefit both sides. India would gain from the involvement of the world's most skilled and technologically advanced carrier operators, while the United States could eventually build important parts of the Indian carrier, such as an electro-magnetic launch system.

Some (misplaced) excitement has centred on an “agreement” to activate the DTTI. In fact, the DTTI was established in 2012, by then Pentagon boss Leon Panetta and his deputy, Ashton Carter, as a communication channel to prevent the broader strategic relationship from being stalled by bureaucratic red tape.

The DTTI has not worked well, largely because of Indian uninterestedness. Former defence minister A K Antony chose to have nothing to do with the DTTI, tossing the baby into the lap of then national security advisor Shivshankar Menon. Only now has India's defence ministry taken ownership of the DTTI; although it is now co-chaired by lower-level officials.

That the DTTI has disappointed is clear from the US-India Joint Statement, which says the Pentagon has established “a dedicated rapid reaction team focused exclusively on advancing DTTI”.

It is unclear why a rapid-action channel needs a rapid-action team to galvanise it.

Even so, Carter, in his latest avatar as defence secretary, is the right man to boost the DTTI. The yawning gulf between the American and the Indian proposals remains to be bridged, and that involves negotiation. For New Delhi, the challenge is to present genuinely “strategic” technologies and equipment that will be pushed from the level of prime minister downwards.

So far, “hot engine technology” is the only proposal that meets this bill. India could also propose a maritime radar network, which looks deep into the Indian Ocean from the Deccan peninsula and India's islands. This would be operationally invaluable to both Washington and New Delhi, attracting immediate buy-in from the US Navy.

Both sides have been silent about the need for India to sign three “foundational agreements” to allow smooth interoperability between the two militaries. The United Progressive Alliance government resisted these agreements, with leftists clamouring in cold-war terms that this would “push us into the American camp”.

In fact, two of these agreements -- the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation -- enhance the effectiveness of Indian military equipment already bought from America.

The CISMOA, for example, would enable data links that connect our P-8I maritime aircraft to our submarines, providing real-time intelligence about enemy submarines. The third agreement, the Logistics Support Agreement, is not crucial, but it is a convenient accounting arrangement that would let both militaries use each other's facilities on credit rather than hard cash.

US-India military cooperation now has a detailed strategic underpinning. A “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” commits the two countries to cooperate on security, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, trade and commerce, energy transmission, and people-to-people linkages.

New Delhi has assured Beijing this is not directed at China, but Beijing will bitterly note that India has agreed to partner the United States in “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially [and that is a crucial word] in the South China Sea”.

This point is reinforced in the very next paragraph that “call[s] on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means”.

Amongst these territorial disputes is the Sino-Indian boundary question.

What will Beijing do now? In April 2005, it had reacted to intensifying US-India engagement by taking it’s biggest-ever step towards a boundary settlement with an agreement on the “political parameters and guiding principles” for an eventual deal. 

Ajai Shukla