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Modi-Trump meet: India's 'major defence partner' status to be put to test

Leaders to discuss the proposed $2-bn sale of Guardian remotely piloted vehicles to India

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Modi-Trump meet, India-US ties, defence
India had asked for the armed Predator drone (pictured), but the US offered the unarmed Guardian instead, which performs maritime surveillance. (Photo: Reuters)

As Prime Minister meets President for the first time on Monday in DC, healthy ties between the two countries are expected to buoy the discussions.

Key issues that will be discussed include: Operationalising India’s unique status as a “major partner” of America; the proposed $2-billion sale of Guardian remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) to India; and negotiation of a security agreement that would allow the to import sensitive communications equipment to India.

Officials on both sides are playing down expectations of concrete outcomes, given the unpredictability of and “I don’t see their meeting as being driven by the need for ‘deliverables’. This will be the first time they sit down face-to-face, and they would do well to establish a personal bond that will help them work cooperatively,” a source said. 

As Business Standard reported on Saturday (‘No during PM Modi’s visit to US’) there would be no forward movement on the proposal from aerospace major, Lockheed Martin, to build F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft in India. Instead, as part of a multi-vendor procurement, India’s ministry will process the F-16 offer according to the Procurement Procedure of 2016.

Major partner

Last December, in the twilight of the Barack Obama administration, the Congress passed an amendment titled, “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA) — an annual bill that allocates funding to the military. 

The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDAA, designates India a “major partner” of the US, and requires secretaries of and state to designate an official to manage Indo-cooperation. All administrations must appoint an official who will report 6-monthly to Congress on the relationship.

In April, National Security Advisor, General H R McMaster, affirmed the new designation when he visited How and operationalise the “major partnership” will be carefully watched, as that would signal the real content of the relationship.

There is potential for conflict, given Trump’s concerns like jobs and visas. Yet, India’s need for modernisation could also create more jobs in For example, moving the F-16 integration line to India to build 100-200 fighters could allow workers to continue making systems, avionics, engines and other parts in

Sale of Guardian drones

and are discussing the sale of 22 Guardian RPVs to India, which both sides could use to demonstrate the value of the partnership. 

officials point out that these RPVs are “Category 1” systems under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), for the export of which member countries must assume “presumption of denial”, except on pressing national security grounds.

“An offer of a ‘Category 1’ RPV – exported so far only to allies engaged in combat operations of critical national security importance – would demonstrate that India is being provided unprecedented technology under ‘major partner’ status,” said Benjamin Schwartz of the (USIBC).

The MTCR tightly controls Category 1 systems because of their ability to deliver nuclear weapons.

has sold such RPVs to western allies, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. However, India’s procurement of the Guardian would be the first sale of an RPV of this category outside the Nato framework.

The Guardian, built by General Atomics, is the naval version of the legendary Predator B armed drone (also termed the MQ-9 Reaper), with which the has killed terrorists in Pakistan, and India had asked for the armed Predator drone. However, turned down that request and instead offered the unarmed Guardian, which performs maritime surveillance.

The Guardian, like the Reaper, cruises at 300 km per hour at 50,000 feet, and flies 14-hour missions during which it can travel to and observe oceanic areas up to 1,800 km from base. It is monitored and controlled remotely from a ground control room, which exchanges imagery in real time with the RPV, over a two-way data link.

“This offer represents an outstretched arm to India by its friends in If were to reject this, it would severely weaken pro-India voices within the government and do real damage to the relationship,” said a official, requesting anonymity.

The New York Times reports that India has asked the Pentagon for drone sales thrice in the past year. That led to pro-India senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner writing to urge Defense Secretary and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to clear the sale, which “would advance national security interests and protect jobs”.


Since 2005, the has urged India to sign an agreement called the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), which lays down stringent safeguards for sensitive radio equipment provided by

India’s refusal has caused its military to get key platforms like the C-130J transporter and the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft with CISMOA-protected communications kit replaced by lower-grade, less secure, commercially-available equipment.

India objects to some safeguards, like inspections of CISMOA-protected equipment on Indian military bases. As negotiations have progressed, has agreed to rename the agreement COMCASA, or Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement, to allow India a country-specific agreement, different from what the Department of Defense (DoD, or Pentagon) has signed with dozens of other countries. 

Pentagon sources say their draft of the COMCASA is now with New Delhi, but there is no telling when the ministry will act on it.

“During the trilateral US-India-Japan Malabar exercise in July, we have to come up with customised solutions for intercommunications. This happens also in disaster relief situations. After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Indian C-17 Globemaster III aircraft flying aid to Nepal could not communicate with Air Force C-17s operating there because they had no CISMOA-protected radio sets, a source said.

Neither side is holding its breath on CISMOA/COMCASA. and could agree on the need to expedite negotiations, but an actual agreement is unlikely.

First Published: Mon, June 26 2017. 10:36 IST