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Rex Tillerson bats for new wave of US defence sales to India

The 57-fighter MRCBF deal is estimated to be worth $6-10 billion

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj along with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before a meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)
Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj along with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

US Secretary of State Rex is visiting New Delhi at a delicate moment for American to India. Having rung up $15-18 billion in to New Delhi in the last decade, Washington is backing the US defence industry’s drive for a second wave of contracts that could add up to another $18-25 billion.

Addressing the media with Foreign Minister in New Delhi on Wednesday, stated: “[W]e are willing to provide India advanced technologies for its military modernisation efforts. This includes ambitious offers from American industry for F-16 and F/A-18 fighter planes.”

On October 18, speaking in Washington before his India visit, specified additional platforms that could feature in India’s shopping basket. He said the US had put forward proposals for “[Sea] Guardian UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), aircraft carrier technologies, the Future Vertical Lift program, and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft, [which] are all potential game changers for our commercial and defense cooperation.”

US policy insiders tell Business Standard that the Washington bureaucracy believes that, given the tight strategic partnership, US industry should, by right, get at least one of the two fighter contracts.

“We understand the F-16 might be at a disadvantage, owing to Indian perception that US has long supplied it to Pakistan. But the F/A-18E/F is a fantastic aircraft and Boeing has the go-ahead from Washington to set up a plant to build the fighter in India”, a former top Pentagon official told Business Standard.

India, however, is proceeding with competitive procurement. On January 25, the Indian Navy issued a Request for Information (RFI) to global manufacturers for 57 “multi-role carrier-borne fighters” (MRCBF). Consequently, the F/A-18E/F will probably compete with Dassault’s Rafale-M, Saab’s Sea Gripen and Russia’s MiG-29K/KUB that already flies with the Indian Navy.

The 57-fighter MRCBF deal is estimated to be worth $6-10 billion.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin, which has offered India the new F-16 Block 70, finds itself in hot competition with Saab’s new Gripen E fighter in the “single-engine fighter” category. With India likely to buy 100-200 of these fighters, the contract would be worth $7-14 billion.

A more sensitive matter for Washington, one that could seriously test US-India relations, is India’s request for 22 Sea Guardian UAVs for maritime surveillance of Indian Ocean waters.

Senior US defence industry executives say New Delhi initiated the request for the Sea Guardian in 2016, following it up with multiple high level requests in US-India meetings. The US administration, recognising a commercial as well as strategic opportunity, pulled out the stops to get it cleared in time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June.

US officials say obtaining export clearances involved intensive lobbying by the Indian ambassador in Washington, and by pro-Indian Senators on Capitol Hill. This also involved dealing with strong counter-lobbying by Pakistan-friendly groups in Washington.

Now, based on the commitment made during Modi’s meeting with President Donald Trump in June, Washington responded to an Indian Letter of Request (LoR) for price and availability (P&A) of the Sea Guardian just days before Defence Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Delhi on 25-26 September. The cost would be in the region of $2-3 billion, say industry experts.

Inexplicably, since then, Indian interest in the Sea Guardian seems to have cooled, say US officials. 

The Sea Guardian is a tightly controlled weapons platform, being in Category I under the Missile Technology Control Regime. This entails a strong “presumption of denial” to any export requests.

Contrary to media reports, the Sea Guardian is not strictly an unarmed platform. While it does not come with weapons, its wings are fitted with hard points for weapons carriage. If, at a later stage, India wants to weaponise the UAV, it would be possible to approach Washington for sanctions and weaponry.

Indian Navy officers say buying the Sea Guardian would undercut the rationale for buying more Boeing P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft. The navy has already signed up for 12 P-8Is, but would like to at least double that figure. However, the defence ministry would question the procurement of additional P-8Is, as well as Sea Guardians.

Perhaps the highest-tech piece of equipment that New Delhi and Washington are negotiating is a billion dollar “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS) for its second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, which is still to begin construction. This uses an electromagnetic rail gun to accelerate carrier-borne aircraft to take-off speed, replacing the conventional steam catapult.

The great advantage of EMALS is its “dial-up-a-power-level” capability, which allows it to safely and quickly launch aircraft of completely different sizes – from light UAVs to 60-tonne maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft.

First Published: Thu, October 26 2017. 02:00 IST