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Senate pushes Pentagon on US-India defence ties

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Wants 5-year plan, F-35 sales and joint development of trainer aircraft.

The has moved decisively to bridge a widening gulf between the defence establishments of India and America. In an unprecedented initiative, the powerful (SASC), which oversees the US Department of Defense, has ordered the to submit a report by November 1 with a detailed assessment of the current state of US-India security cooperation; and a five-year plan for enhancing that cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and globally.

The SASC has also ordered “a detailed assessment of the desirability and feasibility of the future sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to India, and a potential US partnership with India to co-develop one or more military weapon systems, including but not limited to the anticipated program to replace the T-38 trainer jet”.

The (MoD) has indicated its unwillingness to procure the F-35 (JSF), a futuristic, fifth-generation fighter aircraft that is at an advanced stage of development by US aerospace major Lockheed Martin. The reason that New Delhi cites is an ongoing joint development programme with Russia to develop a (FGFA). But MoD sources indicate there will be keen interest in New Delhi in any joint development programme with the US, especially in the realm of aerospace.

The (IAF) is grappling with a severe crisis in the availability of basic trainer aircraft for its cadets. The MoD is evaluating bids in a global tender for buying basic trainers for the IAF. Meanwhile, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is launching an indigenous programme for developing and building a basic trainer that has been dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 (HTT-40).

With the Indian requirement estimated at about 200 trainers, joint development with the US would achieve a three-fold purpose: Indigenously meeting the IAF requirement; leveraging the experience of the US aerospace industry to ensure that the HAL programme meets time and quality yardsticks; and, most attractive for New Delhi, establishing a framework for high-technology cooperation and joint development with the US.

The SASC initiative was piloted last week by two influential members — Senator John Cornyn (Republican from Texas) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat from Connecticut) — as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill (each allocation of the US defence budget is evaluated and passed by the SASC).

The amendment notes, “It is in the national interest of the United States… to support India’s rise and build a strategic and military culture of cooperation and interoperability between our two countries, in particular with regard to the Indo-Pacific region.”

This new initiative from the US Congress illustrates how the US-India relationship is expanding from the strategic into the popular realm. The senators’ interest reflects pressure from electoral constituencies, especially the powerful American-Indian community, and from economic considerations like the jobs created by Indian military purchases.

Senior US officials privately contrast the flowering of the broad US-India strategic relationship with deepening scepticism about the defence relationship. Declaring flatly that there was “hesitation within the Indian MoD about working too closely with the US”, a top American official recently lamented that Washington’s outreach evokes little more than “wariness” from South Block. Meanwhile, Indian officials complain that America is interested only in defence sales, talking partnership but implementing technology sanctions.

Henceforth, the flagging Pentagon-South Block relationship will not be left merely to bureaucrats, guided as they are by procedure and precedent rather than by an overarching vision. The efforts of the administration will now be watched over by the US Congress.

Says Manohar Thyagarajan, head of Paragon International, a strategic advisory firm that closely monitors the US-India security relationship, “This signifies that the Senate is willing to take a leadership role in discussing key elements of the US-India relationship. Key constituencies such as industry and the Indian-American community would likely welcome thought leadership by Congress, which can be useful at times of inertia in the Washington interagency process, especially in trenchant areas like technology transfer.”

First Published: Tue, June 28 2011. 00:03 IST