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Ajai Shukla: Indo-US jet trainer - the Indus moment

Given US's technology safeguard regimes, joint development programmes can encompass high-technology equipment but not cutting-edge technology

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The inherent buoyancy of the US-India relationship has again become evident from the US Congress’ recent attempt to jump-start flagging defence ties. Concerned over the drift, the pivotal Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has asked the Pentagon to submit by November 1, 2011, a detailed assessment of the current state of US-India security co-operation; and a five-year plan for enhancing that. Noteworthy in itself is the bipartisan belief within the Committee that “it is in the national interest of the US, through military-to-military relations, arms sales, bilateral and multilateral joint exercises, and other means, 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”. But far more substantive is the SASC’s call on the Pentagon for “a detailed assessment of the desirability and feasibility… [of] 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 US Air Force T-38 trainer jet”.

This is the first time that the US Congress has officially demanded a report from the Pentagon on the US-India security relationship. It raises the possibility that Congress might end up discussing the trickiest issues that dog US-India defence cooperation: viz. India’s wish for jointly developing military equipment rather than buying over-the-counter from the US; the tough US export control laws that stand in the way of joint development; and the building of trust through successful development programmes for high-technology platforms like the proposed trainer jet, which can only be named the Indus (given the rivers tradition set by the Indo-Russian cruise missile, the Brahmos, an amalgam of the Brahmaputra and the Moskva).

Both New Delhi and Washington understand that, given America’s technology safeguard regimes, joint development programmes can encompass high-technology equipment but not cutting-edge technology. The limits to what the US is prepared to pass on to India were signalled when Washington held back Boeing and Lockheed Martin from a contract floated by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) – the Indian developers of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft – for a development consultancy. That caused bad blood between the two countries and ADA eventually brought in European aerospace corporation, EADS, as consultants. Given that history, the proposal for a trainer aircraft as a joint US-India development project is a sensible one. A trainer is a high-technology platform, but it does not incorporate the cutting-edge aerospace technologies that set red lights flashing over a fighter development project.

Why then should India work with the US when Russia is willing to partner India in jointly developing a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which incorporates not just cutting-edge but even bleeding-edge technologies? The fact, which top officials in the ministry of defence (MoD) ruefully admit in private, is that Russia will not pass on any key technologies to India. Sukhoi, the Russian partner in the FGFA project, has already developed the single-seat flying prototype that Moscow says meets the demands of the Russian Air Force. The work that remains mainly involves avionics and electronics systems and will fall largely into India’s share. The best that the Indian partner, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, can hope to gain from this “joint development” is a level of expertise in project management.

Besides, the US is bound to gradually change its go-it-alone attitude towards developing weaponry. Facing an economic slowdown and expectations of a post-Afghanistan peace dividend, even the mightiest defence spender in the history of mankind will be required to share costs wherever possible. While US aerospace corporations could theoretically pick from a range of partners, working with India provides an assured market that is the largest outside China.

A US-India basic trainer would replace some 450 T-38s currently flying in the US Air Force. Add to that an assured market of at least 200 trainer aircraft in India and there is an excellent business case for partnering India in developing the T-38’s successor.

The SASC has hit a home run with its proposal, even though the US administration has not yet signalled any acceptance of joint development. Over the preceding years, Washington has wasted much political effort in fruitlessly persuading India to sign the three agreements that the US considers essential for enhanced defence cooperation: a Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement; a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation; and a Logistics Support Agreement. Though not needed immediately, all may eventually come about once Indian mistrust dissipates. The perception of drift was also enhanced by the Antony MoD’s way of doing business: entirely ignore contentious issues, effectively pretending that they do not exist. Finally, New Delhi appeared to have hit the US exactly where it hurts – i.e. in the pocketbook – by the unceremonious ejection of Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the $11 billion competition to sell India 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft.

All this had seemingly set back the relationship. Mid-ranking US bureaucrats were suggesting that India-related proposals would now be given far less attention. Visiting US officials were complaining about a “hesitation within the Indian MoD (Ministry of Defence) about working too closely with the US”. Washington’s apparent reneging on the terms of the US-India agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, by changing the rules on enrichment and reprocessing technology, has further dampened the mood. It is time for a game-changing initiative and Washington has been presented with the idea and the opportunity for a meaty joint development programme that, especially from India’s perspective, would add real meaning to the relationship.

First Published: Tue, June 28 2011. 00:52 IST