US-India Defense Framework extended: one-sided bargain




India and the US renewed the 10-year Defence Framework Agreement (DFA) for another decade during US President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi in January 2015. The actual Agreement document itself has not yet been released or in fact finalized. The triumphant extension of the DFA and related pronouncements show that a growing military partnership remains the centerpiece of a “strategic partnership” between the two states. A US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region was released during the Obama visit, and a set of new projects announced under the Defense Technology & Trade Initiative (DTTI). Both underscore that this relationship is heavily one-sided. Whereas the US is successfully slotting India ever more firmly into its geo-strategic network according to its preferences, India is not getting the dividends it expected either strategically or in terms of advanced technology.      

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Since the DFA was signed in 2005, joint military exercises such as the annual Malabar naval series have been vastly expanded, as have personnel exchanges and training especially of senior Indian officers in the US, explicitly aimed at deepening long-term relations and building a shared military culture. Japan has been brought into the Indo-US exercises, while Australia is likely to join in soon, thus bringing India into a circle of close US allies in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region.


The Strategic Vision document has, rather unexpectedly, taken the eastern oceans alliance even further afield with an aggressive stance towards China by specifically highlighting common US and Indian interests in the South China Seas. China has of late itself been adopting a strong posture in the region it considers its backyard and where it has on-going territorial disputes with Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. The US has been giving increasing importance to the East Asian theatre since President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy announced in 2010 and further sharpened since 2012 through a “pivot to East Asia” aimed at strengthening US military alliances to counter China. India is fishing in troubled waters and not contributing to peace in the region by colluding with the US in this region, where increasing Japanese military activity is adding to the disquiet.   


The other highlight of the Obama visit were decisions under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), an important but neglected element of the DFA, in which the US has tended to emphasize trade while India has sought greater access to advanced technology. The US has notched up a massive $10 billion from outright sales of US military hardware to India, zooming up over a decade from virtually zero to India’s largest supplier, but with no technology transfer. True, the high value deals have all involved too small numbers of the equipment concerned to allow for local manufacture. The US, however, has been complaining continually even about offset requirements, and has pressured India into several changes in its defense procurement and production policies.  


Perhaps to address the growing disquiet on the Indian side about this state of affairs, six new so-called “pathfinder” projects were announced during the Obama visit under the DTTI, four for manufacture in India and two for technology co-development, supposedly aimed at taking the US and India beyond a buyer-seller relationship in defence equipment. Since this is uncharted territory especially for the US, these projects are expected to point the way to collaboration modalities and structures for bigger projects in the future. The four “make in India” Projects involve hand-launched surveillance mini-drones,  mobile solar PV electricity generators for off-grid power in remote or battlefield locations, speciality-function modules for the 11 US Hercules C130J transporters India has acquired; and protective gear against chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents. The two co-development projects are aircraft launch and landing systems for the two aircraft carriers India is building indigenously; and very vaguely, “jet engine technology.” 


Of the 4 projects for making in India, only the Raven mini-drones are likely to involve substantial numbers for local manufacture most probably by a Bangalore-based private tech company. But India has gone through numerous licensed manufacture projects with other countries, for example in aircraft, and should know from bitter experience that this is no guarantee for acquisition of know-how and capability for independent development of advanced technology. In any case, around 20,000 Raven mini-drones are already in service in over 40 countries including Pakistan, so there is little novelty in the technology. To boot, the project will likely close down the DRDO and NAL’s Imperial Eagle, Golden Hawk and Pushpak indigenous mini-drone programmes nearing fruition. So much for promoting self-reliant capability!      


The Hercules modules are too few, as will be the aircraft carrier gear. Even if one knew more about intended scales of the other two projects, the above caveat will apply about acquiring independent technology development capability being very different from just local manufacture. The solar PV generators any way involve familiar technology and the CBW protective gear certainly involves know-how that would otherwise take India several years to acquire but begs the question of what India is doing to develop and manufacture much simpler gear such as appropriate clothing and footwear for armed forces in high altitude, extreme cold and desert conditions.


And one can only sneer at the idea that India could somehow “learn” to develop and make jet engines, one of the most complex and protected of aviation systems, from the US or any other country for that matter, other than through unrealistic long-term hand-holding over multiple engine development projects. If India is serious, it should undertake a major, dedicated indigenous programme similar to that taken up for space and nuclear energy.


All in all, none of these “pathfinder” projects are likely to set the Potomac or the Yamuna on fire as major or significant examples of advanced technology transfer or collaboration between the US and India. At best they will involve some sub-contracted or licensed manufacture without significant acquisition of know-how by India, at worst they will remain pipedreams. In either case, the US would have demonstrated its good intentions while India would have got very little advanced technology in substantive terms.   


So the Americans get what they want from the DFA. Question is what has India got?