India and the US have become closer militarily and strategically than they have ever been before. How did that happen so soon?
The large Russian was almost apoplectic.
“The MI-24 is a battle-tested helicopter. There was nothing that the Afghan Mujahideen feared more than this helicopter on the horizon. Yet, your government wants to buy the American Apache instead!” he fumed.
“Our helicopter has the best armour in the business, which allows it to engage the enemy at close quarters without fear of getting holes torn into it by assault rifles on the ground. Whereas the Apache will become a pincushion if exposed to such fire….,” he sneered. “We have treated India as a friend and a special partner, and this is how it treats us?’ he growled before one of his colleagues quickly hustled him away.
February 2011, and we were sitting in a small ante-room of the Russian stall at the 8th Aero-India, the biennial air show billed as Asia’s largest at Yelahanka Air Force Station, Bangalore.
Later that afternoon, an American official declined to comment on whether the Indians had indeed chosen to buy the Apache.
He did, however, wryly note that while the MI-24, also known the Hind, was indeed good at close quarter combat, the Apache did not need to get that close.
‘Apaches, particularly the newer models, have an advanced target acquisition radar system mounted on top of their rotors. This allows them to remain low and hidden behind hills or other terrain while scanning the area. The target acquisition system allows the pilot to track multiple targets at once, and gives incredibly accurate missile firing capability.
It can also share targeting data with other helicopters or AWACs at the same time. So if I can identify, locate and take out hostiles before they even know I am there, do I really need all that cumbersome and heavy armour?” he asked.
Both the Americans –and the Russians – had a far bigger game in play at the time. India was soon expected to announce the winner of the multi-billion-dollar Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender it had put out, said to be one of the largest ever.
The Americans had put up the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, while the Russians had fielded the Sukhoi -30MKI. The other contenders were the Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Then defence minister AK Antony’s remark that the final decision would be a political one, and his stubborn refusal to sign long pending contracts to retain his “Mr Clean” image didn’t inspire confidence among the contenders.
A senior Indian official involved in the process had earlier privately predicted that regardless of the quality of their aircraft, the American companies didn’t really stand much of a chance due to Washington’s extensive weapons sales to Pakistan and other ‘political and strategic considerations.’ India had not forgotten the sanctions regime spearheaded by the US after New Delhi’s 1998 nuclear tests, though ‘things were now looking up.’
More importantly, he said there were rumours that all F-16s exported by the US came equipped with a sophisticated bug hidden in the avionics, ‘which allowed someone sitting in the US to remotely disable the aircraft, basically turning them into very expensive paperweights – if it was felt they were being used American interests.’
Sure enough, the French Rafale won the MMRCA, though the entire deal was eventually shot out of the sky by the new government sworn in May 2014.
In August 2014, answering a written query in the Lower House, new defence minister Arun Jaitley said that over the past three years, the US had overtaken Russia as the largest supplier of weapon systems to India.
Almost 40 per cent (Rs 32,615 crore) of Rs 83,458 crore spent on defence imports during this period had gone to American companies. Big ticket items included six C130J Super Hercules aircraft, Harpoon anti-submarine missiles and the C-17 Heavylift transport. Russia clocked second at 30 per cent, or Rs 25,363.96 crore, followed by France at Rs 12,046 crore or 14 per cent.
Israel, which once held second place after the Russians in terms of military sales to India, had a meagre 4 per cent share at Rs 3,389 crore, mostly due to the blacklisting of several large firms like the Israel Military Industries (IMI) on suspicions of corruption.
Last week, September 22, days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second official visit to the US, New Delhi approved plans to buy 37 military helicopters from Boeing Co. These include 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and 22 AH-64E Apache multi-role combat helicopters, and options to buy an additional 7 Chinook and 11 Apache helicopters. An Indian official said the deal could be worth $ 3 billion.
Those attributing the new government’s love for all things American as a reason for this ‘sudden’ switch would be wrong.
In fact, the writing was on the wall right from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s long-time strategic ally, its largest supplier of weapons and one of the two superpowers of the world.
When Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996, declared that the new Russia would treat India and Pakistan as equals, then Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, had no choice but to diversify India’s weapons sourcing. While ramping up efforts to ensure that the supply of spares for the predominantly Soviet weapons used in India did not dry up, he established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992.
It is important to recall here that though Israel and India did not have formal relationships during the Cold War, India did seek and get some small arms and ammunition from Israel during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. Many years later, during the Kargil war of 1999, Israel delivered UAVs for high-altitude surveillance and laser-guided weapons systems to India within a day of New Delhi’s urgent request.
Indo-US military collaboration too began in January 1992, with the formation of an India-US Army Executive Steering Committee, followed by the setting up of the Joint Steering Committee of the two navies. Joint naval exercises were conducted later that year.
The Joint Steering Committee of the two air forces was set up in 1994, and the Indo-US Military Cooperation Agreement was signed in 1995, allowing officers of the Indian Armed forces to attend training programmes in the US, as well as staff exchanges and joint exercises.
America, however, was still viewed with suspicion, particularly because of its consistent arming of Pakistan with high-end weapons and the lingering Cold War perception about Washington being an unreliable ally.
Things changed dramatically after the May 1998 nuclear tests by India. As sanctions, threats and pressure to sign a nuclear test ban treaty failed to have much impact, India and the US initiated eight rounds of strategic talks between US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh—the lengthiest ever discussions between Indian and US officials.
US President Bill Clinton’s immensely successful five-day visit to India in March 2000 was the first since President Jimmy Carter toured in 1978. Just before the visit, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote a column In the International Herald Tribune titled “US and India, Often at Odds, Are on the Same Side.’
After discussing the hostile relationship that existed through much of the Cold War, she argued: “Today, however, the mutual distrust is beginning to change. I believe that both the United States and India are coming to realise that there has always been something unnatural and regrettable about the estrangement of our two democracies.”
But it was George Bush Jr, who succeeded Clinton, who turned the entire relationship around.
Here’s what the New York Times, not known to be a friend of India, said in an article titled ‘India has a soft spot for Bush’, dated January 10, 2009:
“In July 2006, 15 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and five years after Islamic terrorists became America’s principal enemy, Mr. Bush decisively reversed course. Raising India to the status of a strategic ally, he cut a unique exception in the global non-proliferation regime, proposing that India be allowed to keep its military stockpile even as it gained access to technologies and fuel for its civilian reactors. Over the next two years Mr. Bush used dwindling political capital to get the deal approved by the Congress and foreign governments. When Pakistan requested a similar pact, it was told that such deals were reserved for “responsible” states…”
While eschewing the enthusiasm shown by Bush, his successor Barack Obama made history by becoming the first US president to visit India twice, once in 2010 and then as the first US President to be the chief guest of the Indian Republic Day Parade, in January 2015, when he spoke about a new US-India defence cooperation agreement which promises to help India develop aircraft carriers and a new generation of jet engines.
Speaking at a think-tank a little earlier this month, US Ambassador to India Richard Verma believes that the transformation in Indo-US military ties was ‘one of the most exciting developments’ he has witnessed over the last few months. In his own words:
“Just a few years ago our armed forces were barely talking. They were skeptical about the utility of increased cooperation and, frankly, mutually suspicious. That is not the case today.
Our defense industrial systems are now cooperating on the co-production of new technology that will be used by our respective armed forces.
We are looking to make significant contributions to India’s strategic capabilities, such as the anti-surface warfare capabilities of the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet.
And I don’t need to remind you of the historic agreement to establish a joint working group on aircraft carrier technology. At some point in the next decade India will launch its next generation of aircraft carrier and the United States will have played a direct role in its construction.
I am pleased to report that India engages in more bilateral exercises with the United States than it does with any other country….”
A serving Indian military official, however, sounded a note of caution:
‘Yes, India and the US have become closer militarily and strategically than they have ever been before.
If India is to take its place at the world’s top table, it has to have the requisite economic and military muscle. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we need access to the latest military technologies which currently only the United States possesses.
While building up India as a regional counterweight to China might be one of the reasons for American bonhomie, it is not the only one. Commercial interests play a major role here.
But what happens when we finally start producing high end weapons on our own?
It is important to remember the old cliché that in international relations, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. “
As for Russia, it has now threatened to sell the Sukhoi 35 and other military hardware to Pakistan.