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India US Defence Sales: New Excitement, But Mark the Small Print

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After a long lull so to say there is some excitement in the United States India defence sales component of the bilateral cooperation. India is now believed to be likely to formally approve acquisition of 18 or 30 MQ-9 Reaper drones Drones with the Acceptance of Necessity by the Defence Acquisition Council meeting headed by Defence Minster Rajnath Singh as per report by the ANI.

“The deal for the Predator drones was given approval by the Defence Acquisition Council [DAC] meeting today. The acquisition proposal will now have to follow a procedure after which it will have to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security," ANI quoted defence sources.

India is also opting for the GE F414 turbofan engine that is used to power a variety of military aircraft, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the JAS 39 Gripen.

The GE414 has several features that make it an attractive choice for military aircraft. The GE F414 produces up to 18,000 pounds of thrust, which gives it the power to operate a aircraft in a variety of missions though is a generation older than the latest fighter engines.

Some of these proposals are said to have been finalized in a series of high level meetings, the first one between Defence Secretary Shri Giridhar Aramane and US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Dr Colin Kahl who co-chaired the 17th meeting of India-US Defence Policy Group (DPG) in Washington DC on May 17, 2023.

This was followed by the visit of U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and a few days apart by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to New Delhi. These visits are said to have set the stage for the State visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US from June 24.

While there is a consensus on moving forward on these projects as is evident from several positive statements coming more from Washington, however a number of issues need to be flagged.

Firstly how far the new acquisitions support transfer of technology, to India from the US and can the Indian acquisition environment absorb these for co-production

Second issue would be the overall objective long states that of co development and co production - Make in India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

Both the Reaper Drone and the G E 414 are off the shelf products so to say. There is not much scope for reverse engineering of these to suit the Indian manufacturing environment nor will the IPR permit the same. So the IPR will also remain a critical factor.

Third is the End User Agreement clause. How much autonomy will be provided to India for employment of say the Predator Drones vis a vis Pakistan. These can provide an attractive option for a surgical strike a la Balakote in 2019.

Will the US clear these for operational use as necessary by India or will there be restrictions, given the concerns of escalation as was recently revealed in the book by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Fourthly what does this shift mean for the overall Indian defence imports and ambition to cut back on the same. India has already imported $ 9.095 Billion US equipment from February 2019 till May 2023 apart from other major suppliers including Russia.

With more large imports lined up India can expect to continue to figure in the top arms exporters in the years ahead a marker that the Government has been keen to avoid.

Finally, what about impact on India Russia military technical cooperation which is already facing severe stress test due to sanctions on Moscow by the US and its commitments to the war in Ukraine thereby lacking the heft to continue to sustain contracts with New Delhi.

All these may seem frivolous in the euphoria of the ongoing developments in Indo US relations, but will have long term implications which cannot be discounted before an agreement is actually inked.

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