Persuading cash-strapped and recession-hit India into signing multiple defence contracts is a business victory for the US President

by Barun Das Gupta

During his one-and-a-half day's stay in India, US President Donald Trump successfully persuaded a cash-strapped and recession-hit India into signing defence contracts worth $3 billion. Never mind that India's trade deficit with the USA stood at an astronomical $23,255.9 million by 2019 end. What is obvious is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's slogan of "Make in India" does not apply to the defence sector. Here, the policy is "Make in the USA, buy and use in India."

The Modi Government has opened up the defence sector, too, to private industries. What the Government lacks is a vision to build up the indigenous armaments industry with public-private collaboration so that India's dependence on arms imports can be reduced as much as possible within a specific time-frame. India remains the world's second-largest arms importer after Saudi Arabia. And the situation is not going to change any time soon.

India is now going to buy from the US 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters for $2.6 billion. It will spend another $800 million for buying six AH-64E six Apache helicopters. Before the Trump visit, it was reported in the Press that Trump would also press India to go in for the F35 multi-role combat aircraft. Each plane costs a tidy $90 million or ₹ 630 crore. But there was a condition: India would have to agree to scrap the $5.4 billion deal with Russia for the acquisition of five Triumf S-400 anti-missile and anti-aircraft system. Russia is to deliver the first unit to India during this year.

As there was not even a whiff of selling the F35 aircraft during Trump's visit, India has most probably made it plain to the US that there is no question of cancelling the contract for the Triumf in lieu of the F35 which is a strike aircraft while the Triumf is an anti-missile shield that can destroy incoming enemy missiles and aircraft from a long distance in the mid-sky.

The Romeo is meant for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and naval gunfire support (NGFS). It is equipped with highly sophisticated sensors that can detect a submarine at any depth in water and destroy it with its missiles and torpedoes. India is not going to be the exclusive recipient of this flying machine. Australia has got it, Denmark has got it, and Qatar, South Korea and Saudi Arabia have placed orders for it.

It is not known whether India wanted the transfer of technology from the US so that these costly choppers could be indigenously manufactured. And if so, what was the US response. Arguably, India refrained from making any such demand.

As Indo-US defence cooperation and the acquisition of sophisticated military hardware is meant to contain an adversary who is never named but is well understood, it may be useful to examine how far the Romeo helicopters, will give India air superiority over the Chinese in anti-submarine warfare. What is not widely known in India is that the Chinese made an exact "clone" of the Romeo and had its first test flight in October last year. The Chinese version is named Harbin Z-20. The chopper was first shown at a military parade on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

By the time the first Romeos are delivered by the US, hopefully, in two years, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is expected to induct the Z-20 in its fleet. So, the acquisition of the Romeo will not give India air superiority over the Chinese; at best it will give air parity with the Chinese in the sphere of anti-submarine warfare. The US Romeo is not a brand new helicopter either. It was inducted by the US in August 2005. Large-scale production began in April 2006.

There is ground for genuine concern at the Chinese Navy's increasing presence in the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of the Hambantota port by the Chinese in the southern tip of Sri Lanka has only heightened India's danger perception. As a country aspiring to become a world power, India cannot go on depending indefinitely on imported arms and military hardware. It has to develop a strong indigenous armaments industry, keeping in view the projected need of the army, navy and air force for the next thirty years – that is, till 2050 – and plan accordingly. The Indian Navy, especially, will have to be given priority as India has to have its domination of the Indian Ocean unchallenged.

The successful test-firing of the nuclear-capable intermediate-range SLBM K-4 with a range of 3,500 km, meant for Arihant class nuclear submarines is a great leap forward from the K-15 SLBM with a range of just 750 km. The K-4 is soon expected to be inducted by the Indian Navy. It will be a good deterrent against China. But the aim should be to make a longer range SLBM with a 5,000 km range. The Indian Navy's mega expansion plan aims at a submarine fleet of 24, including six nuclear submarines. They are under construction.

As much self-reliance in defence as possible should be the aim of the country. The Kargil war of 1999 showed the danger of relying on imported arms. At one stage of the war, the Indian navy wanted some US-made spare parts for its vessels. The US refused to supply these. This should be a lesson for the future.