The U.S. defence sales in the last over a decade have mostly been in the military aviation sector. Having already sold transport aircraft and helicopters, the pitch now is to push an American fighter into the Indian defence ecosystem

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

The United States contingent at the Aero India 2023 was one of the largest ever. For the first time a fifth-generation aircraft had not only been brought to an Indian Air Show but also performed the flying display. The U.S. defence sales in the last over a decade have mostly been in the military aviation sector.

Having already sold transport aircraft and helicopters, the pitch now is to push an American fighter into the Indian defence ecosystem. The meetings and presentations were all geared towards the same.

US-India Strategic Congruence And QUAD Connection

The U.S. interests to contain competitor and possible rival China brought India into USA’s Indo-Pacific strategy. India, a long term friend of now weakened Russia needed U.S. cooperation on global security matters; support for inclusion of India in United Nations Security Council (UNSC); greater role in World Bank and IMF; and admission into multilateral export control regimes like Nuclear Suppliers Group, MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement, and Australia Group. Post 2000, the USA became more open to selling high end military equipment to India. In 2016, India and USA signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and India was declared a major defence partner of the USA. In September 2018 India and USA signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), thus increasing interoperability between two nation’s militaries. It is the India specific version of the much wider Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA).

It allows India to procure and transfer specialised equipment for encrypted communications for US origin military platforms like the C-17, C-130, and P-8Is, thus improving operational efficiency. Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, the last of the key foundational agreements was signed in 2020.

India is an important member of Quad now. All the four partners have regular summit level and 2+2 minister level meetings. There are military logistics agreements between all, and they all take part in regular military exercises. The USA has been supplying military equipment. President Barack Obama became the first US president to be the chief guest at Republic Day on 26 January 2015. Among the increasing cooperation in defence, aviation has seen the fastest results.

IAF first ordered the Lockheed C-130J-30 Super Hercules aircraft in early 2008 for special operations under the US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The Indian Navy received the Boeing P-8I Poseidon for maritime surveillance, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) roles.

In 2009, the IAF inducted three specially equipped Boeing 737 Business Jet (BBJ) for VVIP duties. Boeing C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlift military transport aircraft were inducted next. Two custom-made B-777 have also been procured to replace the older Air India B-747 jumbo jets for VVIP duties. Boeing Apache Longbow AH-64E attack helicopters, and Boeing CH-47 D/F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters formed the rotary-wing purchases. In June 2017, the US State Department approved the sale of 22 General Atomics MQ-9 Guardian/Predator-B long-range unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) drones to India. The MQ-9 has both land and sea variants, and can be armed with up to four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs. Two have been on lease with the Indian Navy since 2020. The case for procuring 10 each for the three armed forces is under processing.

Make In India: Boeing

Boeing has been a major player in India’s commercial aviation sector, and Air India has recently announced a huge airliner order. Boeing also has a huge presence in military aircraft with Indian Air Force’s (IAF) C-17, BBJ, VVIP B-777, and Chinook and Apache helicopters, and Indian Navy’s P-8I. Boeing’s F-18 Super hornet is vying for IAF (114 fighter program) and Indian Navy’s (57 carrier aircraft) contracts. Boeing has set up a Research & Technology Centre in Bangalore.

A public-private partnership brings together Boeing, Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Mahindra’s global scale, manufacturing and supply chain expertise. HAL has been the single-source producer of 757 over wing exit doors. HAL has also manufactured the 777 up-lock boxes, F/A-18 gun bay doors, F/A-18 wire harnesses, P-8I weapons bay doors, and P-8I identification friend-or-foe transponders. BEL is also on contract to provide F/A-18 flight deck cockpit panels. HAL makes a gun-bay door for the F/A-18. Boeing has invested in engineering centres at Bengaluru and Chennai with a talented pool of over 3,000 engineers.

Boeing’s joint venture with TATA Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) is for aerospace and defence manufacturing including unmanned aerial systems. The joint venture (JV) will manufacture aero-structures for aircraft and collaborate on integrated systems development opportunities in India. TASL is already manufacturing aero-structures for CH-47 Chinook and Apache helicopters, including for global customers.

In September 2014, Dynamatic Technologies (DTL) and Boeing inaugurated a plant to manufacture critical parts for Chinook helicopters, including ramp and pylons. Dynamatic Technologies and Tata Advanced Materials Limited (TAML) have already delivered P-8I power and mission equipment cabinets, and TAML is making auxiliary power unit door fairings and composite tail-cones for the P-8I. Boeing created a facility with TAL Manufacturing Solutions Ltd to manufacture floor beams for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. TAL also makes ground support equipment for the C-17.

Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has delivered the Indian-designed Data Link II for the P-8I. BEL has also delivered the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) interrogator. Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) has provided the speech secrecy systems for the P-8I.

Hyderabad based Avantel Ltd has delivered the mobile satellite systems for P-8I. Hyderabad-based Cyient (formerly Infotech) has supported a number of critical design-engineering projects for Boeing aeroplanes, and currently provides design and stress support on the 747-8 Freighter and the 787-8 and 787-9.

Lockheed Martin: Big In India

Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, is looking for a “game-changing” partnership in India. Lockheed Martin is the pre-eminent designer, developer and manufacturer of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft like the F-16, F-22 and F-35. They have a joint venture company with TASL where airframe components for the C-130J airlifter and the S-92 helicopter are manufactured in India in large numbers. Production of more than 5,000 precision components that compose each S-92 cabin is 100 percent indigenous to India. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India.

They are looking to sell F-21 aircraft (advanced version of F-16) for IAF. The proposal is meant to put India at the epicentre of the world’s largest defence ecosystem and deliver unmatched sustainment and export opportunities. 2250 F-16 are still flying globally. TASL has been chosen to produce the F-16s in India. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has begun building F-16 wings and will start exporting from the facility in Hyderabad in 2020. In July 2019, Lockheed Martin signed MoUs with Indian start-ups such as Terero Mobility, Sastra Robotics, and NoPo Nanotechnologies to boost India’s aerospace and defence industry.

As many as 24 Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky multi-role MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters for the Indian Navy’s anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare operations are under induction. Lockheed Martin also provides research grants for teams from Indian universities to work with local industry partners to develop design specifications.

General Electric (GE)

General Electric is an American multinational that operates in aviation, healthcare, renewable energy, and transportation, among many others. GE’s presence in India dates back to 1902 when they installed India’s first hydropower plant. GE Aviation is the world’s leading producer of large and small engines for commercial, military, business and general aircraft. GE supplies F404IN20 engines for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ Mk-1. The F414-INS6 engines are selected to power the Mk-2 version. GE’s CFM56 engines power the Indian Navy’s P-8I. GE’s some other systems have been deployed on various Indian platforms including the Hawk Mk 132, SEPECAT Jaguar, P-8I, C130J and HJT-36 Sitara. GE has joined with Tata group to make LEAP engines in India.

Military Exercises And Interoperability

Indo-US military exercises have come a long way since exercise ‘Shiksha’ of 1963 when IAF was exposed to modern air defence concepts and high performance air combat. The two armies have been conducting exercise ‘Yudh-Abhyas’. U.S., India, Japan, and some other navies participate in annual exercise ‘Malabar’. Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) covers the broad expanse of the Indo-Pacific. From 2004 onwards, ‘Cope India’ series of Indo-US air exercises began.

State of the art aircraft participate from both sides. Participation in Red-Flag advanced air combat training exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and at Eielson Airbase in Alaska give the IAF exposure to a NATO-like air environment. The USA had great presence in the recent Pitch Black exercise in Australia where many countries fielded F-35s.

India Innovation Growth Program

As a part of its larger commitment, Lockheed Martin has sponsored and supported the India Innovation Growth Program (IIGP) since 2007 in partnership with the Indian Department of Science and Technology, Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas. IIGP has supported more than 400 innovators and start-ups with in-depth technology commercialization training and handholding support to commercialise and scale their ventures. To date, the revenue generated for the Indian entrepreneurs through this program is over $1 billion.

Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI)

The India US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) was signed in 2012. DTTI’s main aim is to strengthen India’s defence industrial base, explore new areas of technological development and expand Indo-US business ties.

The DTTI has now matured enough where its varied activities could be translated into accomplishments. Among the ambitious projects identified are a plan to share jet engine technology, an initiative that has floundered given a strict export control regime in the US and the lack of a strong business case. Focus on start-ups is likely to enable US-based research labs to work in coordination with Indian companies for cutting edge defence technologies. In addition, the two sides are also discussing the possibility of jointly developing systems for approved third nations to pursue export opportunities. Cooperation in the field of space technology is also of interest.

Strategic Trade Authorization

The United States has designated India as Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) country that will allow the country to buy highly advanced and cutting-edge sensitive technologies from America. This coveted status brings India in par with US’s closest allies and partners such as NATO, Japan, South Korea and Australia. With this, there is an ease in restrictions for high-technology product sales to India, and India will receive licence-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies in conjunction with steps that India has committed to take to advance its export control objectives. It will benefit U.S. manufacturers while continuing to protect its national security. Bilateral defence trade which was essentially zero in 2008, has reached an estimated $22 billion by the end of 2022.

US-India Business Council (USIBC)

The U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) was formed in 1975 as a business advocacy organisation to enlighten and encourage the private sectors of both India and the United States to enhance investment flows. The organisation serves as a direct link between business and government leaders, resulting in increased trade and investment to strengthen ties between the two nations. Aerospace & Defence are a major area today.

Defence Policy Group (DPG)

The India-US Defence Policy Group (DPG) in Washington is the top official-level meeting mechanism between India and the US on defence issues, which comprehensively reviews and guides all aspects of bilateral cooperation between the two countries. The meetings take stock of the progress made in various fields of defence cooperation, including in defence trade, technology, procurement, industry, R&D and mil-to-mil engagement. There are various working groups.

Threat of Sanctions Against India

In October 2018, India inked the agreement worth $ 5.43 billion with Russia to procure five S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence systems, ignoring America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The U.S. threatened India with sanctions. India was also threatened over India’s decision to buy oil from Iran. Sanctions if imposed could have a disastrous effect on Indo-U.S. relations. However, the USA is conscious of India’s requirements and sensitivities and treads a mid-path.

Future Military Aircraft Push

Having already got into India’s transport, maritime and helicopter sales ecosystem, USA is now keen to sell fighter aircraft. Large scale military sales will increase India’s dependency on the USA and start reducing India’s huge Russian military aircraft basket. The USA feels that it is still premature for India to be offered the F-35 fifth-generation fighter. They would prefer to first sell a 4.5 generation aircraft of the F-21, F-18 class or at best the F-15E/F.

India has currently been linking the fighter aircraft selection to both Make-in-India and transfer of important technologies, especially the aero-engine. Also some are questioning, is India ready for yet another fleet of aircraft in its already multi-fight fleet mix? USA has also been pushing for the Boeing KC-46 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). They are trying to strengthen the case that they will offer both ‘flying boom’ and ‘probe and drogue’ refuelling options, that are today required for India’s diverse fleets. The other area of U.S. push is the General Atomics Predator drones. The Government of India that follows strategic autonomy will take appropriate calls.

India is today in an enviable position where the Russians, Americans and Europeans are wooing her as a geo-strategic friend and as a defence systems market. It is clear that the U.S. needs India to counter-balance China in the Indo-Pacific. They want India to dominate the Indian Ocean and act as a democratic pillar against Chinese expansion and threat. The future sees greater defence cooperation between the two largest and powerful democracies.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal