The drone deal shows the strategic ties are on track, with the iCET taking them to new heights

First the good news. The United States (US) Congress has given the first level of clearance to the sale of 31 MQ-9B drones, which will significantly augment India’s military capabilities. This clearance means the heads and ranking members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee are on board with what was agreed upon by both governments during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit last year.

This clearance has given way for the US administration to formally notify the Congress about the sale of the drones to be manufactured by General Atomics (GA); if there is no objection within 30 days, the US will respond with a letter of acceptance to the letter of request for the drones from the Indian side. Once there is a mutual agreement on the terms between governments and between the US government and GA, the latter will begin the process of manufacturing the drones, along with signing offset deals with Indian partners and setting up an Indian presence, eventually leading to the supply of the drones.

And now the not so good news. The multi-layered bureaucratic process at both ends means there have been constant delays. While the US congressional committee leaders did clear the proposed sale, the administration had to spend some time convincing Ben Cardin, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to come on board. Cardin took over the committee after the last chair, Bob Menendez, resigned after being charged with corruption. Cardin said he had sought a clear assurance from the administration that the Indian government would thoroughly investigate the allegations implicating an Indian official in an assassination plot of a US citizen on American soil.

This is a reminder that while both governments have found a mechanism to deal with the allegations — the US has sought accountability, India has set up an investigation committee — the issue will remain an irritant.

Both governments must, however, protect the wider strategic relationship. And they are doing so, especially through the mechanism of the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET). US national security advisor Jake Sullivan will travel to Delhi later this month for an annual review of the mechanism, which has seen both countries inaugurate a new chapter in collaboration on semiconductors, space, defence co-production, quantum, telecom, innovation and more. Keep an eye on the big strategic challenge from China, remember the convergences and ensure that the more difficult issues are managed diplomatically.