The euphoria generated by the recent visit of the US Defence Secretary to New Delhi vis-a-vis the possibility of inking a defence agreement for logistics sharing and stepped up military and strategic collaboration may have many a slips between the cup and the lip, writes Shankar Kumar
A few days ahead of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s China visit on April 18, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter landed in India. The visiting Secretary wanted to ramp up defence ties with India which has during the past decade or so has emerged as one of the biggest importers of the US defence equipment. This, however, has mostly been confined to heavy transport aircraft and helicopters, or logistical wares. Till date the country has not bought a single cutting edge US technology like F-16 or F-18 aircraft. Russia, India’s most trusted friend ever, has rather been a steady, dependable and all-weather source to the country’s armed forces’ needs for the cutting edge weapon systems.
But since the arrival of the Narendra Modi Government, an attempt has been made to bring India further close to the US. Though there been no paradigm shift in Indo-US relationship, both are “itching” their hands to impart a thrust to their bilateral engagement. For now under ‘Make in India’ initiative, American companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Electric and others are ready for joint development of cutting edge technology.
To give such proposals a concrete shape, as per the Ministry of Defence, both India and the US are engaged in high level talks. Significantly, there is thinking among a larger section of the Government officials that India should carry forward joint production of high-end defence technology under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), an element of New Defence Framework Agreement. This was renewed last year for the next 10 years. Currently, under the DTTI mechanism, the two countries are in talks for the transfer of jet engine technology and know-how related to Digital Helmet Mounted Displays and the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System. Both belong to non-weapon sections. For any joint development of cutting edge weapons, India is required by the US to sign three foundational agreements: Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CIMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA). While India under the new dispensation has agreed “in principle” to go ahead with LEMOA, it has shown caution vis-a-vis CIMOA or BECA as both are described as invasive, insidious and sinister in their design.
On LEMOA itself, both diplomatic and strategic community members are not on the same page. Diplomats in general ask for caution while dealing with the US on strategic matters. Also, they cite an example of then Defence Minister A K Antony who kept the UPA Government away from kowtowing the Americans on the LEMOA issue, because he saw it as something that could compromise the country’s neutral stance and could upset strategic balance with Russia and China, India’s northern neighbour. It is five times economically mightier than India and spends hugely on modernisation of its armed forces.
“The reason why we have been hesitating for more than a decade to sign the agreement (LEMOA) is because it is not known whether it would prove to be a thin end of the wedge and lead us progressively towards formal or informal military alliance of sorts which have political sensitivities attached to it,” Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary said while expressing his skepticism over the agreement. This view was supported by Atul Bharadwaj, an expert from New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies. Bharadwaj said, “As far as the US is concerned, there is long cherished dream of Americans to set up a base in India to strengthen their ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy. The LEMOA would help them realize this dream.” However, US Defence Secretary Carter who came here on his second visit to India within a year, discounted such perception, saying that “LEMOA would not facilitate basing of US troops in India.” At the most, the American authority said the agreement would allow the militaries of the two nations to share facilities for refuelling, supplies and spares. Such explanations, say experts, are the easiest to offer before the people.
“Had it addressed India’s concern, do you think New Delhi could have asked Washington to come with a revised draft on LEMOA?,” Atul Bharadwaj asked.
Indeed, India is wary of the fact that the LEMOA which is somewhat a little tweaked version of the Logistics Support Agreement. It facilitates logistical support, supplies and services between the US armed forces and the militaries of partner nations on the reciprocal basis. In India’s case this would make it seem align closer to the US and undermine its autonomy. Perhaps, this could be one of several reasons why the agreement was not concluded. “The LEMOA will be concluded in the coming months,” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told media persons in New Delhi at a joint Press conference with US Defence Secretary Carter. Timing of the Obama administration’s decision to sell F-16 aircraft to Pakistan despite protests by India and planned visit of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and NSA Ajit Doval to China is also being cited as reasons for putting off signing of the agreement. But experts term such arguments as flimsy as according to them, every visit is executed in a planned manner and both host and guest know each other’s move in advance.
Nevertheless, common perception is that India needs skill and technology from the US to strengthen its defence forces and to counter twin challenges from China and Pakistan in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. But the US laws are clear that if India wants cutting edge combat technology from America, it would have to adhere to benchmarks set in the form of LEMOA, CIMOA and BECA. Of these three, first is described by Vice Admiral (retired) Shekhar Sinha as “low hanging fruit” with less scope to impinge on India’s autonomy on matters related to strategic affair. However, in view of emerging opinions that LEMOA envisages creation of warehouses for storage of spare parts which could be later used also for joint development of combat aircraft under ‘Make in India’ programme, he has a word of caution for the Government. “Under logistic pact if the US sets up warehouses to store spare parts for its ships, aircraft and other defence equipment, it means America will station its troops to guard them and India will not have sovereignty over there,” Vice Admiral Sinha observed.
And this apprehension is supported by other strategic experts like Bharat Karnad who equate the emerging situation to Pakistan’s Jacobabad airbase where the US keeps surveillance drones and has a control over the entire area. In 2010, when floods hit Pakistan, the country’s Health Ministry wanted to use Jacobabad airbase to deliver food aid in Sindh. But US authorities did not allow Pakistan to use the airbase. The issue was raised in Pakistan’s National Assembly by the then Pakistan’s Health Minister Khusnood Lashari who complained that “health relief operations are not possible in Sindh because the airbase is with the United States.”
Interestingly, Karnad, who is known for his hard-hitting comments, is not averse to Indo-US defence ties. In the context of these three agreements his views primarily were that if India wanted to improve and increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific region then it would have to support the US laws governing transfer of defence technology. But he immediately retracted from his pro-US stand when his attention was drawn to the fact that CIMOA and BECA are of intrusive nature and their implementation could impact India’s relations with Russia, the country which has supplied several high-tech equipments from nuclear submarine to aircraft carrier to combat aircraft in the past for over six decades without binding India to any laws. “Russia is our trusted partner and over the years it has provided us whatever we wanted, but in the case of the US look what it has given to us. It (the US) will give us war machines like F-16, F-18 of the 1970s version and not the top-notch technology being used by the US troops,” Karnad said, warning that if the country went along with CIMOA and BECA, Moscow would immediately turn the screw on against New Delhi and may kill all high-tech projects that are currently going on in collaboration to India’s advantage. In the meantime, reports coming out of South Block say that though some progress has been made with regard to logistic pact, but it does not mean that it is a done deal.
Holding its card close to chest, India has asked the US to make it clear that whether the American government will stand guarantee to transfer of technology if US-based companies were to bid under ‘Make in India’ programme. Given the track records of the US, nobody in India appears to bet for its sincerity in maintaining relationship. The US is supporting China and Pakistan in India’s West, yet to counterbalance China’s emergence in the East, it wants New Delhi’s support. This shows a double standard which was further exposed when America provided Pakistan F-16 aircraft, saying it would be used to counter growing terrorism in the South Asian country. But everyone is aware of the fact that this war machine was given to Pakistan to keep surveillance on India’s naval ships and equipment. However, as push has come to shove, India has to make it clear that it needs high-end defence equipment from the US without compromising its geo-strategic interests. In this regard, the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US to address its House and give thanks to Obama (he will become lame duck President from July onwards), assumes great significance.