Under Donald Trump, India-US defense ties get off to a strong start

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New Delhi: India may be wary about how things will pan out with the new Donald Trump administration on the political, economic and other fronts, but there is no such pressing concerns on the bilateral defense ties.

India and the US have agreed to “sustain and take forward” the momentum of their expansive bilateral defense relationship, which is the keystone of their overall strategic partnership, in talks between Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and his counterpart General James Norman Mattis on February 8 evening.

In the first telephonic conversation between the two after the Trump administration took charge last month, the Pentagon said Mattis “committed to build upon the tremendous progress in bilateral defense cooperation made in recent years, underscoring the strategic importance of the US-India relationship and India’s role in advancing global peace and security”.

A defense ministry official here, in turn, said, “The two ministers touched base, decided to meet as soon as possible and resolved to further consolidate and expand the bilateral defense partnership. Parrikar also mentioned to Mattis that he was familiar with this part of the world since he had earlier served in Afghanistan and was also the US Central Command chief later.”

The bilateral Defiance Technology and Trade Initiative, launched in 2012 to identify military products for co-development and co-production, came in for specific mention in the conversation. The US has offered the joint development of the next-generation of military helicopters under its “future vertical-lift aircraft” program as well as infantry combat vehicles, the latter in a tri-lateral venture with Israel, as was first reported by TOI in December.

Though India still does not have a full sense of the transition from the Obama to the Trump regime, the assessment is that there are “a lot of fundamentals in place” in the defense arena for a continued upward trajectory, especially in the backdrop of Trump challenging China’s policies on Taiwan, South China Sea and trade.

“The military connect is already in place, we are waiting for the political connect to flesh out. Discussions will broaden after more political appointees join the US department of defense,” said an official.

Having bagged Indian defense deals worth over $15 billion over the last decade, the US obviously remains keen to corner an even larger share of the lucrative arms market here. India, in turn, is eager to get top-notch weapons technology from the US to bolster its fledgling defense-industrial base.

“India has already shown interest in the futuristic helicopters. The US designation of India as a Major Defense Partner will facilitate transfer of advanced technology, which was a problem earlier,” said the official.

Expansive Defense Partnership:

Arms Deals:

US has bagged Indian contracts worth $15 billion since 2007, even overtaking Russia for a couple of years

–Range from aircraft like Poseidon-8I, C-17 Globemaster-III & C-130J Super Hercules to M-777 ultra-light howitzers, Apache attack & Chinook heavy-lift helicopters

Joint Projects:

7 joint working groups (JWGs), including on jet engines & aircraft carrier technologies, for collaborative projects

–Mobile electric hybrid generators & NBC warfare protection gear finalized for $2 million

–US has offered futuristic helicopters, infantry combat vehicles & F-16 or F/A-18 fighter production line

Combat Exercises:

India & US hold 4/5 full combat exercises annually, apart from other war-games

Range from naval Malabar (Japan now permanent member) to counter-terror Vajra Prahar & Yudh Abhyas

Bilateral Pacts:

–Defense Technology & Trade Initiative (2012)

–Framework for India-US Defense Relationship for another 10 years (2015)

–Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific & Indian Ocean Region (2015)

–India designated “major defense partner” to facilitate defense technology-sharing (2016)

–Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement between two armed forces (2016)

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