Air Vice-Marshal Manmohan Bahadur VM (retd)
Addl Director-General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
Indo-us defence relations have to move beyond the rhetoric of the "oldest democracy and largest democracy being natural allies". The fact is that they are not so due to the many dissimilarities in their political and social structures. Only national interests drive international relations. What better example than the 'strategic' Sino-US friendship that started in the 1970s to cut the USSR down to size and the resultant unprecedented economic largesse to Beijing that put it on a power trajectory that the US is now trying to oppose? Oh, the irony of it all! Or, the US-Pak relationship, with successive US presidents turning a Nelson's eye on Pakistan's export of terror and nuclear proliferation just to meet their national interest of defeating the USSR in Afghanistan. More importantly, the latest US decision to remove Turkey, the only Muslim-majority country in NATO, from the F-35 fighter programme due to its S-400 purchase from Russia shows that US decisions will continue to be driven by its national interests.
If one sees the reality, disregarding the 'natural-allies' rhetoric, the present US interest and 'affection' for India is on similar path — to have an ally to counter the increase in Chinese power in South and South East Asia. This is pivoted on the Indo-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). The trick is to make it work to India's advantage and the litmus test for this 'friendship' would be US action, or inaction, against India due to Delhi's decision to acquire the S-400 (like Turkey). A status check of DTTI is in order, taking the IAF's projects as examples.
DTTI, when signed in 2012, was "..to pursue four pathfinder DTTI projects for possible co-development and/or co-production, as well as cooperation on aircraft carriers and jet engine technology." Seven joint working groups were also launched and the yearly meetings, alternatively in the two countries, seem to be taking place.
The four 'pathfinder' projects were an apology to be classified as 'modern'; they were next-generation Raven Mini UAVs, roll-on and roll-off kits for C-130, mobile electric hybrid power source and a protector kit against chemical/bio/nuclear fallout. The Indian Army rejected the UAV as being low-tech. The C-130 project has not moved forward while the remaining two were closed in August, 2017. The jet engine technology project has not moved at all and, to add to the gloom, the India Rapid Reaction Cell set up by the US to fast-track DTTI projects has been downsized, an indicator perhaps of decreasing focus in the Trump administration. So, where is the bottleneck?
There is, certainly, bureaucratic inertia in India, but the feedback has also been that the US is more interested in using DTTI to identify technically sound Indian private players to feed into their supply chain. Theoretically, it's a good idea, but when one considers that the DRDO is reportedly being side-tracked, with only a perfunctory interest being shown in its labs for any R&D cooperation and no transfer of meaningful technology taking place, there enters an element of intrigue. Where does one go from here, considering that DTTI was advertised as a panacea for India's need for high-end technology to modernise its arms inventory?
Modernisation and indigenisation are oxymoronic in nature. The former is a requirement of the Services that is immediate, while the latter takes decades to achieve. So, aspirational dreams that are not based on realities of realpolitik must be jettisoned and we must prioritise what is possible into short-, medium- and long-term engagements.
In the short term, remove the thrust on high-end impractical projects — as an example, the fifth generation jet engine that the GTRE is trying to develop for the past four-plus decades. The problem with the DRDO is that it wants to make either top-of-the-line stuff, or nothing at all, without taking certain mandatory baby steps (we are, even now, importing infantry man's rifle and ammunition). So, work on realistic doables, like for say, engines for the HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft, Intermediate Jet Trainer, UAVs et al, and then graduate to bigger ones based on the expertise gained. In fact, that's how China's industry has progressed and in our case, the US may be willing to part with technology that does not threaten its monopoly. There are two co-development projects that look encouraging: the small air launched Unmanned Aircraft System and the Virtual Augmented Mixed Reality for Aircraft Maintenance (VAMRAM). Technologies that are no longer niche but are important op requirements, like software-defined radios, may be pursued.
In the mid-term, ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) platforms, sensor and optics technology, wide band data links and high-end encryption devices could be looked at. With the IAF placing its bets on the DRDO's Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft for the 2030s as its mainstay fighter, we would be in need of technology for equipment like radar absorbent material, low visibility intake design, conformal antenna et al.
Finally, if the Indo-US handshake has to really become firm, then long-term projects need to evolve from the mid-term requirements and lead on to high-end ones like jet engine technology etc.
DTTI will not deliver the 'high' tech aspired by India — no country parts with top-of-the-line technology. The second 'T' which stands for trade, is what the US is exploiting to access our small private players. If, and it is a big if, they are receiving high-grade technology, then it is an acceptable proposition. However, if it is just screwdriver information, then they are mere 'trading' entities. The only spin-off could be an increase in manufacturing, with the hope that the private players would build on the experience and design their own products. Some of our small entrepreneurs are tech wizards and one needs to guard against them being bought over by big foreign players wherein their IPRs would be lost.
The government must, thus, take a realistic view (devoid of aspirational 'kite-flying') of what technology the US can actually share. A three-stage 'flight plan' of the trajectory that Indo-US defence cooperation should take must be drawn up and fed into a realistic long-term indigenisation plan that takes into account the immediate modernisation needs of the Services.
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