India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s maiden visit to the United States this week will be heavy on substance and symbolism as both sides move a step closer to building weapon systems together.
Parrikar comes to the US two weeks after a high-profile visit by Pakistan’s army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, who was wined and dined extensively by the Obama administration in the continuing game of “let’s-try-one-more-time” to persuade Islamabad to change its behavior.
Parrikar will discuss the regional and international security situation with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, clearly laying out New Delhi’s view on the supply of US weapons to Pakistan and the lack of progress on the ground in terms of reduction in terrorist violence. Officials say the conversation on Pakistan has grown more honest over time.
Breaking the Mould
The main focus of Parrikar’s visit, however, will be to accelerate the Indo-US defence engagement by all means necessary. The promise of co-development and co-production in defence is tantalising and over the past year the two countries have invested much time and energy into making it a reality. The idea is to create a new template, one that breaks the established mould of a buyer-seller relationship.
The Pentagon is pulling out all stops to welcome Parrikar, the first Indian defence minister to visit since 2008. It has been an inordinately long gap, especially in light of the fact that US defence secretaries made six visits to India in the same period.
The reasons for this visit imbalance are many, but mostly the neglect had to do with the previous Indian government’s inaction in general and former Defence Minister AK Antony’s apathy in particular. In contrast, the Modi government has shown extra zeal in reviving the India-US defence relationship, much to Washington’s relief. And the Pentagon is expressing appreciation by opening a few more doors.
Parrikar will visit the Pacific Command headquarters or PACOM in Hawaii, apparently the first Indian defence minister to do so. PACOM is one of the six geographic commands of the US armed forces with an area of responsibility stretching from the west coast of the United States to India’s western border and from Antarctica to the North Pole. In short, it watches about half the earth, comprising 36 countries in Asia-Pacific.
In Washington, Parrikar and Carter are expected to have a private meeting to facilitate a frank exchange unhindered by the theatrics of staged bilateral dialogues. Carter is a key player who has done some heavy lifting to promote the India-US partnership over the past three years. If not for him, the entire initiative of defence co-production may have got strangled in the many layers of the US bureaucracy, giving even more reasons for the Indian bureaucracy to stay inert.
Under Carter, the US defence department has emerged as one of the main drivers of the relationship. It even established a “special cell” for India to expedite clearances, the first ever for a country. India is a hot market, no doubt, and both the US government and industry are eyeing it for different reasons.
For the first time, the Indian defence minister will be accompanied by a high-level delegation of Indian defence industry. The idea is to synchronise joint defence production with US partners, something that is having teething problems. Apart from the known players such as Larsen & Toubro, Tata’s and Reliance, upcoming firms such as the Bangalore-based Dynamatic Technologies and Gurgaon-based Sun Group are also included.
The Indian industry representatives, coming under the aegis of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, will tour some of the topmost US research laboratories, including the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a US government facility doing path-breaking work on air and missile defence, space surveillance and cyber security.
They will also visit the headquarters of Huntington Ingalls, the country’s largest shipbuilder, which makes aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines for the US Navy. This is significant in light of the Indo-US joint working group on aircraft carrier design and construction.
Ten-Point wish List
But the catch is translating ideas into reality and putting more teeth in Defence Trade and Technology Initiative – currently the most attractive bilateral programme under which joint production is being envisaged. If the DTTI takes off properly, it could help India upgrade its defence production to the next level and also provide some substance to the Make in India program.
India has reportedly given a list of about ten “critical” high-technology items it wants the US government to clear for sale. The list mainly includes force multipliers which would enhance India’s fighting capacity. While US companies are willing to sell, the US government holds a veto over all critical technologies.
The new list goes beyond the four “pathfinder projects” already approved, including protective gear against biological and chemical weapons, producing a low-end unmanned vehicle, and roll-on, roll-off kits to reconfigure the C-130 aircraft for different missions.
If Parrikar is a man of action, as some say he is, he should exploit his maiden visit to the best extent possible. That essentially means getting more balls into play and keeping them in play in the year that remains before the US elections.