US is willing. Why are we overly cautious?
Ashok K Mehta
America helping India to become a great power began accidentally in 1991 when General Claude M Kicklighter of the US Pacific Command initiated the broad contours of a layered defence relationship that was bereft of any strategic mooring. Not till New Delhi had tested its nuclear weapons and clinched a civil nuclear deal with the US did the New Framework for US India Defence Relationship come about last year. But above all, the defining strategic partnership containing the Joint Strategic Vision for the Indo-Asia-Pacific. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and others like Admiral Harry Harris are urging India to join the United States in making the world a safer place without sacrificing its strategic choices. New Delhi has to act wisely and quickly to catch up with and balance China.
Instead of making up for the 10 years lost during the UPA rule, the Government has shown spectacular ineptitude in reforming and modernising the Armed Forces which are replete with hollowness in critical capabilities. Defence was not even mentioned by the Finance Minister in his Budget presentation and modernisation received short shrift after `11,000 crore was returned unutilised. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar complimented himself saying he had saved three billion dollars of precious foreign exchange; it speaks volumes for defence planning and making India a credible regional power. The Army, which is the sword arm of the state involved since independence in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and manning the borders, is missing its new assault rifle after the Government cancelled in 2015 a global tender that was floated in 2011 following a decade-long search by the Infantry Directorate for a rifle for the frontline soldier, whose fate has now been handed over to the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Infantry does not even have its authorised and reliable protection gear like body armour. In Sri Lanka, the Indian Peace Keeping Force was equipped with self-loading rifles compared to AK-47 with the LTTE. ‘No new artillery gun for 30 years’ has become a record stuck in the same groove. The new Mountain Strike Corps is being raised ad hoc by stealing from Paul to pay Peter, to the detriment of deterrence against China. The woes are unending.
The Indian Air Force is fast losing its air superiority against Pakistan and rough equivalence against China due to indecisiveness over the high cost of the Rafale, future plans for Tejas and Sukhoi, 5th Generation AMCA and the joint 5th Generations Sukhoi T50 project with Russia. The choice of the 4th Generation fighter with transfer of technology could include the US F/A-18 Super Hornet under the Make in India programme. The Navy, which is the fighting arm in the Indo-Pacific, is facing huge delays in its conventional submarine programmes. The saving grace amidst the clutter of modernisation is the focus on indigenisation, the transition towards which, though, could have been better planned to minimise voids and capability gaps. Previously blacklisting of companies resulted in huge delay of projects. Now, shifting projects to the DRDO and Make in India will do the same.
The jury is out on the latest Defence Procurement Procedure, which first came out in 2002 and replaces the last edition of 2013. Chapter 7, dealing with Strategic Partners and Partnerships, is to be notified separately. Overall, it promises to provide positive guidelines for defence acquisition. Experts are questioning private sector strategic partners enjoying preferential status in major defence projects. The Confederation of Indian Industry has lauded the DPP in taking the defence sector to the heart of manufacturing through Make in India. It is estimated that defence offset obligations will result in $14 billion of asset-creation by foreign equipment manufacturers by 2028. A re-look is required in FDI, where raising the ceiling from 26 per cent to 49 per cent in 2015 has attracted little or no investment. Only by raising the stakes to 75 per cent and more will technology be forthcoming. The ultimate test of DPP will be streamlining in planning and decision-making for contracts to materialise and be implemented so that Rifleman Sukhinder Singh gets a modern rifle and protective gear among other capabilities on time. Coal Secretary Anil Swaroop noted last week that we blame politicians for all ills. Isn’t it true that five Cs (CBI, CVC, CAG, CICI and Courts) contribute towards deterring decision-making?
Given the bleak defence development and production scenario, why are we dragging our feet when the world’s most advanced country in defence technology and military capability is offering a strategic handshake? Ashton Carter has been working since 2012 on the US-India Defence Technology and Partnership Act, which was institutionalised recently by notification to amend the US Arms Export Control Act to give equivalence to India of status enjoyed by US treaty allies. US Department of Defence’s India Rapid Reaction Cells is the only country-specific unit under Defence Trade and Technology Initiative to deepen high-tech cooperation and move towards co-development and co-production of hi-tech platforms.
The history of estranged India-US relations will make New Delhi ponder. Carter has explained that, while US relations with Pakistan are limited to counter-terrorism, with India the agenda is global. He cites US pivot to Asia and India’s Act East policy as a reflection of convergence of interests and challenges. He has underlined India’s quest for multi-alignment without losing its strategic autonomy. What Carter is saying is: Here is our hand; you hold it the way you like. The US has become the largest arms supplier to India – overtaking Russia, Israel and France. India and the US hold more than 50 exercises annually and have resumed Air Force exercise Operation Red Flag after an eight-year gap.