“123 = 126?”

LAST week India finally put out its long-awaited global tender for 126 multi-role combat aircraft in an order expected to be worth as much as 10 billion US dollars (Rs 42,000 crore). The progress of this deal will be watched very closely, not only because of its sheer size, but also for the signals it will send about India’s medium- to long-term vision about its defence acquisitions and the relationships it wants to build with different supplier nations. Maximum interest and attention will of course be focussed on whether or not the final contracts go to either of the two competing American firms, particularly against the backdrop of the burgeoning Indo-US strategic relationship of which the fighter aircraft deal is widely regarded as a bellweather. It is well known that extraordinary pressure is being applied on India to favour these US suppliers if India in turn wants favourable treatment by the US on a variety of strategic issues especially including the nuclear deal. As the grapevine in the US has it, “123=126”!


But this article is not about the fighter aircraft acquisition, which has been extensively discussed in these columns earlier (see People’s Democracy, February 25, 2007). It was shown that neither F-16s nor F/A-18s meet India’s requirements; both are almost three decades old aircraft rather than the “latest” technology as portrayed by pro-US lobbies, and that the US firms Lockheed-Martin and Boeing respectively have more to gain than India since the US assembly lines for these fighters are on the verge of closure and these companies are looking to the Indian orders to keep their factories open!

This article is instead about a wider process underway as evidenced by a series of defence acquisitions and potential deals of which the fighter deal is but one. While the India-US nuclear deal is yet to be clinched, the US has already managed to leverage several valuable defence contracts and to position itself well in respect of other forthcoming Indian orders. And for the first time, a process of Americanisation of the Indian military has begun.


The US has never made a secret of the fact that it seeks a wide-ranging strategic understanding under which India would form part of the global strategic architecture of the USA, and the Indo-US nuclear deal is seen as part of this endeavour. Top-ranking US administration figures have explicitly laid out this perspective in briefings to the US Congress and this vision has been reiterated in numerous documents published by the US state and defence departments.

A significant aspect of this deepening strategic relationship has been the visibly greater defence cooperation between India and the US in recent years, with sales of US military hardware to India playing an important role. Immediately prior to US President Bush and Indian PM Manmohan Singh signing the US-India joint statement containing the nuclear deal, defence ministers of India and the US signed in June 2005 a 10-year defence pact titled the “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship.” This extended the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” (NSSP) signed earlier in 2001 by the BJP-led NDA, itself following from the “Agreed Minute on Defence Relations between the United States and India” signed in 1995. The defence agreement itself states that “it will support, and will be an element of, the broader US-India strategic partnership.”

The pact further speaks of expanding the “two-way defence trade between our countries” (read expanding US military sales to India), sets up a Defence Procurement and Production Group to “oversee defence trade” and specifically states that India and the US will “conclude defence transactions, not solely as ends in and of themselves, but as a means to… reinforce our strategic partnership.”

While the defence agreement speaks grandiosely of “technology transfer, collaboration, co-production, and research and development,” it was always clear that the major goal was the sale of US military hardware to India and expansion of military exercises and joint operations, building towards greater integration between and inter-operability among the defence forces. As unfolding events would further show, the carrot of advanced military technologies and know-how was being dangled by the US only to entice India while in actuality holding back in order to obtain ever greater concessions from India in allying itself with US strategic designs and kowtowing to US diktats on a range of issues.

In the meantime, the US would do India the big favour of selling various military hardware, while just incidentally raking in money from what is a truly mouth-watering market.

According to defence ministry projections, India is expected to acquire military equipment worth about 30 billion dollars (Rs 1,35,000 crore) during the 11th plan period 2007-2012, making India the largest arms purchaser in the developing world in the coming years. Part of these huge acquisitions are undoubtedly due to long-overdue replacements of ageing and obsolete equipment, but a substantial part is because of an ambitious Indian military doctrine beyond its traditional defensive orientation.

This huge market has been closed to US defence contractors since the 1960s initially because of US antagonism to India’s friendly ties with the Soviet Union and later due to formal sanctions imposed by the US in response to India’s nuclear test of 1974 and the weapons tests in 1998. These sanctions were lifted by the US only very recently in 2001 when the NSSP was initiated. After decades, therefore, US defence firms are drooling at the prospect of multi-billion dollar contracts in the lucrative Indian defence market which has suddenly opened up for them. And this at a time when the US military-industrial complex is concerned at a projected slowdown in US defence acquisitions.


The first major sale of US military hardware to India has been the refurbished American warship, the USS Trenton renamed INS Jalashwa or “water horse,” soon to join service with the navy. This ship, now India’s second largest naval combat vessel after the aircraft carrier Viraat, is meant for force projection far away from Indian shores, capable of carrying amphibious assault vehicles and large numbers of troops. The ship along with 6 ship-borne helicopters has been acquired for around 480 million dollars (Rs 2,160 crore). Significance of this acquisition lies not only in its size but also in the military doctrine it embodies, namely the US doctrine of external intervention.

The other large recent transaction has been the acquisition of 6 US-made Hercules C-130 J military transport aircraft with an option for buying an additional 6. The 1 billion dollars (Rs 4,500 crore) deal is India’s hitherto largest order for US armaments. Although the basic Hercules transporters are of early post-World War II vintage, the version being acquired is a contemporary aircraft that entered service in the US itself only a few years ago. The transporters mark a shift from the traditional Russian-origin transport fleet used by the Indian defence forces. The Hercules C-130J’s are quite heavily armed, are equipped with advanced avionics and electronic counter-measures and are to be used to air-lift special forces modelled after the US special forces such as the Green Berets used for offensive often covert operations far from home. This growing tactical convergence is an integral part of the growing military synergy between India and the US especially in the light of possible joint operations. The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), when seeking approval of the US Congress for the sale to India, informed the Congress that “the proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to… strengthen the US-India strategic relationship… [and] by providing the Indian government with a credible special operations airlift capability that will… ensure interoperability with US forces in coalition operations.”

There have been other US arms sales as well although not of the same scale, such as 12 Weapon Locating Radars from US arms manufacturer Raytheon at a cost of 200 million dollars. Discussions are underway by Lockheed Martin of the US to sell India 8 P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft at a cost of 650 million dollars, with a sweetener of 16 multi-mission MH-60R Sikorsky helicopters costing about 400 million dollars. In fact India had earlier ordered 2 P3-C Orions but the deal fell through due to delivery delays, although some observers felt there were other factors as well, such as the US sale to Pakistan of the same system.

Such sales, although not very large in themselves, are seen by the concerned manufacturers as entry points in order to position themselves well for the really large orders expected in the coming few years with considerable strategic significance. The likely P3-C Orion acquisition itself arose out of a high-level meeting in the US involving Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in which India was called upon to play a major policing role against sea-piracy in South-East Asia. India has also recently set up a radar post in Madagascar and has undertaken maritime patrolling responsibilities off Mozambique. Other advanced maritime reconnaissance aircraft, such s Boeing’s P8 Multi-role Maritime Aircraft with offensive capabilities are also being dangled before India, the potential “rewards” being intelligence-sharing and resources/operations pooling with Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and others, as well as co-development of an India-specific version provisionally designated the P8-I.


The US is of course playing its cards carefully, offering military hardware selectively and in carefully calibrated doses in terms of both quantity and quality. And the US is most definitely holding back cutting-edge technologies and weapons systems until India firmly and unequivocally commits itself to the US strategic embrace.

Thus, the US has not yet cleared sales of Raytheon’s Patriot anti-missile systems or even sale of the advanced US-Israeli Arrow missile defence systems. The US is also offering only the quite limited P3-C Orions rather than the more advanced force-multiplier E2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft which cannot only monitor and track numerous targets simultaneously but also link up with satellite-based systems to guide attack aircraft with precision. The US refused to sell India these systems citing “potential imbalance in South Asia.” The US made even close ally Israel wait for several years before granting it permission to sell to India 3 Phalcon Airborne Early-Warning (AEW) radars to be mounted on Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft, which is incidentally Israel’s biggest military contract so far at 1.1 billion dollars.

In all these developments, what is clear is that US and even Israeli companies are beginning to exercise inordinate influence on India’s massive defence purchases, known to be highly susceptible to extraneous considerations. Although the US entered the race very late, its companies are openly being spoken of by French and Russian rivals as front-runners for the huge fighter deal due to the pressures of the nuclear deal. India had almost finalised a long-delayed 600 million dollars contract with the European consortium Eurocopter for supply of 197 light helicopters, but the entire acquisition appears to have been suddenly put on hold due to US pressure in favour of US manufacturer Bell. In May this year, US administration officials and Bell executives are said to have met with India’s ambassador in Washington, Ronen Sen, to express their reservations about the deal going to Eurocopter and their voices seem to have been heard. It is no wonder that Russia, India’s long-standing military hardware supplier, is upset at this increasingly visible trend. Of late Israeli firms have been preferred even for retro-fits, avionics and armaments on Russian-made aircraft and ships. Many believe that recent Russian demands for IPR protection and more money on the Gorshkov aircraft-carrier and Sukhoi aircraft deals, and its question as to why it should not sell arms to Pakistan if India does not respect vital Russian interests, are indications of Russia’s displeasure.

In the context of the ongoing concerns about extraneous pressures on the 123 agreement through the Hyde Act, India would do well to remember that US arms supply policies are notoriously unstable and subject to whimsical decision-making by the US Congress. The Congress has a maze of legislations, and congressional committees and subcommittees dealing with US military supplies bring in all kinds of conditionalities and certification processes, any of which could be invoked any time to stop sales.

Pakistan, a close US ally, was at the receiving end when the US refused to deliver F-16s despite Pakistan having paid for it and even refused to return the money paid. India herself has been a victim when her entire fleet of UK-origin Sea King helicopters were grounded for want of US-origin components and spares suddenly denied under US sanctions.

The point is not that India should not diversify its arms purchases or should not purchase from this or that source. But it is becoming painfully obvious that India is increasingly shifting its acquisitions towards the US and its Israeli surrogate, clearly under pressure from the US and for the sake of a junior role in the US strategic theatre. In the process, India is running the dire risk not only of getting dragged into the US strategic orbit and losing its sovereignty but also of dangerously putting all its military acquisition eggs into the US-Israeli basket to the severe detriment of its own long-term defence interests and self-reliant capability.