US-India Military Links: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose- II

THE US publication Defense Monitor reported an unnamed Pakistani defense ministry source as saying, during General Musharraf’s US visit, that Pakistan wants “the kind of relationship the United States has with Egypt in terms of weapons sales” perhaps unwittingly capturing the emerging spirit of the relationships the US is cultivating with the South Asian rivals. As a military supplier to both India and Pakistan, with both vying for alliance with the US, it would be best placed to pursue its own long-term goals.


A few years ago, the US would perhaps have been excited at the strategic prospects this opened up but, after its immensely successful Afghan campaign, it is now much more comfortably placed. The US has demonstrated, as much to itself as to the rest of the world, that its military power today is unparalleled. The US virtually conducted the war in Afghanistan on its own with only token participation by the UK and others, as it had earlier done in the former Yugoslavia where it had forced a European military presence on the ground.

The US now has bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan apart from a formidable naval presence in the Arabian Sea apart from its now permanent naval flotilla in the Persian Gulf. When EU leaders criticised the ill-treatment of al-Qa’ida and Taliban prisoners by the US in Guantanamo Bay, or the USA’s threat to extend the “war on terror” to Iraq, senior Bush administration officials virtually told the Europeans that the US would go ahead and do what was necessary whether the Europeans came along or not.

In their eagerness to join the US camp, the BJP-led security establishment has clearly missed the point that, today more than ever before, the US does not need India as a strategic partner but would welcome it if it wants but on US terms. The US’ new openness to arms exports to India reflects this new US perception rather than the BJP-NDA’s “strategic relationship”. During General Myers’ visit, a US Embassy official in Delhi tellingly remarked that the renewed arms export relationship was part of the wider warming of relations between the two countries “in return for Indian assistance in the fight against terrorism”, a small reward from a benefactor rather than a partnership.


In purely military terms, the defence equipment being acquired from the US are either not very significant or a mixed blessing at best. The US-made Weapons Locating Radars are no doubt among the best in the world but can be acquired from other sources as well, apart from the fact that the same radars are in service with Pakistan since the mid-’90s giving India only a delayed parity, and that too of not great value in the mountainous terrain of most of the LoC as the Kargil conflict showed. Ground sensors to detect infiltration along the LoC are of a similar nature, and these too are being supplied to Pakistan supposedly for use in the Pak-Afghan border.

While US officials have been proclaiming loudly that “major weapons platforms” are being considered for sale to India by the US, even prompting expressions of alarm by Pakistani spokesmen, there are no indications of any force multipliers or significant high-technology items, which is what India wants, having come up for discussion. The only exception are GE’s F-404 engine for the LCA which, as argued by this writer in these columns and elsewhere, are a double-edged weapon. By building the LCA around this power plant, India is at one stroke abandoning its effort to develop a suitable indigenous aero-engine and also putting its “self-reliance” at the mercy of the US, which has over the years not only denied India access to numerous weapons systems from third countries (including the British trainer aircraft Hawk which had to be refitted without US components) because they contained US components but which is also known to have strong political strings attached to its military equipment deals. At any point in the future, the US could hold back vital parts or spares and imperil Indian defence preparedness as it had done even to its then close ally Pakistan in the F-16 deal.

The main technical advantage of acquiring the F-404 engine is that the LCA has, unfortunately, been designed around it and will therefore expedite the LCA project. The strategic advantage of acquiring the GE F-404 engine lies in the message it conveys about the nature of the US-India military relationship and it is towards this end that the entire Indian posture has unfortunately been constructed towards this engine. Indeed, this is also the story of the US arms export deals entered into by India: the message is worth far more than the substance.


As for the US, its gains are obvious. Not only does it get India aboard the US bandwagon, it also opens up the prospects of the US gaining entry into the large Indian arms market. The US, Russia, and France have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with the US ranking first by far, even without the lucrative Indian market. each of the last three years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 1997-2000, the US made 31.5 billion dollars or 37 per cent of global arms transfer agreements with developing nations, with Russia being a distant second with 16.8 billion dollars in arms transfer agreements or about 20 per cent, and France about half that.

In terms of actual deliveries, the US share increased even further to around 45 per cent of global arms trade in developing countries markets. The total value of US arms transfer agreements increased sharply in 2000 going up from 8.7 billion dollars in 1999 to 12.6 billion dollars largely due to a mammoth order from Oman for F-16 fighters. If the Oman/UAE anomaly is ignored, India ranks second among the largest armanents buyers with spending amounting to around 7.6 billion dollars during 1997-2000 with Egypt and South Korea being the next largest buyers. This is not peanuts even for a country like the US with close to half the developing countries’ armaments orders in its pockets.

In these Indo-US defence deals, India has no great advantages coming its own way. On the contrary, the way the BJP-led government is abjectly trying to curry favour with the US by seeking a military-strategic relationship, hands over all advantages to the US. The US on the other hand gets one more military ally in the region, ropes in an important regional country into a military relationship which will build dependence and a junior partner status while at the same time open up a lucrative armaments market. An object lesson in political-economy, a term whose significance comes starkly alive.