The Indo-US nuclear deal issue has dominated the attention and debate of old and new experts in India to the virtual exclusion of the other dimensions of the joint agreements of June-July last year some of which are of seminal and far-reaching advantage to the future of India. Let us just take one of them: the “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship” signed on June 28, 2005. Barring the per forma ideological objections from some quarters and a weak parry by the government, the issue was soon submerged in the noise of the nuclear cooperation agreement.
We must note that US policies are dictated by what it considers its strategic national interests. The Pentagon, the strategic think tanks and equally important, the defence industry, assume crucial importance in this process for US foreign policy. Since our own system is quite different, and the Ministry of Defence plays little or no role in our foreign policy making, our foreign office remains quite innocent of such things as national defence needs. It was to rectify this imbalance that the series of Indo-US Strategic Dialogue organised by IDSA on our side since 1989 was progressed which led to the January 1995 “Agreed Minutes” between the Pentagon and our Ministry of Defence establishing a Defence Policy Group to guide bilateral cooperation leading to the June 2005 agreement as its logical progression.
This has been at the root of Washington’s repeated tilt toward Pakistan in the past. It is useful to recall that the US arms sales to India in the wake of the Chinese aggression in 1962 (when the US led-military alliances in Asia against the Chinese threat) were finally stymied by Pentagon’s concerns about its effect on Pakistan. The result has been that, barring the handful of non-combat non-force structure systems like the C-119 Packet transport aircraft, S-55 helicopters and some winter clothing, little else has come our way.
India’s strategy for self reliance in defence capability thus was circumscribed to access from the Soviet Union and Europe with limited efforts to indigenise. For purely techno-economic reasons this provided us with a credible defence capability at affordable costs while allowing autonomy in international relations. But it was clear from the late 1980s that we would need to adjust. As of now, nearly 80 per cent of our weapons and equipment are of Soviet/Russian origin while another 20-odd per cent came from western Europe.
Global defence industry trends have led to China acquiring increasing influence over former-Soviet defence industry at one end, and at the other, prices of Russian weapons and equipment reaching western European levels. At the same time, US defence manufacturers have been acquiring increasing stake in European defence industry.
We, on the other hand, have ignored our defence modernisation. The result is that the combat level of all three services has been dropping. The Indian Air Force will go down from its authorised 37 combat squadrons to as low as 27 by the end of this decade, the Navy will be below the minimum needs of submarines and aircraft carriers and the Army is short of modern equipment. Prudence requires that we reduce the content of Soviet arms from 80 per cent to, say, around 50 per cent over the next two decades. And the logical source is the United States, which is now willing to open the route toward this end.
The obvious way ahead is to start building Indo-US defence industry cooperation as visualised in 1995 agreement and taken forward in June 2005 framework which seeks to “expand two-way defence trade” through measures like “technology transfer, collaboration, co-production, and research and development”.
The critical point is that such an agreement was not possible without the steady progress in building a strategic partnership over the past decade and a half. It is difficult to say whether the defence cooperation agreement helped the nuclear cooperation agreement to be consumed or the other way around. But it is evident that without the nuclear roadblock being bypassed, the defence industry relationship would have remained still-born since US laws and non-proliferation policy do not permit cooperation with a non-NPT nuclear weapons state that has been under sanctions for three decades. Changes in legislation as a consequence of nuclear agreement would open the road to build “two-way defence trade” visualised in June 2005 agreement and build the powerful US defence industry's stake in strengthening US-India relations across the board.
The writer is director, Centre for Air Power Studies.