New Delhi, March 1: Overshadowed by the talks on the nuclear deal but a very real issue in India-US relations that will come up during George W. Bush’s visit to New Delhi is a push from Washington to military sales.
A boost to defence cooperation that goes beyond the India-US framework agreement on defence signed by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee in July last year is on the cards. But neither side is willing to share the content of the discussions on military deals just yet. Each notes the reservations of the other in the run-up to the presidential visit.
Bush and his delegation are likely to point out during discussions that the Indian military establishment is still chary of sourcing American military hardware despite the US’s demonstration of closer relations through a number of joint exercises spanning all three armed forces.
It is also the American understanding that the military-to-military relations forged with India since 2002 underpins the strategic partnership that New Delhi and Washington have entered into.
The partnership began with an Indian naval ship patrolling the Straits of Malacca before a US naval battlegroup sailed to West Asia for the war on Iraq.
This is a dramatic change since the visits of US Presidents Jimmy Carter (1978) and Bill Clinton (2000).
But try as Washington might, it still cannot rid New Delhi’s security establishment of the lurking suspicion that the US will use arms supplies to leverage its influence on policy in India and, indeed, may even suspend them as it did following the 1998 nuclear tests.
The level of understanding will be emphasised by citing the instance of an exercise in Sri Lankan waters last month between the aircraft carriers INS Viraat and USS Ronald Reagan that was planned at short notice.
But the air, naval and army drills have still not goaded the Indian establishment into sourcing American military equipment in a big way apart from a 2002 deal to buy 12 AN/TPQ37 Firefinder weapon locating radars.
Mukherjee signed the framework agreement on defence cooperation in Washington despite Left protests but when it comes to acquisitions he will only accept that procurement policies have been changed.
Mukherjee points out that through the decades of Cold War and afterwards, the US was reluctant to offer military hardware to India while continuing with supplies to Pakistan.
But since 2002, repeated US offers to sell big to the Indian forces have only forced a change of policy and urged the defence procurement mechanism to be tuned into hardware from countries beyond the pale of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
A recent discussion of the US Senate foreign relations committee also took note of the reluctance of India to contract military hardware despite successive briefings on Washington’s foreign military sales programme and invitations to senior Indian defence officials to demonstrations on missile defence.
India and the US now have a secretary-level defence policy group and the framework agreement on defence signalled a graduation from an earlier agreed minute on defence relations. Also, US military majors have established offices in India and hold frequent demonstrations and presentations of equipment.
Some of the biggest military orders in the making today for global arms majors originate from India. These include an Indian Air Force order for multi-role combat aircraft that could be worth as much as $8 billion and an army programme to overhaul the artillery.
Washington is also urging India to go for its Patriot III missile defence system.
Two US companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are stiff contenders for the combat aircraft order for which the Indian defence establishment is currently phrasing the global tender.