The Trump administration has told the US Congress that defence cooperation with India would be an important pillar as the US needs India to be a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region. The Trump administration has informed the Congress that it strongly supports proposals put forth by Boeing and Lockheed Martin respectively for the transfer of F/A-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft production lines to India. These proposals have the potential to take Indo-US defence ties to the next level, a statement from the Whitehouse said. Alice Wells, Acting Asst. Secretary of State for the South and Central Asian Affairs said that India is among America’s most important strategic partners and countering terrorism is the critical priority for both nations.
The relationship between India and the US, the largest and the oldest democracies in the world, that appears to be now on the upswing, has had a troubled past. In 1954, the USsponsored membership of Pakistan of the Central Treaty Organisation that was cobbled up to counter the threat of Soviet expansion into the oil-rich Middle East region. In response, India opted for strategic and military relations with the then Soviet Union to counter the growing ties between Pakistan and the US. During the war with Pakistan in 1971, Indo-US relationship suffered a bigger jolt when the Nixon administration supported Pakistan. Despite all this, India remained out of the rivalry and power play between the US and the Soviet Union. Subsequently, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the emergence of a uni-polar world, there was revival of hope of better relations between the US and India. Unfortunately, this did not happen as soon after Atal Bihari Vajpayee took over as Prime Minister in 1998, India conducted five underground tests of nuclear weapons in Pokhran. The US administration under President Bill Clinton, condemned the nuclear tests and imposed economic sanctions on India cutting off all military and economic aid as well as banning transfer of aerospace technology and uranium exports.
However, the rising status of India as a regional power has acquired increasing relevance to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US. This was evident when the US defence and aerospace majors began to foray into the Indian market. The two leading companies of the US - Boeing and Lockheed Martin, fielded the F/A-18 and F-16 combat aircraft respectively against the tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft for the IAF, floated in August 2007 by the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD). While these contenders for the contract lost the race to the Rafale, in 2008, the IAF received three Boeing Business Jets customised for VVIP travel. The following year, an order for eight P-8I long range maritime patrol aircraft was placed with Boeing. These are already operational in the Indian Navy and another four are to be acquired in the near future. Beginning in January 2011, the IAF inducted a fleet of six Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft and has placed orders for another six. Around the same time, the IAF began to receive the C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift, strategic airlift aircraft from Boeing. In September 2015, through an open global tender, contract for 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters, both for the IAF, were concluded with Boeing. These platforms would replace the ageing fleets of the Mi-25 and Mi-26 acquired from Russia during the cold war era. This year, the Defence Acquisition Council under the MoD has cleared the purchase of six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army and given its size and commitments, more such potent platforms would be required.
The number of contracts finalised in the last ten years with US defence and aerospace majors for military hardware, has undoubtedly helped strengthen Indo-US relations. But what has given it a major boost was the proposal mooted by the Obama administration in 2016 and approved by US Congress to declare India as a “Major Defence Partner of the US”. Fortunately, the Trump administration has endorsed this decision providing the much needed continuity in policy that augurs well for the relations between India and the US especially in the regime of defence cooperation. This is particularly important at this juncture when the IAF is in desperate need to revamp its fleet of combat aircraft which has dwindled to 75 per cent of its authorised strength. As there is no certainty as yet of the IAF receiving more than the 36 Rafale jets from Dassault Aviation of France that has already been contracted for, a move was initiated by Manohar Parrikar, the former Minister of Defence to invite foreign original equipment manufacturers to set up production line in India and manufacture the platform in large numbers in collaboration with the Indian aerospace industry in the public or private sector. The proposal by Lockheed Martin to shift the production line of the F-16 from Fort Worth, Texas to a location in India was held up by the Trump administration ostensibly for a “fresh look” to assess whether it would lead to loss of jobs for US citizens. The latest news from the US quoted above indicates that the issue appears to have been resolved paving the way for the IAF to rebuild its combat fleet.