American lawmakers, setting the stage for high-value defence sales to India, have drafted a law that strongly backs US-India defence ties. The Senate’s draft of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 (NDAA 2018), an annual law that allocates funding to America’s military, includes an amendment aimed at advancing defense cooperation between the US and India.
The amendment reiterates India’s recent designation as ‘‘Major Defense Partner’’ with the US – a status unique to India – and orders the US government to appoint an official to oversee the US-India relationship and report within six months to Congress on progress in defence ties.
The “Major Defence Partner” status, which found mention in the joint statement when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Donald Trump in June, “is intended to facilitate technology sharing between the United States and India, including license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies”, says the Senate amendment to NDAA 2018.
It further states: “The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Commerce shall jointly produce a common definition of the term ‘‘Major Defense Partner’’ as it relates to India for joint use by the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Commerce.”
This clarity is sought so that differing inter-agency interpretations in the US do not stall the sale of high-technology defence equipment to India.
Last year a similar amendment in NDAA 2017, titled “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, first enjoined the US administration to designate India a “major defense partner” and appoint an official to oversee the relationship and report to Congress.
While the Trump administration fulfilled the first requirement, no official has been designated so far. Now the NDAA 2018 amendment renews the instruction to the administration.
This legislation is driven by high strategic convergence between Washington and New Delhi, but also by the Congress’ wish to facilitate the next wave of major US defence sales to India.
Over the preceding decade, the US has become India’s biggest defence supplier with $15 billion in sales of C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules transporters, P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, CH-47F Chinook heavy lift choppers and AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. Now Washington is pushing the sale to India of 100-200 F-16 Block 70, at least 57 F/A-18E/F fighters and 22 Sea Guardian drone that it has offered. These new sales would add up to over $10 billion.
Acknowledging the arms sales motive, the Senate amendment notes: “The individual designated… shall promote United States defense trade with India for the benefit of job creation and commercial competitiveness in the United States.”
For the Trump administration, and for US lawmakers on Capitol Hill who represent constituencies that host defence industry, India’s decision on these platforms will be very consequential, either in a positive or a negative way.
US industry representatives are making it clear that an Indian refusal to buy the Sea Guardian drone, which figured in the meeting between Trump and Modi, would arouse serious ire in Washington. They say the US has okayed the sale despite the “presumption of denial” that the Missile Technology Control Regime mandates for the sale of long range unmanned systems; and despite objections from the non-proliferation lobby.
“An extraordinary amount of time has been put into the Sea Guardian offer in Washington DC. It’s become an emotional issue within the US government. Opponents of the offer will be empowered if it doesn’t go through. They will say: ‘We told you so. The offer created diplomatic problems for us, and got rejected anyway’”, says a senior US industry official, speaking anonymously.
New Delhi sources say the Indian government will not be swayed by this argument and will process the sale based on commercial considerations and the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016.
Senator Mark Warner, a long-time India friend, who sponsored the amendment states: “I'm pleased [the amendment] was included in the defense authorization bill that passed the Senate. I look forward to our language being included in the final defense authorization bill and being signed into law so that the administration has clear guidance in how to continue to foster this important relationship.”
The amendment would also require to be passed by the House of Representatives and then signed into law by the US president.
By Ajai Shukla