This is expected to be Carter’s last trip to India in his current capacity, given that the US will be going in for presidential elections in November, which will be followed by a change of guard in Washington with President Barack Obama stepping down after eight years in office. Carter is seen in India as the chief architect of the India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) which he nurtured during his previous stint at the US department of defence (DoD) as deputy secretary of defence between 2011 and 2013.
The main aim of the DTTI is to strengthen cooperation through collaboration between Indian and US firms in co-production where the US provides technology and guidance for building modern weapon systems. According to a statement from the DoD over the weekend, Carter’s visit to the Asia Pacific—specifically, India and the Philippines—is to advance the solidification of the US’s rebalancing towards the region. Carter will also be travelling to the Arabian Gulf as part of the war against the Islamic State terror group. The US’s rebalancing towards Asia, announced in 2011, means assigning higher priority and political, economic and security resources to the Asia-Pacific region because of its dynamism and the increased assertiveness of a rising China, watched warily by many countries in the region.
The rebalancing includes the strengthening of relationships with allies like Australia and partners like India and Indonesia, a more extensive and structured relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), drawing these countries into the US’s economic sphere of influence with pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as maintaining a stable relationship with China. “Much of what is being said and planned flows from our decision to increase defence procurement from US and the (India-US) joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, referring to two statements—one issued in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US and the second when US President Obama visited New Delhi in 2015. Both spoke of increased cooperation between India and the US in the Asia-Pacific region, noting a strategic convergence on both sides. Carter and Parrikar are expected to discuss establishing a fighter production line under the Make in India programme.
India is keener on F/A-18 Super Hornets manufactured by Boeing than the F-16s manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a government official said, requesting anonymity. This comes against the backdrop of the Indian Air Force scouring for replacements for its ageing fleet of more than 30 fighter squadrons and a Rs.60,000 crore acquisition of 36 French Rafale fighters, which is yet to be clinched. In recent months, senior air force officials have said that with the number of aircraft in its inventory, India would not be able to fight a two-front war—i.e., against China and Pakistan—if the need arises. “Both offers (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) are attractive for the Make in India strategy programme, but I don’t think we have a final decision yet,” said the government official cited above. The twin-engine F/A-18s may be the more attractive choice given that Boeing has offered “a new-generation production line” to be set up in India, the official said. According to Laxman Kumar Behera, analyst at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), “Boeing, Lockheed are fishing in troubled waters.
They are sensing some trouble in the Rafale deal. This will be good for India as the French are asking for a lot of money and they should know we have other options.” When asked about the status of negotiations, a spokesperson for Boeing said, “This is a discussion between both the governments and we do not have more information at this stage.” Lockheed Martin did not respond to queries emailed on Wednesday.
According to the government official cited earlier, “the two sides will try to identify more military technologies for co-development and production under the bilateral DTTI”. A ship-launched unmanned aerial vehicle for maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is among the products being considered under the initiative. “All the things that Carter is trying to do under the DTTI are medium- to long-term ventures which require technology transfers.
The US administration is one element that has to say yes to this, but the US Congress is equally involved. There is bipartisan support in the Congress for good relations with India, but not necessarily on the transfer of technology. We need to see how this works out,” said Sibal. From the US side, government officials anticipate that Carter could ask India to sign the three bilateral “foundational agreements”—the logistics support agreement (LSA), the communication interoperability and security memorandum agreement (CISMOA) and the basic exchange and cooperation agreement for geo-spatial cooperation (BECA).
While India is said to be shedding its inhibitions about the first—which includes Indian and American militaries providing logistics support, refuelling and berthing facilities for each other’s warships and aircraft—it still has reservations on the other two, said a second government official.
“There could be some movement ahead on the LSA, of course with some caveats,” Sibal said, adding that the caveat could be that India will offer logistics support on a case-by-case basis rather than agree to a blanket affirmative.