US, India learn from co-development fiasco, approach DTTI differently

US Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord, in Delhi to co-chair the ninth DTTI meeting, acknowledged that in the past, there were frustrations with progress under DTTI (Photo: Bloomberg)
The US-India agreement on Thursday to co-develop seven cutting-edge defence systems marks the formal burial of six co-development projects announced with fanfare in 2015, but never concluded.

The agreement marks the reorientation of the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) from a narrow, government-focused approach, to a new realisation that joint development projects be piloted by defence industry on both sides, while the Pentagon and India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) oversee progress and deals with regulatory roadblocks that arise.

US Under Secretary of Defense, Ellen Lord, who visited Delhi this week to co-chair the ninth DTTI meeting with her Indian counterpart, Secretary for Defence Production Subhash Chandra, acknowledged: “In the past, there have been frustrations with progress under DTTI, but… we are making considerable progress.” 

There are few takers for this, however, given the abandonment of projects taken up earlier (with the exception of aircraft carrier cooperation), and their replacement with seven new co-development projects on Thursday.

The MoD and Pentagon officials have drawn lessons from earlier DTTI failures. A key reason was that, in entering co-development projects, New Delhi and Washington had divergent motivations, with neither side focused on co-developing usable products.

An example is the co-development of “jet engine technology”, for which both sides constituted a joint working group (JWG) in 2015. On Thursday, Lord admitted that this had been suspended because “we could not come to an understanding of what exportable technology would be useful to the Indians. And, we did run into a challenge in terms of the US export control”.

In fact, there was little that India could ever contribute to this “co-development”, with US entities already masters of aero engine technologies. At the same time, Indian scientists and technologists were at an early stage of the learning curve, struggling to develop the Kaveri jet engine. 

What the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) wanted was US solutions for unsolved technology challenges, such as high temperature alloys and single crystal blades for the “hot end” of the Kaveri.

Meanwhile, the US side expected that working with the DRDO would create a relationship that would lead to building US aero engines in India. US engine makers like Pratt & Whitney, or General Electric, would never part cheaply with intellectual property (IP) that had cost billions to develop over decades. Nor would Washington grant export control licences for critical engine technology. The best that could be hoped for was the transfer of manufacturing line blueprints for building engines in India. That would advantage US fighter vendors in on-going procurements of fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force and navy.

The MoD understood that this would provide a controversial back door into India’s aircraft procurement cycle. New Delhi has also understood that US engine-makers are guided by commercial and not strategic considerations. Although India remains a strategic partner, the US defence industry, which resides in the private sector, would not hand over “hot end” technology to score a success in DTTI. 

The new approach to DTTI, and the choice of products and technologies now being co-developed, recognises that the Indian partner must bring credible technological capability to the table. In announcing the co-development of “air-launched, small, unmanned airborne systems (UAS)”, Lord acknowledged: “There are some small, very innovative companies here in India that have [this] technology.”

Similarly, it was decided to co-develop a “Virtual Augmented Mixed Reality” platform to teach aircraft maintenance, because several Indian start-ups have already developed VAR technology.

A second lesson has been the need for Pentagon-MoD control of DTTI to allow more space for industry-to-industry collaboration. The first step was taken on Monday, when seven American and 20 Indian defence firms attended the new “DTTI Industry Collaboration Forum”, chaired by mid-level defence bureaucrats from both sides.

Admitting that this was “helping us better understand challenges and opportunities”, Lord said this would be “formalised into an industry-to-industry framework” by the time the two defence and foreign ministers met in the “2+2 dialogue” in December in Washington.

A third lesson has been that the military, rather than the DTTI, is often the better platform for projects involving operational cooperation. The American and Indian navies are now largely driving “aircraft carrier technology cooperation” (ACTC), which involves a US-India partnership in developing the next indigenous aircraft carrier. Lord specifically lauded the “high level of engagement” between the parties.

Finally, there is a recognition of the need for the DTTI to diligently monitor projects and time-targets. The newly signed Statement of Intent specifies “the need for detailed planning and measurable progress on specific short, middle, and long-term DTTI projects that are identified in the document”.

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