US, India now global strategic partners, to start Quadrilateral Initiative

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with US President Donald Trump prior to their meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (PTI Photo/Kamal Singh)
Without any deadlock-breaking agreements on trade, or the sale of nuclear power reactors, much of the feel-good around the two-day visit of US President Donald Trump centred on the burgeoning US-India strategic and defence partnership.

“Today, President Trump and I have taken a decision to raise our partnership to the level of a comprehensive global strategic partnership,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the media after bilateral talks in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Modi and Trump agreed to galvanize the Quadrilateral Initiative (Quad), which could become an important element in the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, bringing together democracies that are wary of a rising China. 

“Together, the Prime Minister and I are revitalizing the Quad Initiative with the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.  Since I took office, we have held the first Quad ministerial meeting -- I guess you would call it a meeting, but it seems like so much more than that -- and expanded cooperation on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and maritime security to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific,” stated Trump.

Over the preceding 15 years, New Delhi has avoided alienating China by walking a delicate line on initiatives like the Quad, and on exercises and operations with US military forces in the Indo-Pacific. 

Modi abandoned some of that restraint on Tuesday, declaring: “In the last few years, there has been an unprecedented increase in interoperability between our armies.”

Trump confirmed that India's military signed contracts with Boeing and Lockheed Martin on Tuesday for the purchase of military helicopters. “Earlier today, we expanded our defense cooperation with agreements for India to purchase more than $3 billion of advanced American military equipment, including Apache and MH-60 Romeo helicopters -- the finest in the world. These deals will enhance our joint defense capabilities as our militaries continue to train and operate side-by-side,” said Trump.

Importantly for Trump, who is critical of India’s $24 billion trade surplus with the US, these contracts will take the total value of US defence equipment bought by India to over $20-21 billion.

The Indian Army will get the Apache attack helicopter in its AH-64E configuration, with deliveries starting in 2023, according to the manufacturer, Boeing. 

This is the latest version that entered service with the US Army in 2011. Boeing says it has 26 new advanced technologies, including more powerful engines, composite rotor blades and the capability to control unmanned aerial vehicles.

More than 2,400 Apaches are in service worldwide, with over 400 of them being the latest AH-64E model. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already bought 22 Apache AH-64Es, which will all arrive by May.

Since the current army purchase of six Apaches does not meet the requirements of even one strike corps, more Apaches are likely to be procured in the future.

The Hyderabad-based firm, Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), already manufactures helicopter fuselages for multiple Apache operators around the world. TBAL is a joint venture between Tata Advanced Systems Ltd and Boeing.

Modi underlined the growing manufacture in India of advanced defence and aerospace components and systems for global vendors. “Cooperation in ultra-modern defense equipment and platforms will enhance India’s defense capabilities.  Our defense manufacturers are becoming a part of each other’s supply chains,” he said.

Despite India’s growing purchase of US weaponry and the incorporation of Indian manufacturers into global supply chains, there is a worrying lack of movement in furthering the technology relationship that India wants – which involves co-design and co-development of equipment, so that Indian firms can absorb the “know how” and “know why” needed to build truly indigenous weaponry.

“The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) which New Delhi and Washington set up to align the two sides’ aspirations has not yet resulted in a single successful project,” points out an Indian defence scientist.

The Trump-Modi meeting was markedly silent on the flagship DTTI project: US assistance in designing India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal. There are concerns on the US side that India’s static defence budget has little money to support such projects.

Nor was there any update on the long-running negotiation of a pending US-India foundational agreement – the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) – which had been earlier stated to be nearing completion. Two other foundational agreements – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) have already been concluded, enabling the two militaries to work together.


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