New Delhi: Engine installation work on India's new stealth warship, the INS Shivalik, has commenced with the US government providing clearance to American supplier General Electric to proceed with ''operationalising'' duties. Reports suggest that clearance may have been provided on 12 March 2009, soon after a spate of media reports in this country highlighted the story.
The sudden decision to ask GE to halt all work on installing the engines onboard the latest class of Indian frigates, which it had been contracted to supply, took the country's defence establishment by surprise and raised uncomfortable memories of previous 'sanction' regimes imposed by the United States on this country.
Sometime in January this year the newly established Obama administration informed GE that it had to cease all work related to 'operationalising' two LM2500 gas turbines onboard the latest stealth-class Indian frigate, the INS Shivalik. The first of three such frigates, the Shivalik was due to commence sea-trials when this surprising development was communicated to the Indian shipyard, Mazgaon Dock Ltd (MDL), by GE.
Ostensibly, the 'hold' order was supposed to allow the new administration to review its military supply relationship with a number of countries, including India. (See: After the Taliban Air Force, time to battle the Taliban Navy)
The latest version of the story is attributes the delay to the US State Department's complex defence export procedures. It would appear that the LM2500 is a 'dual-use' power plant that has a commercial as well as a military use. Though they do not require an export license from the State Department, because of the military use (in this case, installation aboard an Indian Navy frigate) GE requires to get a Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA) from the State Department.
This has now been received by GE and work can proceed.
The problem with such cutie pie stories is that after decades of experience supplying customers abroad, a multi-national firm like GE would surely be aware of all the niceties surrounding 'dual-use' conditionality and would have taken the trouble to seek required clearances from the powers-that-be. It would also have kept its customers sufficiently well informed about likely clearance issues.
Since, GE itself appears to have been taken completely by surprise, along with its hapless customer - the MDL and the Indian Navy - it would appear that there may be a little bit more to this story than is sought to be put about.
It may be noted that this is the first time that the Indian Navy is opting for an American turbine supplier for its frontline warships. In the normal course, such a class of ships, influenced by the Russian Krivak-class design, would have been equipped with Ukrainian gas turbines. Almost as effective, these would have been supplied minus the hullabaloo.
Anger evident in the Indian defence circles and the media may have prompted the State Department to expedite its decision-making process. MDL authorities have confirmed that they were informed by GE that the decision was expected to take 3-4 months. Interestingly, with the story breaking out on 6 March, the State Department order asking GE to proceed was received by 12 March.
The delay will cost the MDL and the Indian Navy heavy as the monsoons are already looming ahead and the ship is yet to begin sea-trials.
Meanwhile, another cute development related to this story. It appears that the US industry is bitter about ''undue attention'' being provided to the delay surrounding the Shivalik.
Reports quote industry sources as saying that instead of focusing on bi-ticket deals such as the Lockheed C-130J sale, Boeing VVIP jets and the $2.2 billion Boeing P-8i (maritime reconnaissance aircraft) sale, which obviously take the growing strategic relationship between the two countries forward, unnecessary importance was being given to the GE hold-up.
All that we can say is– God save India!
The fact remains that the Obama administration is yet to get its act together with respect to this country. The clumsiness it has already exhibited in trying to bring the Kashmir issue to the fore, so that its own purposes in appeasing the Pakistani establishment can be served, has already backfired.
A wary New Delhi looks at all the moves of the US administration with the greatest of concern.
Incidents of the kind exhibited with regard to the Shivalik only serve to reinforce the impression that relations between the US and this regional giant are going to take a long while to stabilize.