It may be a moment to savour for American defence establishment as Lockheed breaks into the Indian defence market with a billion-dollar deal; but will the momentum carry into areas that may really matter for India, asks Rajiv Singh
Washington: With India and the US signing a billion-dollar (about Rs4,000 crore) deal for the purchase of six Super Hercules C-130J military transport planes from Lockheed Martin on 31 January, American State Department and Lockheed Corp officials have expressed their open elation. Thougth Lockheed has other chestnuts in the fire as far as the Indian defence market is concerned, this deal allows them to open their account in India on an impressive note.
As for the State Department, after the near-fiascos accompanying the Indo-US nuclear engagement, this deal should provide them quiet satisfaction that matters are moving apace in their relentless push to woo India as a long-term security partner for the United States.
For Lockheed Martin and other American defence majors' eyeing the Indian defence market the deal is an assurance that the stranglehold of Russian, European and Israeli suppliers to this crucial market can indeed be broken. For them the deal is an important signal from the Indian establishment that it is willing to look beyond traditional 'friends'.
For the armchair warriors at Foggy Bottom, American interests in the Indian defence sector move beyond mere commercial interests into an area where they would like their engagement with India to translate into a mutual political partnership programme. Indo-US relations are an area, all said and done, characterised more by sentiment than any tangible policy or result.
For the Foggy Bottom warriors assiduously building up relations with India in a post-Cold War era the deal may be just another brick in the wall, but one they'll cherish for being their first.
A "new environment"
According to reports, US State Department officials have said that the deal establishes "a new environment," for American companies in India. Pentagon officials are now been quoted as saying that the deal breaks the "psychological barrier" in bilateral defence cooperation.
According to James Clad, deputy assistant secretary of defence," It is one of those things where the psychology of which is very significant. There have been other things like Raytheon radars but this is the kind of thing that has an effect on the defence corporate community...diligence, good work and products make the difference," he said.
"It puts us on the scoreboard," he added.
Though delivery would start only from 2011, Clad says the agreement would set the stage for American companies to bid for the contract for the Indian Air Force's multi-role combat aircraft.
Lockheed and Boeing Co are bidding against Russian and European competitors for an Indian Air Force tender of 126 medium-range multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Other American companies would also get into the act as systems suppliers in case Lockheed or Boeing should emerge as winners.
According to retired Air Force Lt Gen, Jeffrey Kohler, who until August was the Pentagon's top arms-sale official, the C-130J sale bodes well for closer US-Indian defence ties. "I think every sale helps all US companies looking to enter the Indian market," he said.
"It helps build trust and confidence."
Being a stakeholder in the country's defence modernisation and expansion programme would certainly appear to be a necessary yardstick for any nation that wishes to have a strategic relationship with India. Particularly so for the United States, which has invested much political capital in recent times in transforming the nature of its relationship with India, as compared to an earlier era.
For India, the C-130J deal marks a shift from its previous all-Russian transport fleet consisting of Antonov-12, An-32 and Ilyushin-76 carriers, as well as Il-78 air-to-air re-fuelling aircraft. The deal marks a further loosening of the grip that traditional suppliers have exercised over the market and, it could be said, also over the defence and political establishment.
Ballistic missile defence
Though it does not surprise that Richard Kirkland, Lockheed Martin's top executive in South Asia, in a telephonic conversation with Reuters, should describe the deal as a "watershed," what does intrigue is the assertion made in the same report that the Pentagon may have also informed Lockheed Martin that India might be ready to look into possible US-Indian collaboration on ballistic missile defence (BMD).
The Reuters report quotes Kirkland as saying, "I would not be surprised if over the next couple of months we begin to have some exploratory discussions (regarding the BMD) with various members of the government and with Indian industry."
According to Kirkland, India's missile defences could be bolstered relatively quickly by "blending in," elements such as mobile radar, sensors or command and control elements, to India's indigenous systems
Given the rapid proliferation of missile technologies around the world, BMD programmes could well be referred to as a sunshine sector of the defence market. US defence suppliers such as Boeing Co, Lockheed, Raytheon Co and Northrop Grumman Corp are now eyeing a niche, and potentially lucrative, segment of the overall defence market.
Being active players in such a segment, Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop would quite naturally seek partners / customers in their efforts to develop viable technologies and systems, as well as customers for programmes and programmes that are already matured or in the pipeline.
By their very nature, such programmes are resource intensive and require long-term development and investment plans. Given the massive budget outlays that technology intensive defence programmes demand these days, it is almost a given that any programme with a certain degree of complexity requires 'partners' if it is to be sustainable.
With Russian expertise in defence related electronics falling short of standards that India may feel comfortable with it is time for aerospace majors from the Western countries to explore and strike up relationships here. This, after all, is a sector where a country such as Israel struck early roots.
Israel has shipped out defence equipment and systems worth $4 billion to India in 2007, almost all of it, by its own confession, in areas of high technology such as radars, missiles, UAVs, etc.
Israel is now India's second largest defence supplier after Russia.
With the launch of the Israeli spy satellite TecSAR on an Indian launcher, relationship between the two countries is already beginning to transcend a mere vendor-customer relationship into a more sophisticated format.
Though the launch of the TecSAR was undertaken as a commercial contract, the fallout has come in the political arena with Iran lodging an informal complaint with India. This should only serve to further cement ties between India and Israel. Even as commercial interests between the two countries are engaged, geo-political considerations are taken care of in tandem.
This is a lesson that would be lost on nobody - be it a country or a company.
Given the Israeli expertise in the technology-intensive defence sector, and their steady domination of the Indian defence market in this area, it is but natural that American companies should also like to carve out a share for themselves with their products.
What would be particularly galling to the Americans would be the fact that Israel actually takes their permission to ship out a lot of products to India for which they hold patents.
For that matter, India has a fairly rich defence and aerospace research network, an educated and experienced engineering talent bank along with a fairly sophisticated manufacturing base that can ratchet up performance levels at a fairly rapid pace.
So far, India's ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme has been an indigenous effort. But like all nations that have learned the hard way that going it alone in defence technologies turns out to be too heavy a burden to bear, India too is opening up its doors.
It has already struck up research and development deals with a number of countries for sophisticated systems of strategic importance to the country.
Companies from Russia and Israel, once again, dominate the number of strategic agreements that India has signed. Certainly it is time for a powerhouse like the US to make an entry in this space.
Though Lockheed may be cock-a-hoop over the deal and already seeking to cast its net wider and further, top Indian defence scientists have played down the need for any American involvement in the country's BMD effort over the last year or so.
They have not hesitated to assert that the system being developed by them was superior to the American systems, including the vaunted Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defence system. These assertions, in particular, have been made by Dr VK Saraswat, dubbed rather facetiously in sections of the local media as the father of the Indian BMD programme.
For that matter, Dr Saraswat has also played down the Russian S-300 / 400 systems, saying that India's two-tiered Advanced Air Defence (AAD) BMD system, designed to operate in tandem with the medium-range Akash SAM, would prove to be superior.
Given these confident Indian assertions it is not surprising that Lockheed has adopted a different tack now by offering to "blend in" its technology with Indian systems. This is a subtle change from earlier offers for outright sale of systems like the PAC-3 anti-missile batteries to India as a "tried and tested" system.
When Lockheed first made these offers in December 2006, it was, so to say, a fresh kid in town. The offer had surfaced almost immediately after Indian scientists conducted the first BMD test, the Prithvi Air Defence Exercise (PADE) in November 2006 (See: India crosses the threshold).
Whether intended to or not, the offer did give the impression of trying to deflect Indian efforts to produce its own BMD version. In any case the American's have a way of believing their own stuff to be the best whether that should be the case or not. The rebuff from the Indian establishment, through Dr VK Sarawat's assertions, was swift and brutal.
A year after the November 2006 PADE tests, the stunningly successful AAD tests in December 2007 appear to have taken the wind out of the sails of any American moves to pre-empt development of an indigenous BMD system. The two critical links in a viable BMD system, an 'endo' and an 'exo-atmospheric' anti-missile system, have now been successfully tested by India. Coupled with the medium range Akash SAM, also tested in December 2007, India has tested its two-tiered BMD system.
Fine-tuning of elements, and infrastructure additions apart, India should be ready to field a full-fledged version from 2010 onwards.
Now, the Reuters report quoted earlier also said that Pentagon officials had confirmed that the offer for the PAC-3's was still on the table and that New Delhi and Washington had already held technical talks regarding their sale.
This persistence would appear to be strange given Indian advances in the technology and earlier assertions of Indian scientists about the value of the PAC system.
One area where the offer would appear to make immediate sense is in the area of BMD infrastructure, such as radars and command, control, communications, computing and intelligence systems (C4I). This is an area where Lockheed has extensive and sophisticated experience.
Among a number of systems, it has also developed the Aegis Weapon System, one of the world's most sophisticated and widely deployed BMD systems.
India is also hard at work developing similar systems but would not mind a quicker induction of hardware and software in these areas, more so if they were produced in association with the country's research labs and the private sector. After all, cruise and ballistic missiles deployed in our neighbourhood may not patiently await a leisurely development of counter measures at our end before they take to the skies.
Of course, with the induction of American infrastructure there is a possibility that the Indian system could end up getting yoked to an American one.
But then it also needs to be kept in mind that the testing of all our AAD systems has apparently been done with the help of Israeli supplied Green Pine radars or on a locally produced derivative of this radar.
While we have taken big strides in indigenising defence systems, fact remains that achievements in all areas are not uniform. Given our stated interest in moving towards a network-centric platform for conduct of defence operations in the future, it is likely that offers for partnership in C4I related areas would be welcome to Indian defence planners.
Depending on what Lockheed may have to offer, any exposure to American expertise in such an area may have a number of benefits. Compared to any other nation, the Americans have possibly the most extensive and sophisticated experience of C4I systems in the world. They have been developing, and using them, for far longer than any other country in the world.
India could set a 'straight jacket' offer for the PAC-3 aside and ask instead for systems that would be more conducive in helping them set up their joint services aerospace command, which is a critical element in any proposed network -centric platform.
A system with wider applications would also bring in other American defence aerospace and majors into play and set up partnerships that would be much richer, and of greater use to all parties concerned.
If the relationship with India is indeed a strategic one, then we need to get the "nuts and bolts" of such a relationship into place with systems that serve wider expectations.
Whether Lockheed would like to "blend in" through sale of stand-alone systems, like the PAC-3, or would it like to expand sales horizons to other systems with wider applications is something that needs to be explored.
Whether the State Department would back such moves to export defence systems of deeper complexity to India, or merely pay lip service to "strategic partnerships," even as it continues to arm old time ally Pakistan to the hilt, remains to be seen.
The time indeed has come for Lockheed and other companies to serve, and for India to taste, the technology "blend" that US defence companies would like to dish out.