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India-US Military Partnership Enters Next Phase

First Posted: 07/12/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:30 PM ET

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By Jason Overdorf | GlobalPost

NEW DELHI -- With India's new government firmly in place, a top U.S. envoy landed in New Delhi Wednesday to discuss some key pacts to remove roadblocks for arms and aerospace companies keen to tap this country's $30 billion market for military hardware.

United States Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns visits New Delhi and Mumbai from June 10 to 13 to meet senior government officials and industry leaders and discuss "a broad agenda to further strengthen the partnership between the United States and India," according to a State Department spokesman.

Following last year's pivotal Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, which freed India from limitations on technology transfer imposed after its Pokhran-II nuclear test in 1998, the two nations need to hammer out an agreement that will allow U.S. companies to sell arms and high-end military electronics to India. Now that India's political left is out of the equation following last month's elections, Indian defense analysts expect these pacts to go through smoothly. India has a powerful desire to upgrade its military hardware and U.S. defense companies are more keen than ever to tap its potentially huge market -- which could be worth as much as $80 billion by 2020.

According to Rahul Bedi, India correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly, India has already started the ball rolling for some big purchases from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, including 126 multi-role combat aircraft, eight maritime reconnaissance aircraft, 22 attack helicopters, 15 heavy lift helicopters and a Patriot missile defense system.

The completion of these deals would mark a substantial shift in India's military spending. "Broadly, India's largest supplier remains Russia," said Bedi. "The second-largest over the last eight or nine years has been Israel. The U.S. is the new kid on the block."

But there is more at stake than money. "An arms sale purchase relationship is a long-term relationship, and that has a political commitment to it as well," said Dipankar Banerjee, a retired major general in the Indian army who is now a defense analyst with the New Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. "If an aircraft is purchased, it has to last three to five decades, so that relationship remains, not only between companies, but also it leads to a type of partnership between companies and countries that are important, are long-term, and are in the interest of both countries to sustain."

Laying the groundwork for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July, Burns will also be keen to discuss two more controversial pacts, a logistical support agreement (LSA) similar to the one the U.S. has signed with the members of NATO and the proliferation security initiative (PSI), which is intended to prevent the spread of technologies used in nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction. Both of these agreements faced heavy opposition from India's communist parties.

According to analysts at New Delhi's Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the LSA would require both countries to provide their bases, fuel and other kinds of logistics support to each others' fighter jets and naval warships. The left believed that this arrangement would compel India to adopt America's foreign policy goals and participate in its military adventures, but defense analysts say that is not how similar agreements with NATO countries have played out. Similarly, under the PSI, the Indian Navy would potentially be required to board and search vessels suspected of transporting sensitive nuclear technologies in the Indian Ocean.

"We should have an understanding on the PSI sooner rather than later," said Banerjee. "It started off with only a small number of countries, and India was asked to adhere to some of its regulations. But India would like to be part of the organization that sets out the rules. That is the primary issue involved in the PSI."

The stickiest part of the discussions won't have anything to do with Indo-U.S. agreements, however. India aims to wring some promises out of Burns (and, later, Clinton) regarding the ongoing U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where New Delhi perceives its interests are being undermined by America's eagerness to end the war on terror.

India is expected to take a tough line on the recent release of Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed -- which New Delhi cites as evidence of the emptiness of Pakistan's promise to crack down on terrorists using it as a base of operations. And officials will also express concerns about the large military aid package that Washington has offered Islamabad as an incentive to take the fight to the Taliban on Pakistan's eastern border. India argues that Pakistan has in the past used U.S. aid to bulk up the conventional hardware it would need in a military confrontation with India, rather than the quick-strike gear needed for fighting terrorists.

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Filed by Stuart Whatley  |