The 2015 Framework for the US-India defence relationship signed on Wednesday takes forward the bilateral ties between the two countries, which have seen an upswing under the NDA government. Visiting US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s signature on the document is significant. Seen as “one of India’s favourite US officials”, Carter wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs in 2006 asking the US to aggressively pursue the then dormant India-US nuclear deal for the sake of a “strategic realignment.” In 2011, as Obama’s deputy secretary of defence, Carter drove the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, proposing an unprecedented co-development of military systems by India and the US. He suggested the co-development of the next-generation version of the Javelin anti-tank missile on a September 2013 visit to India, which was being offered to no other country. The UPA government rejected the offer.
By the end of his tenure as deputy secretary, Carter emphasised the Pentagon’s “decision to change its mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of ‘presumptive no’ to one of ‘presumptive yes’”. The changed mindset is reflected in the two co-development projects announced while signing the agreement: a next-generation solar generator, aimed at addressing energy issues in the field, and a lighter, more “breathable” protective chemical-bio suit for soldiers. The two countries are working on a mini drone and also expect to co-develop jet engines and aircraft carriers in the future. Even though the US undertakes joint development of military systems with many countries, the current projects with India are significant because of the “broader, strategic effort” — as US officials put it — that underpins them. These announcements also portend a change in India’s mindset about its defence relationship with the US — from transactional to strategic.
But enormous challenges remain. One of these is India’s longstanding refusal to sign the two agreements that US law deems necessary for certain aspects of technology transfer: the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Logistics Support Agreement. India’s defence ministry still remains wedded to its old bureaucratic mindset. It also lacks the capacity and experience to navigate such pathbreaking initiatives with a partner that has a radically different working culture. Moreover, even if these co-development projects were to progress as per plan, the Indian defence manufacturing industry — both private and public sector — lacks the capacity to absorb and use these technologies. The US has done its bit. It is now incumbent upon the Indian government to undertake structural reforms in order to fully benefit from this partnership.