Forging “a strong political connect” to further propel the expansive India-US defence cooperation will be the underlying theme when Nirmala Sitharaman meets James Mattis this month, even as the two nations discuss maritime security, counter-terrorism and joint defence production projects as well as challenges in terms of the security situation in the Af-Pak region and an aggressive China.
India and US already have “a robust military connect” established over the last 15 years during the Bush and Obama administrations, but the political one at the defence ministerial level has been missing since Donald Trump became the US President in January.
The two sides will seek to address this when US secretary of defence James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, touches down in a special military aircraft at New Delhi on September 25. Sitharaman, in her first major engagement with a foreign counterpart since she took over as the defence minister earlier this month, will hold a delegation-level meeting with Mattis on September 26.
The defence establishment hopes the two develop an equation like the one between former defence minister Manohar Parrikar and Ashton Carter (Obama administration), which helped in pushing things through the bureaucratic bottlenecks in South Block and Pentagon.
Continued, intensive engagement with the US is central to our security concerns in our neighbourhood as well as the larger Asia Pacific region. Mattis will also meet PM Narendra Modi and national security advisor Ajit Doval on September 26,” said a source.
With Trump pushing India to do more for war-ravaged Afghanistan, New Delhi is likely to further step up its developmental and security assistance to Kabul without actually contributing troops. The push for maritime security is also a shared concern, especially in the backdrop of Chinese warships and submarines making regular forays into the Indian Ocean Region, say sources.
Joint projects under the bilateral Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) as well as direct sales like the estimated $2 billion one for 22 unarmed Predator or MQ-9B Guardian drones will also figure high on the agenda.
The US has also already offered India a tri-lateral venture with Israel to develop futuristic infantry combat vehicles, as also participation in its “future vertical-lift (FVL) aircraft” programme for five different helicopters under the DTTI.
Having already bagged defence contracts worth over $15 billion just since 2007, the US of course wants an even bigger pie of the lucrative Indian arms market. But there is an obvious disconnect between Trump’s protectionist policies and Modi’s Make in India thrust with technology transfer to strengthen the poor domestic defence-industrial base.
US armament giants also want guarantees of retaining control of propriety and sensitive technologies in joint ventures under the “Make in India” policy, while not being penalized for shortcomings of their Indian partners.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for instance, are both aggressively pitching for production lines in India for their F-16 and F/A-18 fighters. All this will take some doing, with all eyes on Sitharaman and Mattis to ascertain whether they can iron out the glitches.