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7 Jun, 2023 11:42

US defense secretary lays groundwork for Indian PM’s Washington visit

Lloyd Austin has completed a two-day visit to New Delhi, where he met several officials and advocated for American weapons sales
US defense secretary lays groundwork for Indian PM’s Washington visit

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a two-day trip to India over June 4-5, during which he sought to bolster Washington’s military ties with New Delhi, a major arms buyer, for the next five years.

It marked Austin’s second visit to the country – his first trip was in March 2021 – and came at a critical juncture as far as defense ties are concerned.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing to manufacture more weapons domestically under an ambitious program dubbed ‘Self-Reliant India.’

Austin held talks with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, on Monday, following which the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued a statement regarding building resilient supply chains.

Both countries decided “to identify opportunities for the co-development of new technologies and co-production of existing and new systems and facilitate increased collaboration between defense startup ecosystems of the two countries,” according to the MoD statement.

Indo-Pacific maritime security figured high in the bilateral talks, where China has been making significant headway amid escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The new roadmap for US-India defense industrial cooperation will fast track technology cooperation and co-production in areas such as air combat and land mobility systems, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, munitions, and the undersea domain, said a US Department of Defense press release.

“This initiative aims to change the paradigm for cooperation between US and Indian defense sectors, including a set of specific proposals that could provide India access to cutting-edge technologies and support India’s defense modernization plans,” it said.

The talks also centered on space, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence. Austin also met with India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval.

Austin’s trip followed his visit to this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. During the forum, China’s delegation from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took a swipe at India’s military might amid worsening bilateral ties between Asia’s two biggest economies and nuclear-armed neighbors.

India’s military cannot challenge China as it is “unlikely to catch up” with it in the next few decades, the PLA delegates claimed. Its current capabilities in defense manufacturing and military modernization are insufficient to counter Beijing, they said.

The ratcheting up of tensions between India and China was tailor-made for Austin to lay groundwork for PM Modi’s visit to Washington on June 22, which has fueled speculation about a possible announcement of a raft of defense contracts.

India plans to buy 18 armed high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., costing up to $2 billion, according to government sources. The UAVs are likely to be deployed along its troubled borders with China and Pakistan and in the strategic Indian Ocean region.

Last month, at a meeting of the US-India Defense Policy Group, several new initiatives for the joint production and manufacture of arms were discussed.

The US defense trade with India has risen significantly from almost nothing in 2008, to over $25 billion soon. Major Indian defense purchases from the US have included long-range maritime patrol aircraft, C-130 transport aircraft, missiles, and drones.

Russia furnished 69% of India’s arms requirements over a decade ago, which has since fallen to 45%.  

The defense trade between Russia and India has stalled following fears over US-led sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine conflict and resultant troubles over the payment mechanism.

Washington sees the impasse between Russia and India over defense deals as a perfect opening, as it seeks to replace Moscow as the largest arms supplier to New Delhi.

Though the US has been trying hard to wean India away from Russia’s embrace as New Delhi puts its best foot forward in a deft diplomatic tightrope walk, Russian ambassador to India, Denis Alipov, has hit out at Washington.

“The Western pressure on India continues. The policy in this regard is being openly formulated by the US – it’s about tearing it [India] away from Russia,” Alipov told Izvestia in an interview published on Monday.