Steering into troubled seas with eyes wide open

As anticipated some weeks back (“India in America’s coils”), the Modi government seems bent on having the three foundational agreements — logistics support agreement (LSA), Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in some form for signing when US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is here next week. We are told MEA and MOD negotiators have been hard at work with their American counterparts to obtain draft accords tailored to specific Indian needs that also serve US purposes. There are fundamental problems even with the India-specific content of these agreements.

Consider LSA: For many years now, Indian and the US warships at sea have had a “barter” arrangement in place whereby an Indian ship with fuel excess to its mission needs transfers a fuel quantum to an US warship on the basis that a passing American warship can be tapped mid-ocean by an Indian ship at low tank for the exact quantum of fuel. So there’s some kind of a running account between the two navies. There is no exchange of monies — because the different accounting systems make for a mess, making reimbursement in value, rather than in kind, difficult. This was an expedient stop-gap arrangement arrived at by the two navies over the course of the Malabar and other naval exercises, joint piracy patrols, etc. This working scheme is operational. Other consumables — food items, potable water, servicing tools, naval maintenance kits, etc. can likewise be accommodated by simply enlarging the barter arrangement that has so far worked well. Why does India need a formal LSA for these things, especially on a “reimbursable” basis? This last, whether any one in the Indian govt concedes it or not, will do two things: (1) Place India in a position similar to Pakistan vis a vis US ISAF presence and military operations in Afghanistan, and (2) make reimbursements for materials offtaken by US forces in the region from Indian military stores subject to financial subventions from Washington. This will bring India under Congressional scrutiny which, in turn, will create its own difficulties. New Delhi, in effect, will have to account for the quality of every item or service rendered, and be compelled to respond on pain of non-payment. This is the punishing procedure all US’ formal allies undergo. Does it help the country’s cause even a little for India to be thus ensnared by the United States? And if high-technology is the big deciding issue: Is the US willing to TOT the EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) for the two Indian-built carriers, following Vikrant? Of course, not. But the Americans will happily part with technologies considered advanced in the 1970s — F-18 Super Hornet! Boy, are we dumb. Even Pakistan has not proved itself so naïve and gullible and is keeping its arms supply lines to China open. Why is the Modi govt so enamoured of US-sourced military technology when Russian topend hardware available to the Indian armed forces is tech-wise, generationally superior?

In a discussion on this topic, a former naval chief had no answer to the kind of objections I have raised above, or why the Navy in particular would rather rely on US warships or the base at Diego Garcia for mid-oceanic resupply and replenishment than speedily invest in and build-up the naval and air bases on North and South Agalega Islands offered by Mauritius, or on shore in a base in northern Mozambique offered by that country.

CISMOA: news reports portray Indian negotiators being satisfied with something called the “pre-bid guarantee” in case India chooses to manufacture an US armament system here — a combat aircraft, for instance. This “pre-bid guarantee: is supposed to require the US govt to guarantee the full transfer of technology. One can foresee how this will pan out. Such a guarantee is given but the supplier companies keep to the old way of doing things with India, namely, merely exporting first SKD kits, followed years later, by CKD kits while claiming there is full TOT. If questioned, they’ll point out that it is not their responsibility to ensure Indian firms, DPSUs, ingest and innovate the technologies passed on to them — which will be an irrefutable case. And hand over the full tranche of contracted funds, please! This guarantee, in the Indian context, is worth nothing.

The more significant issue is why the Modi PMO is going down this route. And shouldn’t it have been advised better, asked to temper their enthusiasm, not go full out, without being aware of booby traps down the supposed primrose path? The trouble is those in MEA advising the PM have long since jumped on to the American bandwagon. Foreign Secretary S, Jaishankar — his father K Subrahmanyam’s son alright — is in the van on these accords. Recall it was Subrahmanyam during the previous BJP govt’s tenure who persistently advocated buying peace with the US — sign the CTBT he said in 1996 along with his acolytes, such as Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, and for making the sorts of concessions his son first negotiated (as Joint Secretary, Americas) in the 2008 nuclear deal with the Congress party apparatchik Manmohan Singh as PM, and now as head of the foreign service, is configuring these foundational ags for an ideologically different, supposedly “nationalist”, BJP regime.

If China is the major worry and military cooperation with the US is deemed necessary, India can maximize collaborative activity and have similar outcomes by other solutions than committing to agreements that only bonafide allies of the US have so far accepted. Close embrace with any big power is always to the lesser state’s detriment. For India that sees itself as a great power in the process of being, it is all the more necessary to keep its distance but work with all powers, especially Russia and the regional states, such as Japan, and on the extended Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian littorals to more effectively stymie Beijing.

But this is obviously not the sort of counsel Modi hears, indicating the lack of professionalism in MEA and at the centre of foreign policymaking in New Delhi. Neither Modi — a politician, nor NSA, Ajit Doval, an ex-policeman, can be expected to know the complexities of friendship with the US formalized in treaty-like agreements. But MEA staffers are expected to do so. That they are failing in their duty to warn the PMO of pitfalls ahead, is what’s worrisome. By the time India begins to pay the full price of such accords pushed on the run, the present dramatis personae will have vacated the scene, and no one will be held accountable for the loss of India’s freedom of policy maneuver, its basic autonomy, and worse.

All we will be left with is the chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to Steering into troubled seas with eyes wide open

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    A wanna be super power that chose to go under the thumbs of a fast depleting super power. What is Modi trying to make – An American Commonwealth!!!??? How is that different from Pandit Nehru’s actions?

    See @BK this is how moral corruption is much more dangerous than monetary corruption. Most of MEA would already be imagining US visas for their kids exactly like sometime back people were falling over each other to import this and that for the kripa that US did by allowing us to buy Yellowcake under free market mechanism.

  2. MS says:

    Boy, are we dumb. Why do you say so? Even Pakistan…why do you say so? :-))

    Firstly we are not dumb at the operational level. We are corrupt. At the leadership level, we may just not understand or have the confidence in our ability to take this nation to a better stage and pull it off without diving into this pit of agreements.

    Even Pakistan… ? I am tempted to ask… Do you seriously think Pakistani diplomats, leaders et al are less capable. Have they not proved themselves to be more capable by engaging everybody in the world and getting away with so much on the other side?

    I do understand why you say so. You are demonstrating your earnest appeal for a rethink and not chiding our people in MEA for being foolishly thinking of signing them.

    Another seemingly stupid thing may be in play…getting impressed by the English of jaIshankar and others, however insignificant it may look.

    China will make us feel like bees once we sign them, because China knows every country has to protect itself…no one coming to help..and China along with Russia will tighten the nuts in their own way. And it will happen in less than a two years time, if Chinese are not distracted.

  3. andy says:

    Russia is not exactly a paradigm of virtue as far as transfer of military technology is concerned, she guards it as jealously as the USA.

    Russia has been very hesitant in transferring technology to India. It took 8 years to transfer barrel tech for T90 tanks, even though India purchased them in large numbers. In the case of SU30 aircraft, Russia didn’t transfer engine technology & HAL is still dependent on it for components for engine assembly & some spares,this after India has paid almost $15 billion for design,development, CKDs & SKDs.

    Now they are linking a purchase of the S400 air defense system to FGFA program. FGFA is not even a true 5th generation aircraft, with the AL41f engine thrust rated at only 93kn,a true 5gen aircraft would need at least 110 to 120 kn thrust for supercruise(without afterburners)to be a main stealth feature.By linking these two deals they seek to coerce India into purchasing a substandard aircraft, that even the Russian airforce is reluctant to buy,knowing fully well that India covets & desperately needs a 5th gen aircraft.

    As for the French,Rafale deal & Mirage2000 upgrades have shown what theives they are.

    Israel does not possess the kind of comprehensive tech required by India’s Navy, Airforce & Army.

    So what are India’s options?Being dependent perinneally on external sources for military technology, will always leave her open to coercion & arm twisting by all & sundry, be they USA,Russia, France etc.The only answer is indeginization of defense requirements.

    Scrapping the FGFA deal would save India at least $25 billion,scrapping Rafale would save $7billion over the next 10years,adding another $18 billion would make a cool $50 billion.GOI should use this $50 billion to set up an equal partnership with eligible firms from the private sector forming a consortium with DRDO,which would do research & development for all arms of Indian military.A 50- 50 partnership would yeiled $100 billion,the private sector would respond on being assured of orders.That there is immense untapped potential for R&D in the private sector has been proved by Baba Kalyani with his Bharat 52 artillery gun,which is not only world class ,but also 30% cheaper than comparable systems worldwide.A $100 billion invested in indigenous R & D would most certainly yeild a whole lot of red hot technology.

    The first 3 projects to be completed in 5 years could be a twin engined medium combat aircraft(derivative of the Tejas),catapult systems for INS Vishal(even steam catapults would be quantum leap over the STOBAR system of the INS Vikramaditya) & a stealth fighter with assorted 5th gen systems.

    One knows, all this sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, but other than this,we would incessantly keep arguing, wether India should side with X,Y or Z in order to get next generation military technology.

    • Consider the assistance India received from USSR/Russia in the most sensitive strategic projects to-date — something not available for any consideration from any other country. That to me says more than whether it reluctantly parted with tank gun barrel metallurgy, etc.

      • MS says:

        This agreement thing is possibly not about corruption but probably about not being able to see how to make progress in technology without conceding some ground.
        As I have commented before, India has to build a solid partnership with US and Russia.

        We should embrace America and Americans but is a dignified manner and with self respect. Then America will see more value in India than making this just a transactional relationship..They use the facility, and our people get busy preparing accounts files for reimbursement. :-))

        It is there for all to see what Mr Karnad is saying about Russia. No other country has given us a leg up in sensitive technology except Russia and we have to honour that.

      • andy says:


        You missed my point,my post is about self reliance in military tech not Russia bashing.If India is to become a military great power it needs to show the door to both the USA & Russia at least as far as arms tech is concerned., If we won’t start the process even now then, I’m sorry to say, that India will never be a military great power,which you recommend as the first requisite for a great power.

      • If that’s what you meant then I concur. The point I have been making for some 20 years now is how come we can, with some Russian assistance, make the most advanced missile systems and weapons platforms (SSBN) but cannot make a carbine, a tank, or a gun? My argument is announce technology missions for all conventional armaments where none of the usual structures (L1, etc) apply, close off the import option in toto to the military, and you’ll get results in double quick time (which is what we did with the Agni’s, SSBN with imports being denied us).

      • andy says:

        Well said,exactly the point I was driving at ,but with equal participation of private sector firms.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      @andy, what do you define by engine technology? I know for a fact that as far as single crystal blade technology is concerned, it was there for the asking in the Su 30 MKI deal. It’s the Indians that messed up, or just didn’t care, or were paid not to care. Bharat’s response to your comment concerning Russian assistance to India is an understatement if one knows the facts.

  4. amit says:

    No one in MEA. Really cares about national interest. They will go out of their way to placate rich countries, cause that way they secure visas for there families and friends. The country is going to the dogs. And what ever good intentions the PM might have, are for naught.

  5. &^%$#@! says:

    Superb analysis! But what can one expect from Modi who does his gimmicks at the steps of the Indian Parliament before he pollutes it as PM, and then seeks to neuter/circumvent an Act of Parliament on the nuclear liability issue through an executive action of very dubious and tenuous legality? Based on Modi’s repeated and deliberate actions, one cannot be faulted if one wondered as to whether Modi is a US planted Manchurian Candidate of sorts! BTW, has anyone noticed that the US flag between 1775-1777 and the East India Co. flag between 1707-1801 are virtually identical?

  6. Raahul says:

    Bharat should be a balancing power. Our declared foreign policy is multi polar, and not unipolar. It makes no sense to prop up a tired Uncle Sam, when we need to grab the spoils for ourselves at the best terms possible.

    BK has it right that a realist perspective that extracts the maximum for the minimum we give to other nations is the best way forward. This agreement is the exactly wrong thing to sign up to. We get nothing, and in exchange we sell everything of value we own for a mirage.


    I hope the Communist Party and Congress can block this in the Rajya Sabha, for once let their incessant blocking pay off. That is the only hope left.

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