[Biden’s NSA, Jake Sullivan, & Ajit Doval in Washington, DC]
The US government and the Washington policy establishment has been aware for some time now of the brewing Indian dissatisfaction with America promising but not delivering advanced military and other technology. The Biden Administration has been wondering how best to try and mitigate the situation without altogether dismantling the present South Asia policy structure. It is an issue, many in Washington believe, was beginning to colour Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s evolving attitude to strategic cooperation with the United States in the Indo-Pacific.
This American take on the state of bilateral relations became clear in a seminar arranged not too long ago by a former senior Trump regime official at a Washington thinktank to facilitate my interaction with policy experts and the like. The topic was the state of Indo-US strategic linkages. Discussing the reasons for the halting progress in Indo-US strategic cooperation between the two countries, which has puzzled and dismayed many Americans, I elaborated why, in my view, this was so — essential lack of trust. Well into the discussion, my host asked me, point-blank to name the technologies the Indian military would like to get its hands on. I responded with indirection.
I mentioned assistance in developing a jet turbine engine for combat aircraft because it was an underderway collaborative venture that was abruptly terminated by President Donald Trump. Next I suggested silencing technology for diesel submarines that the US Navy has completely discarded in favour of an all nuclear fleet. And, in the context, moreover, of the Indian government’s unwillingness remotely to risk doing anything, take any action, however much it might be in the national interest, for fear of triggering an adverse US reaction, the need for Washington to signal New Delhi that sanctions won’t happen should India resume thermonuclear testing — something that is necessary for the country to obtain, for the first time, credible strategic forces featuring high-yield staged hydrogen weapons and, more importantly, deterrence-wise, psychological, parity with China.
These were deliberately hard asks and elicited mostly knowing smiles, because I had stepped into ‘no go’ territory and picked to see if there was any change or movement in the generally punitive-minded US’ India policy. For the most part, the US in the past 60 years obsessed about preventing India from securing an N-Bomb, failing which, sought to curtail, to the extent possible, its credibility. This America has succeeded in doing, thanks to the so-called “civilian nuclear cooperation deal” of 2008 negotiated by the present external affairs minister in his then avatar as Joint Secretary (Americas) in the Foreign Office. It has left this country with only the pretence of being a thermonuclear weapons state and the slimmest of chances of ever realizing Bhabha’s 3-stage plan to exploit the country’s vast thorium reserves for energy self-sufficiency. Among the many conditions accepted by Jaishankar were (1) nonresumption of underground nuclear tests that has left the thermonuclear weapons programme half-baked with a basic design that went phut in Pokhran in 1998, (2) a severe reduction in the number of the indigenous CANDU power reactors whose spent fuel was reprocessable into weapons grade plutonium, meaning both the sources and the quantity of weapons usable fissile material available to the weapons unit atTrombay were reduced, and (3) purchase by India of exorbitantly-priced light water power reactors from the US, France [and Russia] run on imported low-enriched uranium fuel which made India an energy dependency (like the arms dependency India already is), provided outside powers a stranglehold on power generation, putting Indian industry running on this electricity at their mercy, and starved the follow-on 2nd stage fast breeder reactor- and 3rd-stage thorium reactor-programmes of funds now diverted to buying imported reactors and fuel.
Moreover, even as the US policy of punishing India for not joining the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty was on over-drive, successive Administrations after Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger’s breakthrough with Beijing, helped China modernize its economy and its military and satellite sensor and launch capabilities with dollops of techological aid starting with the ‘Orient Pearl’ programme during the Reagan era to upgrade the avionics suite on the Chinese MiG — F-7 and, in order to counterbalance India in South Asia and as inducement for Pakistan to participate in defeating the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan approved in 1979-1980 — and this was President Jimmy Carter’s NSA Zbigniew Brzezinski’s most damaging diplomatic move, Dengxiaoping’s transferring nuclear weapons and missile technologies to Pakistan. So much for the US as the foundational pillar of the global nonproliferation order.
As regards, the conventional submarine technology I brought up: Nobody expects the US to part with submarine tech of any kind for any reason — it hasn’t done so to its closest ally, Britain. The idea was simply to guage the reaction of Americans who have served in the US government and been longtime part of the policy circles.
In this context, the new Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET), enunciated in Modi’s meeting with Biden last year, and fleshed out by the two National Security Advisers, Jake Sullivan and Ajit Doval, on Feb 1, like the 2012 DTTI (Defence Trade and Technology Initiative) may end up being more a bandied about acronym than a policy vehicle actually delivering anything of note.
Parallel to the Doval-Sullivan meeting, the visiting US Under-Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, and Indian external affairs minister Jaishankar engaged in the usual persiflage that high officials of the two countries indulge in, occasion permitting. There was talk of, what else?, “policy convergences” presumably in dealing with China — the common threat, and of Washington’s supposed desire to help India become less dependent on Russian armaments — she called it “60 years of entanglement”, by doing what exactly? Why, relying on American arms instead, of course. This, incidentally, has been the strategic aim of US policy mid-1980s onwards when Reagan’s Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger visited Delhi with “an open order book” for India to access any piece of US military hardware and technology, or so I was told then by Weinberger’s adviser in the Pentagon at the time, Michael Pillsbury.
India’s relations with Russia and meeting its military (and energy) requirements are two separate and distinct policy streams, as Jaishankar no doubt made clear to Nuland. But the US apparently wants to see them merged. Whence, ICET, notwithstanding the DTTI already on the anvil producing nothing. While it it is all very well to dangle a carrot before a mule with blinkers, it is necesary now and then to replace the old carrot with a shinier, plumper, carrot for which the animal can keep lunging, and in the process pull a heavier load. Thus, going beyond DTTI , ICET promises cooperation in semi-conductor chip design and fabrication, artificial intelligence, and cyber warfare which, Washington hopes, will increase the motivation for the Narendra Modi regime to become more overtly active in militarily hemming China, especially in the maritime sphere and, on the side, help out the US economy by finalising a Free Trade Agreement (which negotiations are stuck on disagreements in numerous product/industry areas) and the US defence industry by making the by now customary deals worth billions of dollars for transport and maritime surveillance planes (C-17s, C-130s, P-8Is).
While collaborating on Fabs, AI and cyber is for the future, the immediate lure is the proposed production in India of General Electric’s 414 jet turbine engine for fighter aircraft. Like the nuclear deal that drove a stake through the heart of the Indian nuclear energy programme, accepting licensed manufaacture of this jet power plant that Jaishankar, Doval and the air force are pushing to meet immediate needs violate Modi’s ‘atm nirbharta‘ policy and principle. The need was for Doval and Jaishankar to stand firm on technical assistance on a timebound contract to get the indigenous Kaveri jet engine developed at the DRDO-GTRE (Gas Turbine Research Establishment) flying. Absent such a programmatic thrust, the nascent aviation industry in the country will have a hollow core. No aviation industry anywhere without a servicable homegrown and designed combat jet aircraft engine to work with, has amounted to much.
Worse, there is no guarantee that proposals for collaborative ventures in the Fab, AI and cyber fields, or even for the GE 414 engine, will sail through at the Washington end, considering the US government’s approval process will require them to run the gauntlet of export controls and other procedural restrictions in the Pentagon and, even more onerously, in the US Department of Commerce — the final clearing agency. Indeed, it is such bureacratic hurdles that were, incidentally, hinted at by a senior US official who is reported as saying: “I think on both sides we were quite candid about the challenges that we pose to each other from a regulatory standpoint. In many cases that gets in the way of the vision of deeper and broader technology cooperation.” [The Hindu, Feb 2, 2023] The “regulatory” muddle will always provide the US with an out, an excuse to not deliver on high-tech on time, or even at all. But it will also enable Washington to string the Indian government along for as long as it serves the US purposes by promising just the regulatory reform needed as being round the corner to keep Delhi hooked.
It is a warning to the Modi government to heed the past and the record, and to consume all US promises of advanced technology with tons of salt. The trouble is the Indian government and the Indian military find it hard to resist the easy option — buy the proven GE 414 jet engine, than commit to, and invest in, and otherwise forcefully drive the Kaveri engine project to completion with or without external help, and whatever it takes, including involving private sector talents and capabilities in a project accorded national priority and realised in “technology mission” mode (that got us the Agni series of ballistic missiles).
Or, the country and government should prepare to see the Tejas 1A, the navalised Tejas, and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, and the future of the aviation industry, in fact, held hostage by the GE 414 engine and, by extension, the US government. It will write finis to the nascent Indian aviation industry central to which is a homegrown design and development of a jet powerplant for combat aircraft — something to build around.
It is passing strange that, despite their questionable understanding of the national interest and, based on it, their negotiating records, Jaishankar and Company are allowed by ideologically differing governments repeatedly to cut crucial deals with the US that have amounted to putting a noose around the Indian strategic deterrent, and now will do the same with the defence, specifically aviation, industry and handing the rope to Washington with a hope and prayer that the Americans will desist from pulling it at a time of their choosing, for policy reasons of their own. .