The United States has finally decided to treat India, the world’s largest democracy, as an equal when it comes to defense trade. In a continuation of its efforts to forge closer ties with the subcontinent, the Obama Administration has ended the misguided efforts of both Democratic and Republican administrations to punish India for its decision to acquire a nuclear weapon. This decision recognizes the reality that such weapons in the hands of democratic states poses no threat to the United States. It also is an acknowledgement of India’s growing importance to a stable international system.
India will now be invited to participate in all the major international arms and technology control groups. The administration’s decision also will end sanctions against prominent Indian science and technology entities such as the Indian Space Research Organization, and the Defense Research and Development Organization will now allow U.S. corporations and laboratories to collaborate with them. It is a fact little known in this country that Indian universities conduct world-class collaborative efforts with U.S. defense research organizations such as the Naval Research Laboratory.
This step took place against a background of increasing U.S. competition for arms sales to India. Once exclusively an acquirer of European and Russian military technology, India is now a potential major market for U.S. defense goods. Recently, India agreed to purchase 10 C-17 jet transports for more than $4 billion and eight P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft for $2.1 billion. Currently, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are both entrants in the $10 billion competition to provide India with 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. The U.S. competitors against aircraft from Europe and Russia are the F-16IN Super Viper and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
In a potentially significant move, Under Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declared this week that the United States would be open to India participating in the F-35 program. Which would be better for New Delhi: taking the chance that Russia’s decrepit aerospace industry will be able to design and build a passable fifth-generation fighter or acquiring the second fifth-generation fighter from a country that has nearly twenty years experience building stealth aircraft?
There are a number of other areas where U.S. defense systems could make inroads into the Indian market. As a rising naval power, India may be interested in acquiring a variant of the Littoral Combat Ship. Facing serious terrorist and insurgent threats in various parts of the country, the Indian Army could benefit from acquiring U.S. systems such as the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle or the M-ATV.
The above mentioned actions do not yet presage a U.S.-India security alliance. India must determine how it will navigate the evolving international security environment, including how close it will get to the United States. Nevertheless, India is clearly a force for stability in the world and it is good that Washington finally recognized this fact.
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