India is developing a military appetite to match its growing economic power.
Over the next five years, military analysts expect the country to spend as much as $40 billion (Rs1.64 trillion) on weapons procurement alone, more than its entire annual armaments budget today—upgrading systems as diverse as jet fighters, artillery, submarines and tanks in its largely Soviet-era arsenal. As a result, the country will become one of the largest military markets in the world.
For American contractors, which had been shut out of India for decades, the surge in demand comes just as relations between Washington and New Delhi reach a new level of warmth.
In terms of “potential for growth, India is our top market”, said Richard Kirkland, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s president for South Asia.
But whether US companies can turn that potential into profits will depend on more than warm relations between officials in their capitals; it will depend on how they finesse the particular challenges of the new market—especially, competition from their Russian counterparts.
The stakes of the contest were underscored this week when the Indian defence ministry called for bids to fill an order for 126 fighter jets, a contract that could be worth $10.2 billion.
Determined to build a domestic arms industry, India is requiring foreign suppliers to make a sizable portion of any military goods in the country. In the case of the jet fighter contract, the successful bidder must produce goods worth half the contract’s value in India. So, the US firms have been busy pairing up with locals.
So far, most partnerships are little more than agreements to collaborate on future projects. In February, Raytheon Co. and the electronics division of Tata Power Ltd signed such an agreement. The same month, Boeing Co. signed an accord with an Indian engineering firm, Larsen & Toubro Ltd, to develop new projects. And Northrop Grumman Corp. has signed on with Bharat Electronics Ltd and Dynamatic Technologies Ltd, both of Bangalore, to investigate joint opportunities.
The Americans’ interest in India goes beyond weapons. The country has booming markets in commercial aviation, shipping and infrastructure projects, which means opportunities for the logistics and security units of the big American contractors.
Walter Doran, the president of Raytheon Asia, and a former commander of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet, predicts that India may be “one of our largest, if not our largest, growth partner over the next decade...”.
The hefty increase in military spending reflects the country’s changing view of itself. India, like “all aspiring nations, is seeking its place on the world’s stage”, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, chief of staff of the Indian Navy, had told thousands of white-suited officers at a naval conference in New Delhi in July.
In particular, the country is positioning itself as a policeman of nearby waterways. A spokesman for the defence ministry, Sitanshu Kar, said: “If you look at the rim from West Asia to Asia-Pacific, that entire area accounts for over 70% of the traffic of the petroleum products for the whole world. We have a role to play to ensure that these sea lanes are secure.” An American carrier, the Trenton, which the Indian Navy bought and renamed the Jalashva, can, for example, carry 450 soldiers and half-a-dozen helicopters, and be used to evacuate Indian nationals, deliver aid or intervene in conflict areas.
Yet, India is virgin territory for American armaments makers. Decades of cold war-era distrust, when the country aligned itself much of the time with the Soviet Union; followed by sanctions that US president Bill Clinton imposed after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, made India a sort of no-go area for American firms.
Under the George W. Bush administration, sanctions have been lifted and military ties have deepened.
In July, the two governments announced a commercial nuclear energy agreement. Under the accord, the US will share nuclear technology with India, including fuel. The deal requires a radical, India-specific exception to American lawand underscores the Bush administration’s commitment, made two years ago, to help India become “a major world power”.
But many arms industry analysts say that winning big orders in India will still be a challenge for Americans. In many cases, companies will be competing directly against India’s traditional supplier, Russia, which has manufacturing agreements in place and is still the largest supplier.
Though relations unravelled after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, they were repaired in the late 1990s and the two countries are negotiating some $10 billion in contracts, including an Indian air defence system.
“The Russians are going to get quite a bit of this business,” Andrew Brookes, an aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, predicted.
The US Congress could present another hurdle for American companies; lawmakers could prohibit sale of the most advanced military equipment, Brookes said, while there is a perception that the Russians will “sell first-rate stuff”.
Nonetheless, Americans are winning some deals. Lockheed Martin is in final talks to sell six C-130J cargo planes for $1 billion. It would be the largest American military sale to India to date.
The defence ministry has asked both Lockheed and Boeing to bid for the $10.2 billion jet order, as well as Saab AB, which makes the Gripen fighter, and the European team building the Eurofighter jet. They will all confront the MiG Russian Aircraft Corp., which owns the developer of the MiG, the jet that the Indian Air Force now flies.
In general, the Russians have been the most discreet of suitors. At the recent naval conference in the Indian Capital, Western companies took out booths, sponsored meals and cocktail hours, and had dozens of their name-tagged employees working the crowd. Several representatives from the US armed services also glad-handed. But a Russian presence was hard to find.
Major General Aleksandr Burov, military attaché at the Russian Embassy here in New Delhi, said in a telephone interview that he could not comment on any commercial deals. He, however, did make a point of noting that the chief of Russian land forces had recently visited India, stopping in Agra and Goa.
Several calls and a faxed message to an embassy number that Burov said would lead to someone who could answer questions went unanswered, as did calls to the New Delhi office of MiG Russian Aircraft.
In some parts of the Indian military, officers are split along generational lines, some American officers who interact regularly with the Indian military said. Older officers are likely to support purchases from Russia; younger ones may prefer buying from the US.
The recent nuclear agreement with the US also complicates the situation for American companies.
The agreement has been strongly criticized in some corners, reflecting an undercurrent of continued distrust in India towards the US—which is still seen by many, mostly because of past relations, as wanting to squelch the country’s rise to global prominence.
Some politicians say that India made too many concessions to Washington to get the deal and that these will restrict its nuclear testing.
To take effect, the agreement will require legislation by the US Congress.
The recent improvement in relations with the Pentagon has generated controversy in other ways. At the beginning of July, when the American aircraft carrier Nimitz made a port call near the southern city of Chennai it was met by fiery protests from port workers and politicians.
The defence ministry insists that economics, not politics, will guide its decisions. Speaking of the jet fighter deal, its spokesman, Kar, said, “We’re strictly going by two considerations—the operations requirements of the air force and the best price we get.”
American manufacturers, not surprisingly, maintain that Western technology would be an improvement over the Russian planes and weapons systems that Indians use now or could buy.
Switching to Western equipment would allow the military to “bring new technology to bear faster, with more precision”, Kirkland of Lockheed said. If the Indian Air Force chose Lockheed’s fighter, he added, it would be able to conduct joint exercises with the US Air Force and the forces of 18 other countries that fly the plane.
Still, US contractors have no illusions about their Russian competitors. “It’s difficult to unseat an incumbent,” said Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman.