Fighter jets deal raises US stakes in India

Fighter jets deal raises US stakes in India
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 01 26 AM IST

Coming together: An F-16 fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp. The two countries have held or scheduled several joint military exercises, and US arms sales to India are on the increase
Coming together: An F-16 fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp. The two countries have held or scheduled several joint military exercises, and US arms sales to India are on the increase
Updated: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 01 26 AM IST
Washington, DC: When India went shopping for military transport planes and helicopters last month, the South Asian nation, which once bought most of its arms from Russia, placed the order with Lockheed Martin Corp. instead.
Coming together: An F-16 fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp. The two countries have held or scheduled several joint military exercises, and US arms sales to India are on the increase
The $2 billion (Rs7,940 crore) deal with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed is the latest product of an Indian-US relationship that moved from chilly coexistence to the closest rapport since India achieved independence in 1947.
Annual trade has tripled since 2000 to more than $41 billion last year. As defence secretary Robert Gates plans to visit New Delhi next week, Lockheed or Boeing Co. may add to that trade as they compete for a $10 billion contract to sell 126 fighter jets. The two nations are working to counter terrorism and limit nuclear proliferation, and the US has become the destination of choice for Indians studying abroad. “This is an across-the-board improvement in relations that began under president Bill Clinton and has been continued by President George W. Bush,” says Karl Inderfurth, former US assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.
The US is deepening its involvement with the world’s fastest growing economy after China as its relations with its traditional partner in the region, Pakistan, have become unsettled. The US is pressing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to strike harder at Islamic radicals and restore democratic rule.
India’s purchase of warplanes and the unfinished US-India nuclear power agreement are likely to be prominent on Gates’s agenda during a visit that will “reinforce the growing strength of our relationship, especially on the defense side,” Inderfurth says.
The momentum for broader strategic ties is likely to extend into the next US presidency. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, senator John McCain of Arizona, and both Democratic contenders, senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, are all on record favouring close US-India relations. The connections are sufficiently strong that they would survive even the possible unravelling of the nuclear accord, says former Indian diplomat Kanwal Sibal.
“The message is clear, not only to India but the rest of the international community, that the US is not looking at India with the same eye,” Sibal says.
The nuclear deal, signed by Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006, is stalled because of domestic Indian politics. The deal would open the way for American companies to sell India nuclear fuel and technology for electricity-generating reactors, and allow India to maintain a nuclear weapons arsenal and still remain outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While there will be disappointment if the accord remains in limbo, the relationship will prosper because “already the message has gotten through that the US does not see India’s nuclear capability as a problem,” Sibal says.
Indian parties that oppose closer US ties are resisting the accord. They also are fighting approval of a logistical support agreement that would allow the two nations’ militaries to use each other’s refuelling and basing facilities for naval vessels and aircraft.
The US and India have held or scheduled several joint military exercises, and arms sales are rising. In addition to the deal for transport planes and helicopters, which was announced 29 January, India last year bought the transport vessel USS Trenton for $48.4 million and renamed it INS Jalashva.
This cooperation would jump substantially if Lockheed and its F-16 or Chicago-based Boeing and its F-18 beat out four non-US bidders in the competition to supply fighter jets. It would also put the US in the position of providing sophisticated arms to both sides of a bitter divide in South Asia. Lockheed has won a $498 million order to supply F-16 fighters to Pakistan.
While Gates, 64, is likely to discuss the potential fighter sale, he won’t be “heavy-handed” in doing so, says former defence secretary William Cohen, whose Washington, DC-based consulting firm, the Cohen Group, does work for Lockheed. “Any time a secretary goes, all you do is say, ‘We understand you’ve got a major purchase coming up here, we think we’re quite competitive’,” Cohen said in an interview. “What you do is put the imprimatur of the United States on it.”
Cherian Thomas in New Delhi contributed to this story.
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 01 26 AM IST