India and the US may be bickering on issues of trade but one area that neither side seems to be complaining about is military hardware purchases and defence cooperation that has seen a phenomenal jump in the past two decades.
Indeed defence and security ties have been highlighted as a “significant pillar" of India-US ties with analysts and officials like Ellen M Lord, undersecretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, noting that defence hardware purchases from the US that stood at zero in 2008 have crossed an estimated $18 billion in 2019.
“The growing US-Indian defence trade has also strengthened the relationship between the two countries. India was once overly dependent on Russia for defence procurement, but in recent years, it has begun to purchase more high-tech defence goods from US suppliers," said Ashley J. Tellis, who holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In an article in the Foreign Affairs magazine last week, Tellis noted that although India cannot accede to Trump’s demand that it sever defence ties with Russia entirely, it has managed to become an important market for advanced American arms.
“Currently, India hopes to purchase US anti-submarine and anti-tank warfare helicopters, advanced surface-to-air missiles, naval guns, unmanned aerial vehicles, and long-range maritime patrol aircraft. Deals for some of these may be announced during Trump’s visit next week," Tellis said in his piece.
Indeed, one of the highlights of President Donald Trump’s visit is expected to be the signing of a deal for the purchase of 24 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters. The $2.6 billion contract is to be awarded to Lockheed Martin. Also, possible on the sidelines of the visit is a second contract worth $800 million for a follow-on order of six Apache anti-tank helicopters from US aerospace giant Boeing. India has already purchased 22 Apaches with some of them already inducted. The two sides may also discuss a $1.9 billion deal for a missile defence system that would protect New Delhi. This is part of several more deals worth over $7 billion that are in the pipeline.
According to Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at London-based King’s College, “defence has been a driver of ties in the past few years."
This is a far cry from the days of the Cold War when India was seen close to the former Soviet Union thanks to the US leaning towards Pakistan and making overtures to China.
Now, things are radically different. According to officials, the reasons for this are many – one of course that New Delhi now has the funds to buy defence hardware from the open market. A second factor is the strategic convergence between India and the US on the rise of an aggressive and expansionist China in the Indo-Pacific.
In New Delhi, besides the Chinese flagship Belt and Road Initiative, “President Trump and his team are also expected to raise the issue of 5G technology with India and air their concerns about the risks posed by “untrusted vendors" like Chinese telecom firm Huawei in 5G networks," wrote Jeff Smith, Research Fellow at Washington-based South Asia-Heritage Foundation in an article ahead of Trump’s visit.