India and the United States have signed a slew of deals this week — spanning cooperation in chip technology to space exploration — as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US.
One key agreement between the two involves US selling weapons to India and sharing with it sensitive military technology, in a clear sign of the Biden administration’s desire to deepen ties with New Delhi to counter China’s ambitions in Asia.
But experts say any defence cooperation between the two countries — now, or in future — faces significant challenges from the US government’s own weapons export rules.
Strict US laws governing export of defence technology, including International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), have made defence cooperation hard for the US even with long-time US allies like Britain and Australia, as seen with the AUKUS deal signed earlier this year to supply the latter with nuclear-powered submarines.
One congressional aide said efforts to speed technology sharing with India would face “an uphill battle” both in the US Congress and at the US State Department, where officials have a specific obligation to protect US technology.
“There are concerns about (technology sharing) in the Australia context and there would be more concerns in the India context,” he said. “Australia is an ally. India wants the same privileges that allies get without having any of the same obligations or responsibilities.”
The source noted that India wanted access to sensitive technologies that many of the closest US allies do not have, even while sticking to its stance of maintaining close relations with Russia and refusing to condemn Moscow’s Ukraine invasion.
Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific affairs, has stressed the need to break down barriers to technology sharing with allies and partners, including India.
“Frankly, for the United States and regional security as well … it can’t be business as usual anymore,” he told a June 8 event at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
On Thursday, the co-chairs of the US Senate India Caucus, Democrat Mark Warner and Republican John Cornyn, introduced legislation that would streamline defence sales to India, including by halving the time that Congress has to block any arms sale to the country to 15 days.
Agreement between India and the US includes what one official called a “trailblazing” deal to allow General Electric to produce jet engines in India to power Indian military aircraft and a plan for India to procure US-made General Atomics armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones.
Bill Greenwalt, a former senior Pentagon official for industrial policy, said approvals for the jet engine deal and for the military drones should be relatively straightforward, although it appeared GE was still in the process of getting export authorisation, which would come with State Department-mandated restrictions.
“Complicating factors include to what degree congressional review and approval thresholds kick in. I expect that likely will happen for the SeaGuardians,” said Greenwalt, adding that the US Missile Technology Control Regime was an added likely complication.
Will India abide?
Another factor influencing the deals would be India’s willingness to accept the restrictions that may come along with any technology it receives from the US.
Greenwalt said the conditions ITAR attaches to use of technology and the limits it imposes on India’s ability to add its own intellectual property to what it learns from that could mean New Delhi “quickly grows tired of being dictated to by the US State Department.”
He added that given India’s growing IT expertise, it had the potential to leapfrog the United States in areas such as integrated command and control, sensor fusion, autonomy, and data analytics.
“Together we could likely make a lot more progress than if we pursue separate paths, but ITAR disincentives will keep them from cooperating with us on things that matter while our over-confidence will keep us from seeing their potential,” Greenwalt said.
Rick Rossow, an India expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said approval processes for advanced defence technology transfer were “onerous but not impossible.”
“The US — with great effort — can move faster for India,” he said. “But we need India’s deal-making process to move fast, too. Otherwise, potential deals will not be accelerated on our side.”
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena