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Mumbai – The US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, recently concluded an important visit to India – his second in less than a year – reflecting the momentum that the bilateral defense relationship has acquired during his tenure.

There were three significant outcomes of Secretary Carter’s visit. One, the in-principle understanding between both sides to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMA); two, the establishment of the maritime security dialogue and three, the initiation of new pathfinder projects as part of defense technology cooperation.

The LEMA is an enabling arrangement between India and the United States to provide their bases, fuel and other kinds of logistics support to each others’ fighter jets and naval warships. The text of the agreement is not yet finalised but it is a variation of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which the US has with its many of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.

The agreement is part of the trinity of the so-called ‘foundational’ defense agreements along with the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA, for interoperability between the Indian and the US military equipment) and the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (for exchanging geo-spatial information) which the US had been urging India to sign since 2005. For a decade, India prevaricated. Its main concern was two-fold: it didn’t want to lose autonomy in its foreign policy dealings, nor get embroiled in conflicts which it had no stake in.

Now that both countries have agreed to sign the LEMA, the US has sought to dispel India’s concerns by clarifying that the agreement is not binding on either nation and that the US armed forces personnel can be in India only at the invitation of the Indian government. The successful conclusion of this agreement will enable the signing of the other agreements. Signing CISOMA is significant since it allows the US to provide some of the sensitive communication equipment from the hardware sold earlier to India, like P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.

The second important outcome of the visit was the decision to establish the bilateral maritime security dialogue. This follows the January 2015 India-US joint statement, which stressed freedom of navigation, particularly in the South China Sea – a proposition reiterated in the joint statement issued after the meeting of Secretary Carter and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar on April 12 in New Delhi.

While India is reluctant to actualise that commitment through joint patrols in the South China Sea region – as suggested by Admiral Harry Harris of the US Pacific Command – it is taking other steps with the US to address that commitment. These include an agreement for information-sharing on commercial shipping traffic and, more importantly, navy-to-navy discussions on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare. This will surely raise hackles in Beijing.

Last year, India and the US had signed the new framework for defense relationship, under which special emphasis was given to defence technology co-development and co-production. Four ‘pathfinder’ projects- experiments in making simpler technologies and easy-to-produce equipment- had been identified as part of this. These projects are particularly important given India’s own slow and difficult experience in indigenously developing and producing some of these basic technologies. The MEHPS system, for instance, will be useful for the army units deployed in the remote and high-altitude locations of Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast.

During Secretary Carter’s visit, two new pathfinder projects- DHMD and JBTDS – were identified. Again, both systems are critical technologies, particularly the DHMD, which may become an important component of India’s own efforts to put in place ‘Soldier as a System’ project and the Indian Army’s efforts towards acquiring ‘network-centric warfare’ capability. Cooperation has also been announced on four advanced science projects (see picture).

This progress is impressive. But the deepening bilateral technology collaboration doesn’t yet benefit Indian private defense companies as all the above-mentioned projects are government-to-government. Discussions on the modalities of the implementation of the two pathfinder projects which do involve the private sector – Raven UAV drone and surveillance kits for the C130 transport aircraft- are still on-going. Involving the private sector in these arrangements is critical for creating a robust defense industrial base in India.

Secretary Carter’s visit has given a critical impetus to the India-US bilateral defence relationship, especially as it runs parallel with the continued US military assistance to the Pakistan Army – first selling F-16 fighter jets and recently AH-1Z attack helicopters – which has generated much animosity against the Obama administration in the Indian policy establishment.

As India bandwagons with the US, it is necessary for New Delhi to have a clear understanding of the ends for which the engagement with Washington is pursued. Then only can India also play the sophisticated game of ‘strategic autonomy’ that this engagement is.

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