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Left shadow on IAF doctorate dream

New Delhi, Nov. 11: An Indian Air Force bid to participate in one of the largest war games hosted in the US has run into a hurdle with the Centre worrying over the price tag attached to such a drill.

The air force may now have to reconsider going to the “Red Flag Nellis” — also known among air forces the world over as the “doctorate of fighter aircraft drills” — because the Pentagon wants India to sign a logistics support agreement that New Delhi is fighting shy of.

The US military has actually been keen to get the air force to participate in Red Flag after first inviting it in mid-2004. The US wants the IAF to deploy its most modern Sukhoi 30 Mki fighter aircraft.

The drive gained momentum after a series of exercises between the Indian and US air forces, including one for which the IAF deployed fighter aircraft and refuellers as far as Alaska.

But the deployment of a Sukhoi-led contingent, along with refuellers and supporting aircraft and air crew, could cost the Indian defence ministry as much as Rs 90 crore, a senior ministry source told The Telegraph.

The head of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, said on October 4 that he had sought the Centre’s permission to participate in the Red Flag drill at Nellis Air Force Base in 2008. The US usually invites Nato members and close military allies to the Red Flag war games.

The price tag attached to the IAF’s participation, the US is telling India, would not have been so high if the Military Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) was signed. The agreement is pending with the cabinet committee on security for more than a year.

The Pentagon has also made the point, to assuage Indian fears, that the MLSA with India was different from the Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement between the US and Japan. In Japan, the US has military bases in an understanding with Tokyo.

The MLSA with India, US Defence Security Co-operation Agency officials have told Indian counterparts, does not require India to grant basing rights. It would allow for refuelling and replenishment of military hardware on a barter, or exchange, basis.

This means that US aircraft and warships may be replenished in India and the US will reciprocate in kind to visits by Indian military contingents to the US.

However, the cabinet committee on security has been loath to approve the MLSA because of the immediate connection the Left would make between such an agreement and its allegation that India was getting into a security pact with the US.

This is not the first time that the non-approval of the MLSA has come up in Indo-US military relations. Earlier this year, it figured in discussions after the US asked India to pay the fuel costs for the USS Trenton — re-christened the INS Jalashva — the largest single acquisition from the US so far.

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