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Monday , November 30 , 2009
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Veil off Indo-UK defence courtship

New Delhi, Nov. 29: India is considering a pact assuring the UK that bases of the Indian air force, army and navy will refuel British military aircraft and warships and facilitate the changeover of its troops and war material.

Minister of state for defence M.M. Pallam Raju told a visiting UK delegation last week that “an MoU on Host Nation Support (HNS) was under examination of an inter-ministerial committee”.

This is the first time such a committee or proposal has been disclosed. India does not have such a pact with any country. Its agreement with Russia is the strongest military relationship that is officially endorsed.

But India assists friendly foreign countries in refuelling aircraft and ships on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed agreement with the UK that the government is now studying is broadly in consonance with the “Host Nation Support” schemes that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) enters into with partner countries.

The US, for example, has an HNS agreement with Pakistan for aiding its war in Afghanistan. In 2004, President George W. Bush described Pakistan as a “major non-Nato ally”, adding it to a list that included countries such as Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Nato defines HNS as civil and military assistance from a nation to foreign forces in its territory in peacetime, crises, emergencies or war.

Delhi is considering the HNS pact with the UK even as the cabinet committee on security is wary of signing a comparable logistics support agreement with the US though it has been vetted by the three armed forces headquarters.

The logistics pact with the US was opposed by the Left but even after the second UPA government of Manmohan Singh took over, there has scarcely been any forward movement on it. Defence sources say the pact will allow the Indian and US militaries to settle the costs of military exercises on a barter basis.

Despite the Left being vastly reduced in numbers now, the defence establishment under A.K. Antony is wary of pushing the pact through because it will prompt allegations of a pro-US tilt.

While the UK does not match up to the US as the only superpower in a unipolar world, an HNS agreement between London and New Delhi is bound to invite comparisons and the insinuation that India is at “Her Majesty’s Service”.

“HNS does not mean that the troops-sending nation (in this case the UK) will have access to all our facilities. It means that they will request as and when the situation arises and we will grant help as and when and where we can. Besides, it has to be mutual,” a defence ministry official said.

The definition of “mutual” will necessarily be about agreed airports and ports and the timing for the support in India. Developed countries — most primary Nato members or Nato itself — enter into HNS agreements to cut down the costs of out-of-area military operations.

It is as yet difficult to conceive (since the end of World War II) of India engaged in military operations near the UK for which an HNS agreement can be used by New Delhi to its advantage. But the British have forces near the Indian subcontinent — in Afghanistan — and are keen to cut costs.

The defence delegation from the UK that met Pallam Raju on Friday and was told that the inter-ministerial committee was considering a memorandum of understanding on HNS was led by the minister for defence equipment and support, Quentin Davies.

Pallam Raju also told the delegation that India was ready to sign a “general security arrangement” with the UK.

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