Hard bargain on US pacts

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  • Published 21.10.10

New Delhi, Oct. 20: New Delhi has decided to play hardball on military pacts with the Pentagon after expectations were raised that the pending agreements may be signed during the visit of Barack Obama in about two weeks from now.

“We are in consultation with the armed forces about the benefits and utility of these (agreements),” defence secretary Pradip Kumar said here, in a rare public admission of the military’s discomfort over US proposals to sign a Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) and a Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA).

The discordant note was struck after reports that the US was lining up a $2-billion security aid package for Pakistan. Last month, during his visit to Washington, the defence minister had raised the issue with US secretary of defence Robert Gates. A.K. Antony also emphasised that India suspected Pakistan was using US military aid to reinforce its conventional war-fighting capabilities against India.

The LSA will allow US warships, military aircraft and personnel to access Indian military bases for refuelling, rest and recuperation, and turnover on a reciprocal basis. It would allow the US to replenish its military platforms on a barter basis, meaning that the US would allow similar access and facilities to the Indian armed forces.

The CISMOA is designed to ensure that equipment transferred to the Indian armed forces are encrypted, secure and compatible with US military systems.

A highly placed defence source said a view that had emerged from the armed forces during consultations was that signing such agreements would “bind” India to US military equipment. The Pentagon argues that the signing of the agreements would facilitate the transfer of high-tech platforms and keep India-US military relations robust.

The statement today — that the armed forces were being consulted to verify if the pacts would be beneficial — is a step back from the position that India was studying the agreements. Draft agreements have been pending with the cabinet committee on security (CCS) for three years now after they were vetted by the armed forces headquarters.

Negotiations over such agreements can be protracted. It took three years for Washington and New Delhi to agree to a standard text on the End User Verification Agreement (EUVA) — through which the Pentagon judges if a military system is being used by a buyer for the purpose for which it was meant — that was signed last year.

The expectations on clinching the agreements rose because of the high-profile visit by Obama. It is exceptional for a US President to visit India within the first two years of his first term in office — that demonstrates the priority the White House gives to India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also the first state guest of the Obama administration last year.

The US was also expecting the agreements to be signed along with announcements of two major arms deals. The Indian Air Force has decided to buy 10 C-17 Globemaster-III heavy airlifters in a deal that could be worth $4.4 billion.

A second deal — for up to 300 M-777 ultra light howitzers – under the Pentagon’s direct Foreign Military Sales programme is in the works but an announcement is unlikely because the Indian army has not yet finished evaluating the guns. The guns are for deployment in high-altitude border positions on the Chinese frontier.

The Indian Air Force that had earlier contracted the C-130J Hercules from the US is getting the medium-lift aircraft minus some of the equipment that the Pentagon says could have been made available if the agreements were signed.

But topping the US’ priority in all these deals is the mega-competition to sell 126 (possibly 200) medium, multi-role combat aircraft that could cost as much as $12 billion. Two US-origin aircraft, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Super Viper (Fighting Falcon) are in the running. The US has got a boost after a technical committee determined the GE-414 engine as the best option for India’s indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft programme. The GE-414 also powers the Super Hornet, as it does the Swedish-origin Gripen NG. (The other aircraft in the competition are the MiG 35 of Russia, Dassault’s Rafale of France and a European consortium’s Eurofighter Typhoon).

Each of the countries is leveraging their diplomatic muscle to win the contract. Since the civilian nuclear agreement, Washington believes its claim is the strongest.

Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik had said the air force had submitted its technical evaluation report and a selection was likely by 2010. The report is now with the government that will make a choice not only on financial but also on diplomatic and political considerations.