US eyes plum arms deals with India during Modi’s first state visit

By Pratap Chakravarty - RFI
United States  SAUL LOEB  AFP
JUN 18, 2023 LISTEN

The US is hoping the first state visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week will mark the beginning of a lucrative military partnership between the two countries.

On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan flew to Delhi in the latest in a flurry of top-level visits by US officials to tie up loose ends in potential military projects ahead of Modi's 22 June trip to the White House to meet President Joe Biden.

During Modi's state visit, the two sides are expected to sign a contract to co-manufacture fighter jet engines at India's state-run Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd (HAL) in the city of Bangalore.

The decision has not been officially announced by either the United States or India, the world's largest weapons importer.

Earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Delhi to discuss the landmark deal, which will need the approval of the US Congress.

The project, which will include technology transfer, will grant HAL access to General Electric's signature F-414 engines for India's planned 350 indigenous light combat aircraft, designed to replace the country's Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets.

Retired Indian Air Force group captain MJA Vinod said India can build military aircraft but it has struggled to perfect engines, hence the need for collaboration with the US – its third-largest arms supplier after Russia and France.

“If now we are really looking at GE producing F414 engines in India then it will mark a significant upgrade of the strategic partnership,” Meera Shankar, a former Indian ambassador to the US, told local TV.

Armed drones

Officials said negotiators were also hoping Modi's talks with Biden will help demolish hurdles that for years have delayed the sale to India of dozens of armed drones worth up to 2.7 billion euros. 

India leased two SeaGuardian drones from General Atomics for intelligence gathering and maritime reconnaissance after hostilities with China flared along their disputed borders in 2020.

Australia and Japan have either operated or operate the SeaGuardians.

Breaking India's drone logjam depends on drafting an "Acceptance of Necessity" document, which states that the government accepts the need for the equipment and is required for any military imports, military experts said. 

It was not immediately known if Delhi had agreed on the vital document, which will open the gates to the procurement process.

US security advisor Sullivan said Modi's trip could help set up mechanisms to smoothe trade between India and the US, which is hoping the visit will also pave the way for the co-production of munitions, spares and military vehicles.

“They are fundamentally designed to remove obstacles in defence trade, hi-tech trade, in investment in each of our countries and taking away obstacles standing in the way of better collaboration,” Sullivan told the Confederation of Indian Industries in Delhi.

US-based Boeing was also pitching 26 of its F-18 fighter aircraft for the Indian Navy.

State honours

The travelling Hindu nationalist leader will be hosted at the White House a day after Modi lands in the United States on 21 June. 

Some 7,000 Indian-Americans are invited to the South Lawns of the White House where the American president and First Lady Jill Biden will welcome Modi, who will also address the US Congress as part of the high-profile programme.

Although Modi has travelled multiple times to the US, this will be his first state visit since he came to power in 2014. Such a welcome was last accorded to the then Indian premier Manmohan Singh in 2009.

In 2005, Modi was denied a US visa for not doing enough to stem anti-Muslim riots three years earlier in Gujarat when he was chief minister of the Indian state.

Modi has made 68 overseas trips to 64 countries, including seven trips to the US. He has made six each to France and Germany.