Aviation – Key to Indo-US Military Cooperation
Vol 10 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2016
Strategic implications of Indo-US Aviation cooperation on the future geo-politics of the Asian region
Monday, October 3, 2016
At the advent of 21st century, India chose to leverage strategic autonomy to promote national interests. Both US Presidents Bush and Obama consciously backed India’s core concerns and acknowledged outstanding issues on terror and world order. Thus began close relations between the world’s oldest and largest democracy. Cooperation in global security, seat on the global high table (UN Security Council), admission into multilateral export control regimes (NSG, MTCR) and offer of joint-manufacturing through technology sharing were key milestones. The gala reception and positive two-way vibes exchanged during PM Modi’s first visit to USA in September 2014 paved the way for closer understanding and relations. President Barrack Obama became the first US President to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day on 26 January 2015. India and the US also held their first ever bilateral dialogue on the UN and multilateral issues. PM Modi’s visits to USA in 2015 got support for Make in India with focus on defence; and the highlight of the 2016 visit saw bi-partisan support during address to the joint session of Congress. International surveys indicate that today India is perceived by Americans as their 6th favourite nation, and 71% of Americans viewing India favourably in 2015. Among the increasing cooperation in defence, aviation has seen the fastest results.
In spite the 12 July 2106 international court ruling against China in the South China Sea (SCS) case, belligerent China refused to accept the ruling and claimed to usurp nearly 3.5 million square km of mineral rich sea. SCS is the second most used sea-lane in the world with over 30% of world merchant tonnage passing through the Strait of Malacca. SCS has huge oil reserves and is dubbed as the ‘Second Persian Gulf’ and it accounts for nearly 12% of world fishing catch. China has created seven new islets and in turn extended its Economic Exploitation Zone (EEZ) rights over 90% of SCS and enhanced Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), both of which have serious security and economic implications. It has already constructed ports, military installations and airstrips and thus bolstered China’s foothold in the region. For over a decade China has been investing in Indian Ocean region and using geopolitical influence through military supplies, airfield and port construction and economic aid. India saw it as encirclement of India. Investments in Gwadar port on the mouth of Persian Gulf in Pakistan and funding of the investment corridor to connect Western China to the sea passing through disputed Pakistan occupied Kashmir. China supports Pakistan’s military-industrial-complex in a big way. All these have security implications for India and USA.
Indo-US military relations have seen a flurry of joint activities in the last decade. The Armed Forces have been engaged in many bilateral or multi lateral exercises. The two armies have been conducting Exercise Yudh Abhyas. The Navies engage in Malabar series of exercises. The Air Forces take part in Cope India and Red Flag exercises. US-India military relations seek to advance shared interests of maintaining security and stability, defeating violent religious extremism and terrorism, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, and protecting the free flow of commerce. India is key to the US’ ability to create a stable balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific region and to shore up its credibility in the region in face of rising Chinese belligerence. The US now views India as a growing world power with common strategic interests and a collaborative future. In June 2015, US defence secretary Ashton Carter became the first American defence secretary to visit an Indian military command, and similarly in December 2015, Manohar Parrikar became the first Indian defence minister to visit the US Pacific Command.
Initial Aviation Links
The aviation contact between the two nations began after ‘The Hump’ airlift, when Americans airlifted supplies from eastern India to China starting April 1942 when Burma Road was blocked by Japanese during WW II. Many airstrips in east India were built during this period. After the War, USA was immediately engaged in containment of communism. India was considered a high-risk country. US wanted us to ally with them formally. India chose to remain non-aligned. Yet Americans came in the aid of India after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and assured support in case of repeat aggression. They offered to train the Indian air Force (IAF), and air exercises between the two countries first began in November 1963. Exercise ‘Shiksha’ was meant to expose the IAF to modern air defence concepts and high performance air combat.
As close relations began to evolve, 2004 onwards Cope India series of Indo-US air exercises began. The aim was to promote regional security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Intention was also to increase understanding of each other’s capabilities and learn to work as an integrated team. State of the art aircraft participated from both sides. IAF got exposed to aerial refuelling, AWACS, Joint airlifts and paradrop. Americans engaged in combat with latest Russian technology and Indian combat tactics. IAF’s Sukhoi-30MKI, MiG-29, Jaguars, Mirages, MiG-27 and MiG-21 Bison participated. Joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations were practised. There were also social interactions. The mutual respect and bonhomie between members cemented a firm foundation for higher bilateralism. USAF found it a “positive experience” that led to the re-evaluation of some assumptions about US air tactics. Red Flag advanced air combat training exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and at Eielson Airbase in Alaska gave IAF exposure to NATO like air environment. IAF’s good performance in the exercises also seemingly shocked some in Congress, and the Pentagon used the event to renew the call for modernizing the US fighter force with stealthy F/A-22s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
American Fixed Wing Aircraft Start Inducting
The exercises were a prelude to the unfolding of dream Indo-US aviation story. IAF purchased six Lockheed C-130J-30s super Hercules aircraft in early 2008 at a cost of over US$1.2 billion for its special operations forces under US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program with options to buy six more aircraft. First six aircraft were delivered by December 2011.The aircraft can carry loads up to 17000 Kg with a choice between three armoured personnel carriers, five pallets, 74 stretchers, 92 equipped combat troops or 64 Para troops. The aircraft has a very modern self-protection suite for penetration behind enemy lines. It has a missile warning system using electro-optic sensors, and also has the BAE Systems AN/ALR-56M radar warning receiver. The aircraft can carry external under wing fuel tanks for longer operating range. The improved performance of super Hercules over its C-130E/H predecessors includes 40% greater range, 21% higher maximum speed, and 41% shorter take off distance. IAF has landed the aircraft at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) a short landing ground at an altitude of 17,000 feet in northern Ladakh close to the Chinese border and Karakoram highway. The aircraft played very important role in the Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Kashmir disaster relief operations. 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift military transport aircraft were inducted next. C-17s can carry 77.5 tonnes vis-à-vis IL-76′s 50 tonnes. All ten C-17 aircraft and their associated equipment were delivered by 2015. In 2012 India decided to order six additional C-17 aircraft for deliveries past 2017, but this option was not available as C-17 production ended in 2015. The Boeing P-8I Poseidon is a modified Boeing 737-800 designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and ship interdiction roles, and also to collect Electronic Intelligence (ELINT). It carries torpedoes, depth charges, anti-shipping missiles, sonobuoys, among other weapons. An agreement was signed in January 2009 for eight P-8Is at a total cost of US$2.1 billion. These aircraft are replacing Indian Navy’s aging Tupelov Tu-142M maritime surveillance turboprop aircraft. In October 2010, purchase of four additional P-8Is was approved. India may exercise more options later. First aircraft was inducted on 15 May 2013 at INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu.
Rotary Wing Aircraft
Boeing’s Apache Longbow AH-64 was shortlisted to replace IAF’s older Mi-25/35s. The $1.4-billion deal was also bagged by the US through the FMS route. On 28 September 2015 the contract was formally signed. IAF will receive the initial helicopters by 2018. In April 2013 Indian government decided that hence forth the Indian Army will also have its own Attack helicopter fleet. Additional 39 Apache helicopters are planned for Indian Army. The aircraft features a nose-mounted sensor suite for target acquisition and night vision systems. It is armed with a 30 mm gun and has four hard points mounted on stub-wing pylons, typically carrying a mixture of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods. Longbows also have a station on each wingtip for an AIM-92 ATAS twin missile pack. Over 1,000 AH-64s have been produced to date. U.S. AH-64s have served in conflicts in the Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel made active use of the Apache in conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza. Boeing CH-47 D/F Chinook was finally selected as heavy-lift helicopters to replace Russian Mi-26. The 15 helicopter deal is worth about $1.0 billion. The CH-47’s primary roles include troop movement, assault missions, artillery emplacement, battlefield resupply and heavy casualty evacuation. Aircraft has considerable combat exposure, in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 1,179 have been built till date. It has a wide loading ramp at the rear of the fuselage and three external-cargo hooks. Aircraft has considerable combat exposure, having operated in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Chinook is being used in air assault missions and inserting troops into fire bases. It is also the casualty evacuation aircraft of choice. It can carry up to 55 troops or 12,700 kg cargo.
Aircraft Production and Transfer of Technology
Indian Armed Forces have been Russian equipment centric. These deals mark a major shift toward diversifying defence purchases and moving away from its decades-long near total reliance on Russia. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has said India will choose at least one more aircraft, besides the indigenous Tejas, for the IAF through the ‘Make in India’ route. There are offers from American defence majors Lockheed Martin and Boeing as also Saab besides some other European companies to establish production lines in India for the manufacture of their state of the art aircraft namely F-16, F/A18 and Gripen in India. Pertinently, India has kept the field open and adopted a balanced and cautious approach of keeping its requirements like ‘state of the art’ technology foremost and is progressing negotiations and options for collaborative manufacture and under Make in India.
While we decide to go down this road we need to be sure that we are able to obtain the best that is available in terms of technology in addition to getting the most competitive rates. Another issue that must be seriously considered is the aspect of being able to export the aircraft that are manufactured in India to other countries, for only then will the numbers become substantial enough to make the project financially viable. The technology thus ought to be futuristic. Setting up facilities at exorbitant costs to make expensive equipment in numbers not large enough will not be profitable. IAF is likely to get 36 Rafale MMRCA and it is no secret that IAF needs six squadrons of similar class aircraft. The Indian Navy will also need aircraft for its second aircraft carrier due out in 2029.
Congruence and Way Ahead
In 2012 US President Barack Obama initiated a foreign policy shift to look east to neutralise rising China. USA has strengthened defence cooperation with Philippines as a part of ‘China containment policy’. The presence of American military in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; strengthened ties with South Korea and Japan; efforts to woo India and Vietnam is critical to the US ‘Pivot to Asia Strategy’. While USA needs India to contain China, India also wants to manage an increasingly assertive China. Rising China and common security concerns have brought USA, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India closer on strategic approach in the region. If the world economies need cheap Chinese goods so does China needs their markets. The bluff has to be called. The world’s biggest democracies finally stand on a shared platform; have some congruence in their world view; and most importantly feel the need to work together on many counts. Aerospace is the real place for joint action. And India and USA have taken a conscious first big step.