Sitharaman to visit US next month, her long wish list includes drones, helicopters, missiles’ purchase
Defence & Diplomacy, Opinion

Sitharaman to visit US next month, her long wish list includes drones, helicopters, missiles’ purchase

As Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman prepares to visit the US in the first week of December, her agenda includes not only high-tech defence products that India will purchase under the government to government deal, but also issues related to the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement(BECA) and CAATSA. Due to fast changing geo-political situation in Indian Ocean, South China Sea and Korean peninsula, India is trying to tighten nuts and bolts of its defence system so that it could meet any challenges emerging in these three sensitive and high risk theatres.

India has already issued Letter of Request (LoR) to the US for the purchase of 24 MH-60 R Seahawk multirole helicopters for the Navy. To be bought at an estimated cost of $1.88 billion and under a government-to-government deal, MH-60 R helicopters will be armed with top class anti-submarine capabilities like missiles and torpedoes. It is designed to operate from frigate, destroyer, cruisers, amphibious ship and aircraft carrier, the chopper is equipped for a range of missions including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, search-and-rescue, naval gunfire support, surveillance, communications relay, logistics support and personal transfer and vertical replenishment.

India is about to purchase 22 Predator drones from the US. A powerful un-manned multi-mission intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, Predator drones’ acquisition by Indian armed forces has been on Pentagon’s table for quite some time. Also known as MQ-9 Reaper, the US was earlier hesitant to offer this advanced weapon system to India, a non-NATO country. The US wanted India to fulfill certain conditions like assenting on Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and assurance that MQ-9 Reaper will apply to only America-procured weapons system. India’s plan was to equip the drone with India specific equipment systems which are largely of Russian origin. After several rounds of talks between the two countries in New Delhi and Washington and India accepting to US’ condition, both sides seem to have agreed upon to move ahead on the Predator drones issue.

But then green signal to drones’ purchase was given by the US only after it held its first two plus two dialogue with India and COMCASA was signed on September 6. Under government to government deal, India wants to fulfill its acquisition needs for Predator drones. While it has been well conveyed to US authorities, some of technical issues, including pricing have not yet been resolved. During the Defence Minister’s December 3 to 6 visit, all these issues are expected to figure in her talks with US counterpart James Mattis and other American officials.

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Along with this, purchase of US built National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS) to precisely protect the national capital from enemies’ drones, aircraft and cruise missiles attack, has been on the table. In view of rising threat perception of terrorist attack to India’s national capital, New Delhi wants to conclude the deal on the purchase of NASAMS-II soon. In September, during the first India-US two plus two dialogue, purchase of NASAMS-II, built by Raytheon in partnership with KONGSBERG Defence and Aerospace of Norway, had been thoroughly discussed. Besides, sources say, there is a possibility the Indian Defence Minister may show her interest in knowing about F-35 stealth aircraft, produced by Lockheed Martin. India wants classified brief on the aircraft which is being purchased by Japan and other countries. However, India has already made it clear that it will not buy F-16 Block 70 or F-18 aircraft from the US despite the latter pressurizing the former that purchase of such defence platforms will open up with higher level defence cooperation on the fighter jet segment.

Carrying on forward their two plus two dialogue, Defence Minister Sitharaman will take up matters related to the forthcoming tri-services exercise. Discussions are on between the two countries to include their special forces in the inaugural tri-services exercise, which is likely to take place sometime between August and September next year. Defence Minister Sitharaman is expected to touch upon this issue during her talks in the US, where the two countries are also expected to discuss the last remaining foundational agreement—BECA. Though India is in no mood to conclude BECA before the 2019 parliamentary election, the US wants to see it that the deal could be determined earlier so that defence cooperation between the two sides could be speeded up.

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India will also take up CAATSA issue with US officials during Sitharaman’s much talked about visit. After India signed a $5.4 billion deal with Russia to buy S-400 missile defence system, the US threatened to slap punitive sanctions on New Delhi. Even as US has taken of India along with seven other countries from the list of countries to face sanctions under CAATSA on the purchase of oil from Iran, it is dangling threat of punitive action on New Delhi for going ahead with the purchase of Russian defence system. In all, it is going to be an important ministerial level visit during which defence is expected to be high in the agenda of the talks; matter of strategic importance, including Afghanistan and development in the Indo-Pacific region is also expected to figure substantially during the talks.

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Shankar Kumar is a Delhi-based diplomacy and strategic affairs journalist. He tweets at @shaanka

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