US-India iCET: Old Wine in a New Bottle?

The initiative appeared to be a technologically upgraded reincarnation of the earlier bilateral Defence Technology and Trade Initiative between New Delhi and Washington, which had failed miserably in its endeavours.

Chandigarh: The newly agreed US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) appears to be a technologically upgraded reincarnation of the earlier bilateral Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) between New Delhi and Washington, which had failed miserably in its endeavours to indigenously develop and manufacture US military equipment.

But the formal unveiling in Washington recently of the iCET – first announced in May 2022 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden – to augment strategic technology partnership and defence industrial cooperation between the two sides, studiously avoided any reference to DTTI. Media reports lauding the iCET, confirmed by the respective National Security Advisors – Ajit Doval and his US counterpart Jake Sullivan – on January 31 also carefully avoided any mention of the DTTI.

Why did DTTI fail?

Launched with great fanfare in Delhi by US deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter in 2012, following four years of negotiations, the DTTI was aimed at furthering defence cooperation between the two newly emergent strategic allies, shorn of bureaucratic hiccups from either side.

Primarily, it included four ‘pathfinder’ projects like the joint development of Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Systems (MEHPS) and Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment 2 clothing for protection against chemical and biological exposure with India’s government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Two additional DTTI programmes – AeroVironment RQ 11 Raven hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles and roll-on/roll-off intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) modules for the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s 11 Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 transport aircraft – had elicited a lukewarm response from local vendors and hence were quietly withdrawn.

Thereafter, in June 2015 India and the US extended their 10-year bilateral Defence Framework Agreement to mid-2025 to further strategic and military ties, but also to provide the framework for progressing the DTTI and its supposed ‘transformative’ potential. And, a year later in mid-2016, DTTI added the Digital Helmet Mounted Display and the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System projects to its list, but the two prospective endeavours progressed little beyond the discussion stage.

Later that same year, in November 2016, the US proposed the joint development, under the DTTI of an Advanced Tactical Ground Combat Vehicle (ATGCV) and a family of helicopters under the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme. At the time, the US had also proposed the involvement of Israel in the ATGCV programme, with the end product being employed by the armies of all three countries involved in its development and manufacture. But this too came to nought, as it clashed with India’s indigenous Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme – which regrettably has made no progress. The FVL proposal too was dumped, as India’s helicopter development was continuing apace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Obama. Photo: PTI/Vijay Verma/Files

Meanwhile, In December 2016 the US designated India its ‘major defence partner’ and committed itself to furthering military technology transfers, facilitating weapons interoperability and advancing mutual security interests and intelligence sharing. The US Senate Bill ‘Enhancing Defense and Security Co-operation’ with India directed the US secretaries of defence and state to speedily further military and security ties with India, appoint an official to oversee this objective and submit a progress report to the US Congress within 180 days. Officials said this too remained in limbo and the entire enterprise faded away.

Additionally, the DTTI also included at least seven working groups to jointly develop and manufacture jet engines, an aircraft carrier and assorted naval, air and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. Other ‘open-ended’ DTTI categories, involving Indian service officers, to jointly pursue defence projects to mutually benefit both countries, too were instituted, but met infrequently and accomplished little or nothing, before lapsing into oblivion.

Military and defence industry sources told The Wire that the DTTI had languished and eventually perished due to enduring shortcomings by the respective entities responsible for furthering it. This included vacillation in decision-making by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and ‘unilateralism’ by the US undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics [USD (AT&L)], in patronisingly offering Delhi low-grade technologies.

“The lack of progress in the DTTI was in inverse proportion to the exponential manner in which bilateral strategic and defence ties between New Delhi and Washington were advancing,” said a senior military officer involved in negotiations to further the Initiative. There was a major gap between the two sides that needed bridging, but eventually, it all failed in achieving its objectives and simply collapsed, he added, declining to be identified.

Also Read | Washington Keen for India To Diversify From ‘Reliance’ on Russian Military Supplies: US Official

What’s new in iCET?

Many years later, on the ashes of the DTTI, the iCET envisages six broad areas of cooperation, involving co-development and co-production in critical emerging technologies in defence, space and next generation telecommunications, including 6G networks. Artificial intelligence and semiconductor know-how, in addition to other vital sundry areas of engineering, science and biotechnology too were included.

At his February 8 press briefing, Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder had declared that the iCET would “accelerate a shift from defence sales to defence joint production and development and promote integration between US and Indian defence firms”. Since 2002, India has acquired over $20 billion worth of US military equipment.

“The recent history of Indo-US hi-tech collaboration in critical technological areas is identified by an alphabet soup of acronyms like DTTI and iCET, in which the former undeniably flopped,” said a retired senior Indian Army (IA) officer. The officer, who declined to be named, had previously been involved in extended, albeit unsuccessful negotiations, with Raytheon-Lockheed Martin over transferring technology to India to locally series build its FGM-148-Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) some years ago. This breakdown resulted in India acquiring the Spike ATGMs and launchers from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, instead of the US.

The officer further claimed that, unlike India, US defence manufacturers operated independently and were not obligated to transfer technology – developed at immense cost – merely at their government’s behest. Additionally, the US’s strict export control laws, subtly managed and controlled by its powerful defence industrial complex, would not be easily relaxed, he stated. “Under the circumstances, the best that India can hope for under iCET is merely assembling US military kit and for form’s sake to display jointness, incorporating peripheral components built locally,” the officer added.

Lockheed Martin. Photo: Craig Dietrich/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

Prevention of ‘jugaad’ a key hindrance

Other service officers who had dealt with US military and defence industry officials said a possible beginning in ensuring iCETs eventual success lay in Washington permitting India’s military to exercise the jugaad or innovative option on acquired US platforms like attack and heavy lift helicopters, heavy transport and naval surveillance aircraft.

Presently, India has to execute a complex set of protocols, pacts and agreements with the US ahead of acquiring these combat and support assets. This forecloses the possibility of pursuing the services’ long established – and at times essential – jugaad route by equipping major platforms with either locally developed ancillaries or those acquired commercially. Over decades, this resourceful recourse had provided India’s military user flexibility, ably rendering foreign platforms wholly serviceable in climatic extremes, assorted terrain and for diverse operational tasks.

But the fine print of several pacts with Washington prevented India from retrofitting and adapting US military equipment to its needs without the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM)’s consent and participation for the entire duration of its service life.

Among the 80-odd countries with which Washington has such agreements, it has reportedly made an exception only once, by allowing the Israel Air Force to incorporate locally developed sensors and weapons onto Lockheed Martin F-16s supplied to Tel Aviv. Some reports indicate that a similar agreement had been reached with regard to some systems aboard Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II fifth-generation fighters, which Israel had recently acquired.

Significantly, all US military purchases by India via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route had been concluded under the stricter ‘Golden Sentry’ End-User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) which governs physical verification of the equipment. This protocol is more severe than the less stringent ‘Blue Lantern’ EUMA governing the direct commercial sale of US materiel worldwide.

Even India’s Defence Acquisition Production, 2020 which oversees all military purchases, incorporates the possibility of exercising jugaad on it. With the seller’s concurrence, it reserved the option to “replace equipment/ systems/ weapons/ sensors/ assemblies at a later date with suitable substitutes, either procured from other global sources and/or indigenous sources”. Such alternatives were just not possible with regard to US equipment.

But, military officers said such rigorous foreclosure on US defence goods supplied to India encroached negatively on decades of amazing and efficient implementation of jugaad, elevated to sophisticated levels. This ensured that imported weapon systems performed well above their declared operational potential.

For decades, jugaad has rendered a range of platforms not only highly serviceable and effective but in some instances even lethal. To mention a few, these include the fleet of 180-190 Chetaks and Cheetahs principally Alouette IIIs and SA-315B Lamas capable after jugaad of operating almost daily at heights of over 14,000 feet in the Siachen glacier region, which their French manufacturers could never have imagined possible.

“If the US wants to significantly enhance joint development and manufacture of defence equipment with India and also to wean it off Russian-origin materiel it has to become more accommodating on jugaad to indicate flexibility and intent,” said a retired three-star IAF officer.

If not, then iCET could also eventually end up like the DTTI, sinking without a ripple, he added.