What to Make of the India-UK Defence Talks on Boris Johnson's India Trip

These defence and security initiatives, largely emanating from the UK, are aimed at building a strong and trusted bilateral defence and security partnership with India in the long-term.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India last week provided much-needed political impetus towards enhancing defence and security ties that have been under-performing, along with a new key role for the national security advisors of both countries. Although Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have firmly set the direction of travel, it is now up to their bureaucrats, scientists and industries to set the pace. This will be challenging.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss first laid the contours of the UK’s renewed engagement with India, despite significant divergences over the Russia-Ukraine war,  when she told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on March 7 that the ‘way forward’ was for a “closer economic and defence relationship with India”, adding “we also need to work with countries like… India to reduce their dependence—whether it be on Russian defence, Russian oil and gas, or their export markets”. This was the principal message to her Indian interlocuters during her successful 20-hour visit to Delhi on March 31. Johnson’s visit provided further political impetus to this.

Building trust

But Johnson and Modi’s joint commitment to transform defence and security cooperation as a key pillar of their bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership requires a high degree of mutual trust, most so in defence where lives are at stake. Not surprisingly, the word trust features twice in the joint statement; in the defence and security as well as the trade sections. But trust can be a double-edged sword, with differing perspectives causing equally deep mistrust.

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This is important when both countries have “agreed to deepen co-operation, including by quickly resolving legacy issues…as trusted partners”. These remain complex and vexed issues relating largely to problems in the UK’s defence supply chain. Previous discussions on this have been characterised as akin to the making of a ‘jalebi’ that goes “round and round”. Most importantly, this requires the British defence leadership to influence relevant British companies to facilitate a pragmatic and affordable solution towards India despite its inability to exert control over their decision-making, unlike in France or the US. It also needs the Indian defence leadership to understand the British government’s genuine limitation in this regard as both strive towards a suitable compromise.

Furthering defence cooperation

The most important UK announcement is on the establishment of a new India-specific Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for the export of equipment and emerging technologies to India to “reduce bureaucracy and shorten delivery times”. This is essential for current and prospective joint-research, co-design, co-development and joint production of defence technology and systems. The priority will be for prospective collaboration on a modern fighter aircraft and jet engine advanced core technology as well as on naval and maritime electric propulsion technology. A ‘Letter of Arrangement’ between the UK’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) has also been finalised.

In essence, the transformation of the India-UK defence partnership is to take place through co-development and co-production, combining the transfer of UK technology with India’s production base. In a little-noticed development, this is to be led by the two National Security Advisors, who, according to India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, will facilitate meetings of relevant scientists and industrialists in both countries as well as “oversee and direct this sector”.

During Johnson’s press conference in New Delhi a question was raised on a report just published by a British defence think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), warning that India was one of several major routes for smuggling defence technology to Russia, which would be a potentially disruptive issue for the new India-UK bilateral defence technology relationship. In response, Johnson said that in view of the UK’s ban on exporting technology products to Russia, he would “close loopholes” and “take steps to make sure that stuff doesn’t go through other routes to Russia”, raising questions on the Indian side as to a delay on the OGEL even before it starts.

But the RUSI report appears more speculative than substantive in reference to India. Primarily referring to ‘dual-use’ technologies, it claims that some companies in India, along with those in the Czech Republic, Serbia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and China, take risks to meet Russian supply requirements even though they may not be aware that the end-user was the Russian military. The report neither names the Indian companies nor provides any factual evidence in support of its contention.

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But it does raise a significant challenge for the success of UK defence technology transfers to India. As my IISS colleague Desmond Bowen, former Director General of Security Policy in the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) pointed out to me: “at one level, classified material for security uses needs to be identified, controlled and restricted. Some of this may be deliberately routed through a third party, essentially a smuggling operation. The other level concerns ‘dual-use’ material which is usually not classified and is very difficult to control. For the most part that will involve components, for example, guidance, timing, precision etc”. Bowen recommends that the UK and India “build a control regime to monitor such transfers and above all to develop trust and transparency between the two countries”.

This seems an eminently sensible way to proceed. There is likely also a large body of evidence from the US transfer of technology to India since the India-US civil nuclear deal in October 2008, monitored by US technical and intelligence agencies, to indicate that such clandestine technology transfers from India are unlikely to take place.

Advancing security cooperation

An accompanying joint cyber statement seeks to deepen cooperation across cyber governance, deterrence and resilience. The finalisation of the Logistics and Training MoUs and an early conclusion of the Maritime Information Exchange Arrangement on dark and grey shipping seek to build on maritime and naval cooperation. But, these await actual implementation through the bureaucracies of one or both countries. Although the Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism (JWG-CT) is to constitute a sub-group on countering extremism, the Indian security establishment would prefer unilateral actions on the ground to counter pro-Khalistani and Kashmiri groups and individuals based in the UK.

In essence, these defence and security initiatives, largely emanating from the UK, are aimed at building a strong and trusted bilateral defence and security partnership with India in the long-term, to enhance India’s military capabilities against China and pull it away from arms dependency on Russia. These are not aimed at reducing India’s dependencies on Russia in the short-term. But, it would be hugely impactful if major breakthroughs in overcoming legacy defence supply problems could be made by Diwali on October 22, in parallel with a prospective trade agreement. This would ensure the visit of India’s cabinet-level defence minister to the UK after 20 years.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia and Simran Brookes is Research Assistant for South Asia, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.