Geopolitical rivalry with China has brought India and the US into the tight strategic embrace which was on ample display during the recent state visit to Washington of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The US needs India for global geopolitics while India wants the US for regional geopolitics.
The only problem is that the US, having identified China as its sole geopolitical competitor in this century – with the capability to match it in economy, technology, diplomacy, and military – has failed to accept that its deterrence (military power) model of the Cold War is unsuitable against the Chinese geopolitical model, which is based more on global cooperation for prosperity than military power alone.
Even in a fragmented world, the Chinese model cannot fail. Changing the game from free trade to weaponised trade by ‘decoupling’ or ‘de-risking’ value chains and supply chain networks from dependence on China – still the world’s biggest trading partner – will only add to geopolitical tensions with the global economy heading towards recession.
Unmindful of the disastrous fall-out of the Ukraine war on the global economic order led by the US dollar, the reluctance of its regional allies to openly confront China and the own recent experience of its top diplomat being lectured by Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, the US has decided to bet on India to build it as a military bulwark against China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The long-term bet is based on the assumption that Prime Minister Modi will win the 2024 general elections and will not normalise India’s relations with China in this decade — the time it would take for deliverables promised by each side to take shape. The other assumption is that, if push comes to shove, India, as claimed by its political and military leadership, will be able to take on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a border war.
Ironically, the huge jubilation in India regarding the Modi visit missed the point that under the new transactional arrangement, India would end up giving far more, including its strategic autonomy, than it will get in return – which will be further accentuated by the US’s irrepressible urge (as seen during the 2005-2008 civil nuclear deal negotiations) to shift the goalposts.
The US agenda
So, what does the US want from India?
It wants commonality of military equipment by slowly weaning India (the largest arms importer in the world) away from Russia, its traditional, affordable, and trusted partner. It wants to improve Indian naval dockyards to serve as temporary military bases for its assets (vessels of all hue, including nuclear submarines and carriers) in the IOR. It also wants the Indian military (especially the navy) to do advanced exercises bilaterally and multi-laterally with the Quad navies for developing interoperability for combat in the IOR, which India considers its backwaters. Since the character of war has changed with new-age technologies, the US wants to pull up the technological level of the Indian military through the newly crafted India-United States Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X), which is part of the bigger Innovation on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) framework whereby it will be able to operate within the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) defence network under its ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy by the end of this decade.
All this has become possible as India (which is neither a military ally nor a non-NATO ally) has signed the US military’s four foundational agreements which qualify it to be part of the US’s new age networks. Thus, by 2030, India will fulfil all the requirements for interoperability: commonality of equipment, advanced military exercises, combat support facilities like MROs (maintenance, repair, operations) from the US, and familiarity with various war contingencies in the IOR.
Moreover, as part of iCET, India will adopt US rules, regulatory, norms, and standards in the new age fourth industrial technologies for trade and commerce since US companies will have first user advantage in India. Thus, given the certainty of the splinternet (bifurcation of the Internet and the value supply chains) based on US and Chinese technologies, India will get strategically isolated from its South Asian neighbours, all of which are onboard the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), which will be based on the Chinese internet by 2030.
GE engines and technology transfer
Let’s now examine the deals individually, starting with General Electric’s memorandum of understanding with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
According to the GE press release, it will deliver 99 F-414 engines for Indian Air Force (IAF) Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk2 programme. GE will also help with the ‘prototype development, testing, and certification of the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) programme with its F-414-INS6 engine’. Moreover, GE will provide 99 F-404 engines for the LCA Mk1 programme. Both GE engines (F-404 and F-414) have already been part of the development of LCA Mk1 and LCA Mk2 programmes.
Three observations are in order. One, there will be no transfer of technology (ToT) of turbofan and casting technologies and even metallurgy formulae which make up almost 95 per cent of the engine’s Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). It stands to logic that GE, which has spent huge amounts of time, resources, and talent creating the engine, cannot hand over its IPRs to India and create a competitor for itself. All India will get is engine assembly rights (called indigenous production in India), like we have for Russian AL-31FP engines for the Su-30MKI, which are being made in Koraput since 2004. The remaining five per cent ToT which includes tools for engine maintenance may be allowed by GE after the US Congress clears it. Thus, the IAF will be saddled with the burden of maintaining yet another engine besides British, Russian, and French.
Two, the US will make a strong bid for the IAF’s urgent operational need of 114 fighter jets under the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) and the Indian Navy’s carrier-borne fighter programmes, in both of which Boeing’s Super Hornet, powered by GE-F414 engines, is a contender. Cheaper than the Rafale, the Super Hornet has been in US military service since 1999 with various upgrades. The IAF will be saddled with one more fighter, when it wants to reduce its types of combat aircraft. The Super Hornet, if it comes to the IAF and the Indian Navy, will be Prime Minister Modi’s choice rather than the Services’ Headquarters, which favours Rafale.
Three, while care will be taken by the Indian side to make an impregnable legal case against US sanctions on GE F-414, the US is not known to care much for legalities. A case in point is the freedom of navigation patrols by US Navy vessels in the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan Strait citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) when the US has not even ratified the universal convention.
Why drones are no big deal
Regarding drones, India has agreed to buy 31 General Atomics (GA) MQ-9B (Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian) armed and unarmed drones under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for the price of approximately US$3 billion. The offset amount of this deal will be used by GA to establish an MRO facility in India. These drones (also called Predators and Reapers) are extremely expensive, slow-moving, and completely out of sync with present and future trends in warfare. On the positive side, these drones carry big payloads, and have good range and mission capability since they are equipped with electro-optic video cameras, laser designators, good communication relay with ground stations, good electromagnetic systems, and signal intelligent equipment. They also have endurance of 40 hours. On the downside, with slow speed they are vulnerable and can be shot down by enemy air defence systems. Moreover, they lack autonomy (AI), are not stealthy and, most of all, require a lot of people on the ground to operate them.
In his book Army of None, US analyst Paul Scharre writes, ‘Predator and Reaper drone operations require seven to ten pilots to staff one drone orbit of 24/7 continuous around-the-clock coverage over an area. Another 20 people per orbit are required to operate the sensors on the drone, and scores of intelligence analysts are needed to sift through the sensor data. In fact, because of these substantial personnel requirements, the US Air Force has a strong resistance to calling these aircraft unmanned.’
The irony is that when these UAVs had a lucrative market in the early 2000s, US laws did not allow their sale. Now, when the US has approved their export, many more cost-effective and better-performing drones with AI options are available. Incidentally, China is a leading exporter of military drones. There can only be two reasons for India buying these outdated and expensive drones: US pressure and the Indian military’s tendency to conflate capability with sophisticated weapon platforms.
What iCET and INDUS-X really represent
The US pressure for this purchase is for its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) under the Indo-Pacific partnership which was announced in Tokyo in 2022. Under this, the Quad members are to do data collection and sharing of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) feeds with partners in Southeast Asia and Pacific nations. India, given its location, has a special responsibility which is evident from two things: It is the only country which has operational interaction with three US theatre commands namely, INDOPACOM, Central Command, and Africa Command. And the Indian Navy’s Gurgaon-based Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), whose software has been supplied by US companies CISCO and Raytheon, will be the nerve centre of the MDA project. To keep data cyber-secure, new undersea cables will be laid connecting all Quad members.
To understand the iCET framework and the INDUS-X scheme – which have been touted as the biggest US offering to India since the civil-nuclear deal – it is essential to first understand the context. Following the 2012 discovery of Deep Learning which revolutionised AI, and conscious that most emerging technologies including AI were being incubated in the commercial sector, the Pentagon in 2015 opened its outpost called Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) in Silicon Valley. Staffed with mostly civilian software experts and a few retired and active-duty military officers, the DIU was to help identify advanced commercial technologies for military use.
Taking a cue from the Pentagon’s DIU, the Indian defence ministry, in April 2018, launched the Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) scheme under the defence secretary for incubation of new age technologies development in defence and aerospace from within the industry, start-ups, civilian laboratories, academia and so on. Unfortunately, iDEX has not delivered for four reasons: it is headed by bureaucrats with little domain knowledge, many start-ups that get good funding are owned by former military officers with questionable links in the system, deserving start-ups with few resources are bought by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, and projects are time-bound, which stymies creativity, ideas, and innovations.
Worse, there is little clarity on new-age commercial technologies prioritisation and how to harness them for military use. For instance, there are 20 advanced commercial technologies to choose from for military use. These are AI (where all new age technologies converge), 5G wireless and advanced networking, sensors with edge computing, Internet of Things, biotechnology, robotics and autonomy, semiconductors, blockchain, virtual reality (for simulation), metaverse, star-link internet, natural languages processing, space, cyber, advanced manufacturing, energy storage technologies, quantum computing, brain-computer interface, genomics, and exoskeletons.
Meanwhile, aware that talent is the most important pillar of AI alongside data, hardware (microelectronics), and software (algorithms), and with many talented Chinese AI researchers leaving the US for China following the tech war, the US, which attracts talent from across the world (mostly Chinese and Indians) to remain the global innovation hub, seemed to be losing the competition for talent to China.
Against this backdrop, the Indian and US National Security Advisors met in January 2023 to launch the ICET framework to be the bridge between commercial and defence sectors. Under the ICET, the two sides launched the INDUS-X scheme chaired jointly by the Pentagon and India’s iDEX to identify Indian defence start-ups which will work with the US start-ups organised by the civilian US-India Business Council (USIBC) to design, prototype, test, and produce commercial technologies with application in ‘integrated deterrence’ network. While in theory, the money for identified start-ups will come from a joint development fund, in practice they will be funded by the Pentagon. This way, the US military will be able to match, if not beat, the PLA’s 2035 deadline of robotic war (called intelligentised war) and make up for its talent shortage using Indian researchers to meet the Chinese challenge of becoming the world’s primary AI innovation centre by 2030.
It is for this reason that the US is easing H1B and L1 visas procedures for Indian STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates and research scholars to work in the US. This is a good thing for Indian scholars and start-ups who will gain knowledge by working in world-class innovation hubs. Of course, it would have been better if the Indian civilian start-ups could work directly with the DIU (instead of through the iDEX and the Pentagon) for the understanding of all advanced commercial technologies.
However, for India which prided itself on its strategic autonomy in foreign policy, allowing Indian shipyards to emerge ‘as a hub for maintenance and repair of forward deployed (in the IOR) US navy assets (navy ships and naval fighters)’ is too big a price to pay for Modi’s rousing welcome in the US. Taking forward the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) signed by the Modi government in 2016, which allowed re-fuelling and other turn-around facilities to the US naval assets on a case-to-case basis, the present arrangement will permit the US to upgrade Indian shipyards to berth US warships for long periods. Shorn of rhetoric, India has agreed to provide military basing to the US military.
The impact on China
The big question now is: How will China assess India’s tight embrace of the US? China will conclude that normalisation of relations with the Modi government will not be possible since India has sacrificed its strategic autonomy to accommodate US military interests in the IOR.
Worse, India has become the US’s first line of offence against Chinese interests and infrastructure in the South Asian region (by denouncing its Belt and Road Initiative as a debt trap). Moreover, in cahoots with the US, India will be seen to threaten China’s commerce and trade worth over US$4 trillion annually which passes through the 3,000 nautical miles IOR from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. This, at a time when the Chinese deterrence in the IOR is a decade away.
Xi Jinping’s directive to the PLA was to prepare capabilities (deterrence) to meet the (US) challenge in West Pacific and the Indian border by 2027, and across Asia Pacific (including IOR) by 2035. The PLA has already achieved deterrence (and capabilities to fight if deterrence failed) ahead of its timeline in the West Pacific and is working on the entire region.
China’s deterrence in the West Pacific where it faces challenges in the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Sea is based on the combination of its military power and economic power (its intense trade with ASEAN and US allies like Japan and South Korea). Given the advantage of its geography, and the formidable Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) firewall that the PLA has created against the US, China refused Antony Blinken’s request in Beijing for opening bilateral military communication to avert a crisis in the region. While the stated reason by China for doing this are the US sanctions on its defence minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, the actual reason is to discourage US freedom of navigation and air patrols in the waters and air space in the Chinese backyard. Much in line with the US’s Monroe Doctrine – which disallows the presence of outside powers in the Western hemisphere – China wants US military activities in West Pacific to end.
Meanwhile, aware of its eroded deterrence in the West Pacific, the US military is reinforcing its regional alliances, seeking a global role for NATO and strengthening its military bases in Hawaii and Guam.
Chinese deterrence outside the West Pacific will be based on its economic deterrence anchored on BRICS and BRI, and its military deterrence anchored on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and cooperative security with nations onboard the BRI. Since prosperity is at the vanguard of the BRI, Xi Jinping has announced that the third BRI Forum will be held in Beijing this year. The actual dates of the Forum perhaps await progress on Xi’s pet project of ‘Xiongan (meaning brave and peaceful) New Area’, 100km outside Beijing which is being called the vice-capital of China. Named the ‘plan of a thousand years’ by Xi, this city, meant to de-congest Beijing by moving many governments, financial, medical, academic, and military headquarters here, is being built with cyberspace software connectivity (part of the Digital Silk Road, a sub-set of the BRI) using industrial internet technologies like blockchain, 5G, IoT, big data and so on. This smart city will become the blockchain hub in China with blockchain-based services. Given this, it will be a good idea for Xi to showcase this smart city close to Beijing to the Forum delegates for them to get a sense of how the new phase of BRI (cyberspace software connectivity) which will likely figure in Xi’s address, would usher in prosperity by industrial internet.
China’s economic deterrence for BRI nations will get delayed owing to the chip war with the US. For example, China has been denied advanced chips which are required in AI and data centres for computing, storage, and for servers. Slowing economic deterrence will affect military deterrence which is based on cooperative security (PLA working with host BRI nation’s security forces for the protection of Chinese infrastructure, interests, and people).
Given the likelihood of China’s military deterrence lagging behind the US – which is supported now by India in South Asia and the IOR – Beijing might decide to up the ante on its border. Since China sees the boundary problem with India as a dispute regarding its sovereignty, it may decide to upend the US’s growing integrated deterrence in the region by a short and decisive war with India. In that sense, Modi’s US embrace has increased India’s vulnerabilities.
Pravin Sawhney is the author of The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China.