A recent report by US think tank The Heritage Foundation supports the transfer of F414 technology to India to counter China.
Last week, media reports raised expectations that an important announcement on defence sector cooperation may occur during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States on 22 June. This announcement could be about manufacturing the General Electric F414 fighter engines in India, and the transfer of technology.
White House has not commented on these news reports yet, but if they turn out to be true, India’s indigenous capacity to produce fighter aircraft would be boosted, and a major hurdle in its defence preparedness would be mitigated. It would also signify the growing level of trust rooted in global geopolitical considerations that could potentially strengthen strategic cooperation between India and the US, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
There is no doubt that India-US defence cooperation has gathered unprecedented momentum over the last decade. However, the major shift occurred in 2005, when the nations signed several bilateral agreements. These included the Nuclear Deal and the ‘New Framework for Indo-US Defence Partnership’ with a 10-year tenure. This framework deepened military-to-military cooperation through joint exercises, defence trade and personnel exchanges and was renewed in 2015. In 2013, a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation was signed after the US pledged to cooperate in defence technology transfer, licensing, trade, research, co-production and co-development. Moreover, in 2012, India and the US signed the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) to remove roadblocks in defence technology exchange. By 2016, India was granted the status of a ‘Major Defense Partner’, which committed the US to facilitate technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners, and industry collaboration for defence co-production and co-development.
Both countries have also signed four key agreements related to the security of shared military information (2002), mutual access to logistics facilities (2016), communications compatibility and security (2018) and geospatial intelligence (2020). But DTTI, which aimed to simplify technology transfer policies and explore possibilities of co-development and co-production, made very little progress in technology transfer due to obstacles primarily posed by US domestic laws. In 2022, an agreement called the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) was signed. Its main purpose was to overcome bureaucratic barriers and excessive regulations that impede technological cooperation.
The US Department of Commerce, through the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), controls all transfers of critical technologies. The process involves the evaluation of critical technology risks as well as risk mitigation. Therefore, an ITAR package for the F414 will have to be created and approved by the departments of commerce, State and defense, and gain approval from the US Congress. The process’ official status is not known, but it should be in an advanced stage if the F414 is to be announced during PM Modi’s visit.
The safeguard rails can logically be expected not to permit sharing of intellectual property rights of core technologies. For a complex product like a jet engine with several thousand parts, it would ensure that dependency on the US is maintained in the long run too. For example, it would not transfer technology related to critical materials used in thermal contact parts, such as turbine blades, which are vital for developing thrust in jet engines. Also, the F414 engine is now over 30 years old and has undergone several upgrades. The version under consideration now should indicate whether it is the latest and the best available. Notably, most US fighters use more advanced engines today.
The shadow of anxieties surrounding the protection of intellectual property rights can only be diminished by the strategic benefits expected to accrue to the US interests. If an advanced jet engine deal comes through, it would indicate that the shadow has shrunk due to changes in geopolitical considerations and expectations.
China’s aggressive tactics – particularly in the backdrop of its rapid economic, technological and military growth – have prompted the US and India to view the prospect of strengthening the latter’s military capability as a necessity. For India, China’s 2020 intrusion in Ladakh buried all illusions of Beijing’s political posture toward New Delhi. India’s proximity to the US has grown since then, and the jet engine deal is one of the many understandings reached between the two. For the US, it was the Donald Trump administration that orchestrated several moves against China, especially in terms of denial of technology.
The Russia-Ukraine War, however, has brought to the fore India’s geopolitical posture, and signals New Delhi’s approach as being one that is contextual and aligned with its interests. Russia continues to be seen as a partner in the domains of defence and energy. Also, India, unlike the US, believes that a strong Russia, as part of a multipolar global architecture, is in the larger interests of global stability. It is increasingly apparent that there is a reluctant acquiescence by the US of India’s stance, especially in the context of its global confrontation with China.
Most outcomes of Modi’s visit would have already been, more or less, decided and firmed up through several rounds of parleys at different levels. Understandably, the jet deal will be part of a broader understanding, accompanied by expectations that may not be explicitly stated or made publicly known. A recent report by US think tank The Heritage Foundation supports the transfer of F414 technology to India to counter China. It also suggests the possibility of greater cooperation between India and the US on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands are of geostrategic importance as they are a gateway to the Malacca Straits, which connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Western Pacific.
The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), signed in 2016 after 10-year-long discussions, caters to the militaries of the US and India. It allows both countries to replenish logistic requisites from each other’s bases by way of accessing supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed. It would also prove particularly useful for logistics in the Indo-Pacific. But it does not include ammunition stores, the key component of combat logistic support for military operations.
A win for the public sector?
According to some media reports, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has already been earmarked to partner with General Electric for the manufacture of the F414. HAL already has experience in the field, apart from the necessary infrastructure. But it is a moot point whether it will shed its public sector culture, achieve the efficiencies required, and leverage its experience to carry out indigenisation speedily. Considering the importance of the project, it is time the government appointed a suitable serving or retired Air Marshal who could, perhaps, bring change in HAL’s work culture. On the other hand, even though HAL was kept out of the Rafale Deal, it appears in the case of the F414 that the Indian private sector will play the vendor’s role, with potential benefits accruing to the Micro, Small and Medium enterprises (MSMEs). The public sector seems to have won this round.
The bigger picture
The significance of the proposed jet engine deal lies not only in reducing dependency on arms import but also in the realm of trust developed between India and the US as they work together to protect their common interests from China’s aggression. Indian expectations would be that the deal is a harbinger of similar agreements in other areas that could find closure in the ongoing but prolonged discussions on naval, air, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
India’s active participation in QUAD and deepening defence ties with the US along with the preservation of its relationship with Russia are an unambiguous signal to US, Russia and China – New Delhi will sit in the same tent if the context has common interests, but it will not join any military camp/bloc.