India and the United States have pushed talks on missile defence to the non-priority page for this week’s meeting between the Defence Secretaries, the first after the change in government in both countries, said official sources.

Instead, the apex-level Defence Planning Group (DPG) will focus on near term goals that include two military level agreements to give momentum to U.S. arms sales and a comprehensive review of the progress made in nearly a dozen existing areas of cooperation outlined in the Defence Framework Agreement of 2005.

With the India-U.S. defence pact nearing its half-way mark, both sides will evaluate the progress in areas such as counter-terrorism, greater information sharing, maritime cooperation, continuing exchanges at the level of Special Forces, the opening up of more opportunities to the private sector in defence trade and relaxation of the strict offsets regime.

Cooperation in the ambitious U.S. missile defence shield held centre stage during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s tenure but was received less warmly after the United Progressive Alliance government took over.

India was among a select group of non-NATO countries to have been exposed by the Pentagon to missile defence concepts. As late as early last year, the Bush government had hoped for greater cooperation in BMD with India. Now with the Obama administration actively reviewing the ballistic missile defence policy, the issue has further receded from the DPG deliberations, said the sources.

Fighter jet tender

Besides bidding aggressively for the multi-billion dollar tender for 126 fighter jets and suggesting more joint engagements to expose the Indian military to their equipment, the U.S. has expressed keenness to provide attack and heavy lift helicopters, super heavy transport aircraft and advanced communication linkages for the Navy.

Both sides are also chalking out plans to step up the level of engagement between the two armies but sources downplayed reports of both sides inching towards joint operations. “I would be very surprised if that was to happen. This could be on the table a few years from now but not now. At the moment we need to build trust,” said an official.

The pressing need is to strengthen cooperation in new areas of defence trade with the End User Agreement out of the way. The Defence Production and Procurement Group meeting held in September touched on the areas where the U.S. can meet Indian requirements for defence platforms.

The two proposed military pacts — Logistics Sharing Agreement (LSA) and the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) — have been in the pipeline for long and have been discussed during visits by U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.

By signing the LSA, India could theoretically avail itself of refuelling facilities in Diego Garcia, while the U.S. could gain access to Indian facilities without too much paperwork or money being transferred each time. But sources said the U.S. was more keen on CISMOA because installation of communication systems on the Special Forces configured C-130 planes could not happen without this. CISMOA is also a requirement for the 126 fighter jet tender.

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