The just concluded state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States is undoubtedly a new gambit by both sides to propel their strategic cooperation to an unprecedented level, while staying short of turning treaty allies. The announcement for potential joint manufacture of General Electric (GE) Aerospace’s F414 engines in India by GE and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to power India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft MK2 and the twin-engine Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft MK1 as well as the purchase of 31 high-altitude, long-endurance Predator-MQ-9B armed unmanned aerial vehicles take the defence ties between the countries to a new high. Military cooperation between the two nations has been deepening in the recent past. India has bought from the U.S. the C-130 and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters as well as CH-47 Chinook and MH-60R multi-role helicopters, P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and M777 ultra light howitzers, among others. The U.S. has been aggressively pitching its fighter jets, the F-16 and F/A-18, for the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy. India and the U.S. had tried and shelved an earlier engine development effort under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative some years ago. But now, the new jet engine deal is an investment in each other to address the shared security concerns, while continuing to navigate the disagreements.
Top among their shared concerns is China and its expansion in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. also wants to wean India away from its defence partnership with Russia in the long term. From a technological perspective, the newly announced joint initiatives in jet engine production, semiconductors and space technology present an opportunity for India to develop a defence industry of its own, and improve its technological competence across the board. India and the U.S. have already signed the four foundational agreements and regularly conduct joint military exercises. While its embrace with the U.S. is getting stronger, deeper and more comprehensive, India is also cognisant of the need to maintain its strategic autonomy. U.S. strategy at the moment is focused on creating a new bipolarity in the world, which India is not comfortable with. Getting caught in the power rivalries of others is the last thing that India wants, and the good thing is that the U.S. is increasingly aware of that concern. India’s desire to protect its borders and sovereignty aligns with U.S. interests. This is a new era of mutual trust between the two countries, and it should act as a force for stability in the region.