India has been striving to become Atmanirbhar in defence production, especially after the Russia-Ukraine war which exposed its utter dependence on Russia for weapons. Achieving self-reliance in defence and reducing import dependency for military hardware is important for India to maintain its strategic autonomy.
In the last few years, India has been trying to indigenise its military supplies at a maddening pace. The government released a few days ago a fresh list of 928 components and subsystems that will only be procured from domestic firms once import bans on them kick in, over a period of five-and-a-half years. India’s ambition to become a defence production hub can get a big boost if Modi is able to bag a jet engine deal in the US.
Sharing of advanced defense technology has emerged as a new factor in India-America ties. The US has so far been cautious of sharing defence technology even with its partner countries. The Ukraine-Russia war and China-US tensions have made India an important bet for America. India wants critical defence and computing technology from the US for deeper ties. A major interest for India is domestic production of jet engines of America’s General Electric Aviation.
GE Aviation is open to the transfer of technology to India for the indigenous manufacture of engines for India’s TEJAS MK-2 Light Combat Aircraft as it does not want to lose a big market to Europe.
The Biden administration has approved GE Aviation’s application to co-produce GE-F414 jet engines in India complete with technology transfer. The next step is Congressional review and approval under the Arms Export Control Act, which governs the transfer of all high-end defence technology. The US designated India a major defence partner in 2016 but it still did not equate India with other partners like Australia and Japan in the Arms Export Control Act. This means every single deal for transfer of military technology for co-production must undergo rigorous multi-stage scrutiny.
Some members of Congress are wary of the industry push to sell sensitive technology even to allies, forget partners, according to Seema Sirohi, a commentator on foreign policy. In India’s case, expect questions about New Delhi’s stand on the Ukraine war and friendship with Russia, which administration officials will (hopefully) answer to satisfaction, Sirohi has written in ET.
America’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has acknowledged that the partnership with India isn’t without its risks, given the weapons trade between India and Russia, but he stressed that the initiative wasn’t sparked by the war in Ukraine or efforts to drive a wedge between New Delhi and Moscow, Bloomberg has reported.
GE Aviation already has a significant presence in India’s aerospace sector due to availability of quality talent in software, simulation and electronics. It started a back office operation here more than decade ago to develop new products. Its India team had worked on the GEnx engine, the fastest-selling, high-thrust jet engine in GE Aviation history. Most of GE Aviation products have a contribution of 20-40% from the India team.
Why the deal is so important for India
If India is able to bag the GE jet engine deal, it will enter a super-exclusive club of countries that produce jet engines indigenously — the US, Britain, France and Russia. Significantly, China does not manufacture jet engines of its own, which will give India a critical tech edge over its rival.
Clearance for co-production of GE engines in India would be a step toward lessening the country’s historic reliance on Russia for military hardware — a boost for American diplomacy in the effort to isolate Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, according to Bloomberg. India now flies a mix of Russian, European and locally produced jets in its fighter fleet, a reflection of its position outside the superpowers’ orbits.
The deal will follow Sullivan and India’s NSA Ajit Doval launching US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) a few months ago. The iCET will involve a range of technology transfers, exchanges, and cooperation, including bilateral space cooperation. Both are supposed to propel India-US ties to a new sphere from lingering mutual distrust between the two countries.
Modi’s June 22 visit to the US could be path-breaking for India. The GE Aviation jet engine deal can herald a new age in India-US defence industrial partnership which can extend to co-production of other major American weapon systems in India. This will bolster Modi’s Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat projects in a major way as well as empowering India’s defence vis à vis China.