The defense sector is evolving as crown jewel of U.S.-India strategic and security partnership

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies over after launching from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) May 14, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the eve of President Donald Trump’s visit to India Feb. 24-25, major defense sales to India and other deals are on the anvil, as this sector continues to evolve as the crown jewels of the U.S.-India strategic and security partnership.

On Feb. 10, the U.S. approved the sale of an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) to India for an estimated cost of $1.86 billion to modernize its armed forces and to expand its existing air defense architecture to counter threats posed by air attack.

The State Department has notified to the U.S. Congress of its determination to sell India this system the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said.

"India intends to use these defense articles and services to modernize its armed forces, and to expand its existing air defense architecture to counter threats posed by air attack,” the State Department said.

It noted that “this will contribute to India's military goal to update its capability while further enhancing greater interoperability between India, the U.S. and other allies.”

Meanwhile, defense heavyweight Lockheed Martin entered into an agreement with the state-run Bharat Electronics Ltd., to explore opportunities in the F-21 fighter jet program, with the American conglomerate exclusively offering these military aircraft to India, and setting its sights on the Indian Air Force’s $18 billion largesse set aside to procure 114 aircraft.

The company said in a statement, "Lockheed Martin signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Defense PSU Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) to explore industrial opportunities in the F-21 program today at DefExpo 2020.”

It said, it is strengthening and growing its partnerships with the Indian industry to support the company's F-21 proposal for the IAF, and according to Vivek Lall, vice president of Strategy and Business Development, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, "We are excited to begin exploring F-21 opportunities with BEL, one of India's leading aerospace and defense companies.”

If India decides to go with the F-21, he said, “It will be plugging into the world's largest fighter plane ecosystem.”

Lall said, "An F-21 partnership with India integrates Indian industry, including BEL, into the world's largest and most successful fighter aircraft ecosystem and demonstrates Lockheed Martin's commitment to India.”

In April last year, the IAF had issued an RFI (Request for Information) or initial tender to acquire 114 jets at a cost of around $18 billion, considered one of the world's biggest military procurement in recent years.

Besides Lockheed's F-21, other top contenders coveting this deal, include Boeing's F/A-18, Dassault Aviation's Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian aircraft MiG 35 and Saab's Gripen.

BEL’s Director for Marketing, Anandi Ramalingham, said, "We are happy to collaborate with Lockheed Martin which is a global major in the aerospace sector. We are eagerly looking forward to cash in on this co-operation to address domestic and international market needs in this sector.”

In a major lobbying effort to clinch the deal, Lockheed Martin has projected F-21 as the ideal aircraft “to address the IAF's capability needs and deliver unparalleled industrial opportunities in India.”

The company has argued that the single-engine F-jet will have the most optimal life cycle cost for the IAF, besides ensuring longest service life of 12,000 flight hours.

It said, "In concert with India's Rafale and Tejas, the F-21 will fill a critical operational role for the Indian Air Force," and added that the F-21 program, would “also provide unmatched opportunities for Indian companies of all sizes, including micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs) and suppliers throughout India, to establish new business relationships with Lockheed Martin.”

On Feb. 10, in an exclusive report from New Delhi, Reuters reported that India is set to give final approval to a $2.6 billion deal for military helicopters from Lockheed Martin ahead of the visit by President Trump this month.

It said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is trying to pull out all the stops for Trump’s trip in a bid to reaffirm strategic ties between the two countries, which have been buffeted by sharp differences over trade, to counter China.”

India’s defense purchases from the United States have reached $17 billion since 2007 as it has pivoted away from traditional supplier Russia, looking to modernize its military and narrow the gap with China.

According to Reuters, Modi’s cabinet committee on security is expected to clear the purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy in the next two weeks, and quoted an industry source as saying, “It’s a government-to-government deal, it is close.”

It said that in order to cut short lengthy negotiations between Lockheed and the Indian government, the helicopters that will be deployed on India’s warships will be bought through the U.S. foreign military sales route, under which the two governments will agree details of the deal.

The multirole helicopters from Lockheed will be equipped with Hellfire missiles and torpedoes, and are meant to help the Indian navy track submarines in the Indian Ocean, where China is expanding its presence.

Many of India’s warships are without any helicopters because of years of underfunding, and the navy had sought their acquisition as a top priority.

Last year, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of the choppers to India along with radars, torpedoes and 10 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and the clearance was consequent to the Trump administration’s roll out of its ‘Buy American’ plan in 2018 that had relaxed restrictions on sales, saying it would bolster the American defense industry and create jobs at home.

The U.S. has also offered India the armed version of Guardian drones that were originally authorized for sale as unarmed for surveillance purposes, the first such approval for a country outside the NATO alliance.

India is in the market to purchase 30 of these unmanned aircraft for surveillance of the Indian Ocean, at a cost estimated to be about $2.5 billion, from General Atomics.

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