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Surya Gangadharan
Tuesday , December 11, 2012 at 15 : 05

The flip side of buying American arms


Could 2013 see Washington pushing India harder on arms sales? The buzz is that President Obama, in his second term, will do precisely that (perhaps defining it as quid pro quo for the nuclear deal). The two militaries are already training intensively together every year, the Americans would like to take that forward in a certain strategic direction and have argued strongly in favour of "interoperability" - meaning commonality of weapons and equipment will enable the two militaries to work better together and also communicate better.

Certain recent Indian military acquisitions do tend to work in that direction. The C-130J Special Forces aircraft is already flying with the Indian Air Force, with the C-17 strategic airlifter to follow and thereafter the Apache attack helicopter and the Chinook heavy rotary wing transport.

US helicopter maker Sikorsky is bidding to supply its range of helos to the Indian Navy and is building helicopter cabins at a Tata facility in Hyderabad. The navy is already in line to receive the P8I maritime patrol aircraft (derived from Boeing's 737).

None of these are frontline military equipment but that could change. The M777 lightweight howitzer, considered ideal for use in the mountains and for its transportability by helicopter, could be the first. Defence Ministry sources also confirmed that US rifle maker Colt was among six bidders for an Indian Army tender for rifles. Colt is also bidding to supply carbines (for close quarter battles). Then there are reports the Army wants hand-launched UAVs for its infantry battalions to spy out the land 7-8 km ahead in the tactical battle area. The main purveyors of such UAVs are the US and Israel.

This is where the concern lies. US assurances notwithstanding, sanctions and arms embargos are part of its legal framework to be used to further crucial national interests. We've seen it with Pakistan which was subject to arms embargos (during wars against India) and later sanctions (over its nuclear weapons programme) despite being a Cold War ally.

There's another problem, one that Britain is facing in the case of its Boeing built AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters. According to a report in the military website defense-aerospace, the US military is upgrading to the AH-64E Block-3. But with no Cold War enemy at hand, Washington is unlikely to subsidise any upgrade by its allies.

Britain, if it wants to remain "interoperable" with Washington, may have to opt wholesale for the AH-64E with all the heavy cost it entails or do the minimum upgrade necessary and soldier on until the helicopter is phased out in 2040. The latter means Britain becomes technically obsolete.

Buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which many US allies are planning to do) would entail similar problems as none of them are being allowed to fully maintain their fighter fleet. As defense-aerospace notes ... "buying into a US weapons program without fully measuring the consequences is a bit like stepping into quicksand: easy to do but difficult, if not impossible, to reverse".


More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.