India buys US war equipment
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India buys US war equipment

Thanksgiving present for Obama when he arrives in Delhi in November, writes Asia Sentinel’s Siddharth Srivastava

India is making a definitive turn away from Russia and other long-time weapons suppliers France, Sweden and the United Kingdom towards the US and Israel, a fact that should considerably sweeten the visit of US President Barack Obama to India in November. 

Ties between India and America thus follow a strategic shift in the relations between the two countries over the last couple of years that began with the signing of a landmark civilian nuclear deal by the administration of former President George W Bush, as well and other defense agreements. America has been promoting India as a counterweight to China in the region as well as seeking to tap new business opportunities. 

The emergence of the US as India’s new military partner has ripened even as New Delhi looks beyond Russia, India’s traditional supplier dating well back into the Cold War era. Problems with Russia include servicing and spare parts delays and obsolete technology. As Asia Sentinel reported in March, the purchase and retrofitting of an elderly Russian aircraft carrier, the 28-year-old Admiral Gorshkov, is far behind schedule. Expected to be launched in 2012 as the INS Vikramaditya, its retrofitting cost has skyrocketed from US$750 million to US$1.5 billion. In December 2009, the Indian Air Force had to ground its entire fleet of 105 Sukhoi fighter jets after two crashed.

The US, presently India’s sixth-biggest arms provider, will likely be among the top three alongside Israel and Russia in the next couple of years. Indeed, in its second stint in power the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government has been unshackled from the tricky task of managing anti-American leftist parties that it faced in the earlier coalition government. With the exit of the left from the ruling national coalition, the role of Indian private firms in defense production has got a boost, while American defense supplies and contracts are on the rise. 

While much of the Congress-led government’s energies last term went into tying up the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and dealing with recalcitrant communist allies, security and defense are key focus areas this time around in the wake of events such as the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. 

In a buyer’s market, India is looking to negotiate deals from a position of strength. Offset investment requirements in local defense companies and easing of foreign direct investment requirements can be expected to boost domestic private players.