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As Modi Leaves for State Visit, India and US Officials Place Defence Cooperation at Front and Centre

author The Wire Staff
Jun 20, 2023
Both sides have been eager to deepen their defence ties for last two decades. However, priorities have differed.

New Delhi: While a state dinner and a joint address to the United States Congress may be laden with symbolism, Indian and US officials are both keen to project that what is going to be the last visit to the US by Narendra Modi in his second prime ministerial term will have substantive deliverables in defence and critical technologies.

As the Indian PM flies off to start his US trip with a day of yoga in New York, both sides have tried to pique interest with anonymous ‘leaks’ punctuating formal restraint. For weeks, there has been swirling speculation that agreements over fighter jet engines, drones and semi-conductor chips will be highlights of the first state visit by Modi to the US.

Without elaborating, Indian foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra told reporters on Monday, June 19, that “one of the key components which will be prominently showcased will be bilateral defence cooperation”.

The Americans also had a similar line. US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that the main outcome of the state visit would be a “deeper, more effective, more diverse defence partnership than what we inherited when the Biden administration came into office”.

Both sides have been eager to deepen their defence ties for last two decades. However, priorities have differed, with India hoping for a genuine transfer of technology and joint production by loosening export controls in the defence sector. On the other hand, the US has generally called for raising caps on Foreign Direct Investment in the nascent Indian defence industry and reforming its complicated defence offsets policy.

iCET under spotlight

With previous initiatives like the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, granting of Major Defence Partner status and signing of foundational agreements not yielding any results in defence technological cooperation, the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology or iCET is touted as the latest roadmap to overcome obstacles in obtaining critical US defence tech. 

For the US, it is also presumably seen as helpful policy to wean India from its dependence on Russian defence equipment, especially against the backdrop of the Ukraine war.

As per media reports, the US has completed the executive approvals for the joint production of General Electric’s F414 jet engines for the Mark II version India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas. These engines had been selected as early as 2010, but export controls on transferring critical technologies had delayed their sale.

Sullivan coyly said that he did not want to be ahead of announcements, but underlined that the jet engine technology has been a “long term strategic advantage of the US”.

“So any technology transfer with respect to jet engines is a vote of confidence in the strategic partnership with another country,” he said in an interview to The Hindustan Times.

Another announcement likely to be made is the $3 billion purchase of 31 armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones by India. As per Reuters, the US had approved the sale of drones two years go, but the Indian defence ministry had delayed its approval till last week. 

All of these are now part of a new trendy acronym that made its appearance last year. When Sullivan was in New Delhi earlier this month, he jointly attended a track 1.5 dialogue on iCET along with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval. It was the second strategic dialogue within six months, and just a few weeks before Modi’s state visit.

Before Sullivan’s trip, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in New Delhi. They not only had concluded a roadmap on for bilateral defence India cooperation, but also finalised a new public-private initiative for iCET cooperation called Indus-x, which will be launched during Modi’s trip. 

Also read: US-India Strategic Convergence: A Bridge Too Far?

In his departure statement, the Indian PM singled out iCET as the flagship bilateral collaborative platform. “The initiative on Critical & Emerging Technologies has added new dimensions and widened collaboration to defence industrial cooperation, space, telecom, quantum, Artificial Intelligence and biotech sectors. Our two countries are also collaborating to further our shared vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” said the statement issued today morning.

According to Sullivan, iCET was a “powerful engine for the deeper development of US-India ties because it is so fundamental to everything we are trying to accomplish together”. 

He also claimed that the Initiative will show results over the coming months and years “in real research partnerships, real supply chain shifts, real cooperation to produce the next generation technologies for 5G and 6G, and for harnessing AI for positive outcomes”

Supply chain cooperation, especially for critical technologies like semi-conductors, is expected to be part of the announcements with the two countries concerned over the dominating leverage held by China in the production process.


The current level of cooperation between India and the United States is a result of decades of effort, a result of a top-down political effort to keep suspicions fuelled by cold war politics at bay. 

In the 1980s, when a US ambassador visited the Indian Ministry of Defence, the visit was carried out surreptitiously, literally through the backdoor.

A former US diplomat, posted as political counsellor in the US embassy, reminisced in a published oral history project about the start of a nascent defence relationship in the early 1980s under the Indira Gandhi government.

“He would go around to see the science advisor in the Ministry of Defence, and I accompanied him on several of these calls. We sort of entered by the back stairway, because the idea of the American ambassador calling on the Ministry of Defence was very strange, so we’d sort of come in the back way, get taken upstairs separately,” he said.

According to another former US diplomat, it was the early 2000s when Robert Blackwill came to stay at Roosevelt House that the defence relationship started to take off with the George Bush administration having started to give focused importance to India.

In September 2001, all the sanctions from the nuclear tests were lifted. The first major American arms sales to India took place with the delivery of counter-battery radar sets, worth $190 million, in 2002. The signing of the 2005 ‘New Framework for India-US Defence Relations’ signalled the turning point for intensifying defence cooperation.

Till 2008, imports of US arms were totally worth $500 million. From that year onwards, the total value of defence contracts signed by the two countries has been at least $20 billion.

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