By Ajai Shukla
Edited interview in Business Standard
11th Dec 17
Keith Webster handled US-India defence relations for several years as a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration. Now a Senior Vice President with the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), he talks to Ajai Shukla about the trajectory of the defence relationship.
Q. Why has the US designated India as a “major defence partner” (MDF)?
In the US system, this was a very significant step. In May 2016, during the waning months of [former President Barack] Obama’s administration, we began debating in the Pentagon the need to cement the solid defence relationship we had achieved. We decided the best way to “immortalise” the relationship was to bring in the term “major defence partner” into the June 2016 joint statement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama.
At a meeting with [Defence Secretary] Ash Carter that was attended by every political appointee in the Pentagon, I was the only career official in that office. I told them: “In nine months, I will probably be the only person here who will still be in this building (the Pentagon). I need this relationship formalised.” We proposed the MDP designation, and the Modi government accepted putting it into the [Modi-Obama] joint statement.
Later in 2016, there was a short exchange of letters between Ash Carter and [Defence Minister] Manohar Parrikar on what MDP broadly meant. And then, MDP was mentioned in our National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, signed by Barack Obama in December 2016. That means the legislation is in place on the US side.
Q. What does MDP mean in practical terms for India?
While both governments have acknowledged MDP, we need to see how India defines it. When Secretary [Jim] Mattis returned from India in September, he said: “We need to work on this definition [of MDP].” I spoke to Secretary Tillerson about this when he was here in October. So the Trump administration will flesh this out with the Modi government: what exactly will MDP be?
Q. As a MDP, where does India stand in the hierarchy of US defence partners?
The US has a pyramid of trust, based on which we part with military capabilities and technologies. Naturally, the best goes to the US military alone. Next, at the top of the pyramid are the allies that fight alongside us the most. That would be the “Five Eyes” [an intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand]. One level below are the other allies who fight alongside us, which comprises NATO – “Old NATO”, as opposed to “New NATO”. India hasn’t figured in that pyramid of trust because we never fought as allies. But we are now friends. So we have moved India up, policy-wise, to near the top of the pyramid. Not to the pinnacle, but near the top of the pyramid.
Q. Below the Five Eyes, but at par with older NATO members?
India’s status is consistent with members of NATO, other than the Five Eyes.
Q. What about the category of “major non-NATO allies” (MNNA), which the US has designated Pakistan?
That status was unacceptable to India because there are 15-16 nations in that category, including Pakistan. We needed to do something unique for India, which is more than what we’ve done for Pakistan.
Q. Why would India accept that its designation is above Pakistan’s in the hierarchy of allies?
Because our actions will prove it. Look at the F-16, the Block 70 as we call it now. That is well above your neighbour’s F-16s. What we are proposing for India reflects its status… I don’t believe Pakistan would be sold the F-16 Block 70.
Q. What benefits does MDP provide India?
First, in transferring defence capabilities, India will be on par with NATO allies. Second, when we talk about “Make in India”, we can now transfer more critical technologies to Indian industries than without MDP categorisation.
Q. Delhi worries that the Trump administration will be more transactional and focused on defence sales rather than a technology partnership…
In February this year, I too wondered: How do we reconcile “Make America Great Again” and “Make in India”? The good news is the Trump administration has reconciled that, specific to India. It fully backs everything the Obama administration proposed to India, including the exhaustive preparatory work been done on F-16 and F/A-18 “Make in India”.
The Heritage Foundation, which is close to the Trump administration, wrote on why it makes sense to support “Make in India” on the F-16, even though much of the supply would shift to India. The argument was: “An F-16 line in India is better than shutting it down. If an Indian line keeps twenty American suppliers in business, that’s better than zero.”
Q. Over the last decade, the US has concluded a wave of arms sales worth over $15 billion. What do you think the next wave will consist of?
Hopefully, the F-16 and F/A-18. Realistically, even one of those would be huge. It would be a huge symbolic gesture of trust. A fighter aircraft is a power projection capability. Transport aircraft and helicopters are great, but to take that next step – to trust America or not to supply a power projection platform – and have the confidence that the US would be there through its service life, it would be hugely symbolic.
Q. Would there be negative repercussions if India chose not to buy a US fighter?
Not really, but there would be huge disappointment. In the Pentagon I spent 30 per cent of my time on India, much of it pre-positioning the government approvals needed for making the F-16 and F/A-18 in India. We don’t normally do that. We normally require governments to request for a [weapons] platform and then we make the release decisions.
Q. Would you call the Quadrilateral a step towards an alliance?
I think it’s huge. This was discussed for the past 3-4 years, and the fact that the Indian government has allowed this to be publicly discussed, no matter how it’s presented, is a huge step for me.
Q. Is militarizing the Quadrilateral through Malabar an essential next step?
It would be a good, positive next step. We are not allies and, in our system, we have to have a reason for why we would transfer cutting edge technology to anyone. With allies, there’s a reason. But with India, what we have used to justify moving forward is cooperating on maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Q. The co-development and co-manufacturing mantras; how are they going to work, given the huge asymmetry between US and Indian defence industries?
Indian industry will have to learn how to: crawl, walk, and then run. It has technology absorption challenges, as there are with anyone that starts this journey. You have to start somewhere, build a work force, build infrastructure… It’s not insurmountable.
Q. When you talk co-development, you assume both sides have something concrete to bring to the table. In the Indian case, this is not always so…
That is true today. But it’s possible five or ten years from now. We don’t have to do co-development on Day One. You would [first] do some co-assembly, co-production and then graduate to co-development.
Q. With close cooperation happening in the Joint Working Group on aircraft carriers, will the two navies be at the forefront of the defence partnership?
Yes, given the cooperation on aircraft carriers and maritime domain awareness. Also the Indian Air Force, because they fly [the C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft and will fly the Apache and Chinook helicopters soon.
Q. Are there no lines of convergence between the two armies? In India, the army is the most important and influential service…
There is the M777 ultra-light howitzer [that the Indian Army has bought]. Maybe some day the Indian army will have the Javelin [anti-tank missile]. It is possible the Indian army gets some Apaches [attack helicopters] from the second tranche that has been ordered. There is an Apache Users Group globally that brings armies together. There are reports the Indian army is seeking new armoured vehicles; maybe there are some opportunities for cooperation there. I would argue there are promising lines of cooperation with the Indian army too.