Explained: India looks to boost defence capability with US anti-submarine chopper deal

Within weeks of signing a nuclear deal to build six reactors in India, the US Department of State on Wednesday approved the sale of 24 MH-60R helicopters worth $2.6 billion to New Delhi under its Foreign Military Sales programme; this is to strengthen India’s defence capabilities against China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean.

The Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) finalised the deal with US-based arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin as the principal contractor.

Due process followed before sale?

The DSCA has notified Congress of the possible sale, as per its legal obligation in the case of non-NATO countries like India. Congress now has 30 days to take action, if necessary; however, it neither needs to approve disapprove the potential sale.

American trade regulations only mandate the notification of Congress before the sale of Major Defense Equipment of $14 million and above, articles and services of $50 million and above, and design and construction services of $200 million and above.

Once the process passes through the notification period without any hitches, the US government will respond to India with a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LoA). The LoA usually expires in 60 days, before which India has to make an initial deposit.

The State Department’s approval for the MH-60R sale comes in quick enough response to Indian government’s long list of requisitions for hardware, personnel training, training equipment, contractor engineering, and logistical and technical support services it sent late last year.

The department’s statement notes that India typically requires offsets, and that any offset agreement will be defined between India and the contractor. analysts, media commentators, government critics, and RTI activists will watch out for this announcement, especially after the controversial offsets contract in the Rafale aircraft deal involving Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence.

How does the deal benefit both nations?

The deal, between the world’s largest arms exporter and its largest importer, rests squarely on the tenets of profit-making for the former and strengthening archaic military arsenal for the latter.

Nicknamed Romeo, the MH-60R grade helicopters have anti-submarine and multi-mission capabilities that will enable India to “perform anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions along with secondary missions, including vertical replenishment, search and rescue, and communications relay,” the DSCA said in a statement Tuesday, April 2.

The choppers can also knock out ships and conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea. “India will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense,” the department added.

This proposed sale will further support the foreign policy and national security of the US by strengthening the Indo-US strategic relationship and improving “the security of a major defense partner, which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region,” the press note said.

Previous agreements

The Obama administration granted India the Major Defence Partner designation in 2016; that brought India within reach of US military technology, a privilege reserved for US’s closest allies.

The Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status followed, last August, making India the third Asian country after South Korea and Japan (and 37th globally) to acquire it. This was to further facilitate the transfer of technology between both nations, in and space technology sectors.

Then, India and US signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement () after the first 2+2 dialogue between the two countries last year.

It provided the US with a legal basis to transfer secure communication equipment to India, thereby increasing military equipment interoperability and real-time data sharing. This means, any craft India had purchased prior to this lacked such secured communication gear; reason: the US was reluctant to part with the encryption codes.

Along with COMCASA, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) are foundational military communication agreements between the two. BECA will allow India to use US geospatial maps to get pinpoint military accuracy of automated hardware systems and weapons, such as cruise and ballistic missiles.

The US has also repeatedly backed India’s entry into the elite 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Under the Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008, the NSG had granted India a special waiver that enabled it to sign long-term civil cooperation agreements with a dozen countries to import uranium.

India is also one of the few nations allowed to engage in nuclear trade despite being a non-signatory of the non-proliferation treaty of 1978.

According to senior officials in the know-how, both countries are planning to revive the Defence Policy Group between them after a four-year gap.

Why the deal matters

The sale of MH-60R copters comes on the heels of a few weeks of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following an attack on an Indian security convoy in Pulwama on February 14, which killed 40 CRPF personnel.

DSCA’s statement, in keeping with the language of the Arms Control Export Act, assures that the deal won’t disturb “basic military balance in the region”; nonetheless, there is sufficient cause to believe that this sale is for boosting US’s emerging ally to better tackle enemy submarines, especially Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean.

China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean has alarmed both India and the US, as it continues to develop into a formidable global naval power. The anti-submarine choppers are likely a response to China’s “string of pearls” strategy that has seen a flurry of activity in allied ports, like Pakistan’s Gwadar, as Beijing’s naval bases.

Meanwhile, the state of India’s weaponry is worrisome

As much as this is about sending a message to regional rivals, the Romeos would also replenish the country’s overstretched and ill-equipped military, particularly India’s aging fleet of British-made Sea King helicopters.?

“If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68% of the army’s equipment is so old, it is officially considered vintage,” the New York Times said in a report last month.

Indian military planners have long grappled with the question of how to replace hundreds of obsolete IAF MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-27 fighters. The Mikoyan-Gurevich-21, India’s first supersonic jet fighter aircraft manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1955, was inducted in the IAF in 1963 and has caused over 250 casualties since the 1970s.

Bureaucratic delays in procuring modern military tech (along with HAL’s defunct technologies) have grievously debilitated the Indian Army. Currently, at least 252 MIG-21s are operational in the air force, according to the Indian military enthusiast site Bharat Rakshak. Pakistan knocked down its latest version, the Bison, in a recent encounter.

During the Balakot operation, the IAF scrambled Mirage 2000 fighters manufactured by French weapons giant Dassault, whose Rafale jets have been a source of tremendous controversy and are yet to make their way to India’s cavalry.

Incidentally, Lockheed Martin was among the five vendors that lost the bid to Dassault’s Rafale in 2007. Pakistan had allegedly deployed the US arms manufacturer’s F-16INs, which the UPA government had rejected in favour of Rafale, post-Pulwama—entering Indian airspace and violating the LoC ceasefire agreement.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius