The Indian military is close to purchasing a major American combat-weapon system for the first time in decades. Despite a history that might suggest otherwise, India is betting on American reliability as an arms supplier.
India has bought a considerable amount of military equipment from the United States in the last decade, but very few of its purchases were combat-weapons systems. Instead, India bought trainers, amphibious ships, maritime-patrol aircraft and especially transport aircraft—ten huge C-17 transport aircraft worth $4.8 billion, for example, and six C-130s worth almost another billion. But American fighter aircraft lost out in the Indian Air Force's competition for a new modern jet fighter—an enormous deal for 126 aircraft worth at least $20 billion—to the French. New Delhi's decision against the American aircraft irritated the White House.
Now India is close to buying twenty-two AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters. The deal includes over 1300 Hellfire missiles and advanced radar systems. All together, it amounts to at least $1.4 billion in sales. The Apaches have outperformed a Russian competitor. The deal will provide India with a battle-tested system used effectively by U.S., U.K. and Israeli forces.
India first acquired significant amounts of American arms fifty years ago when China invaded India in 1962. President John F. Kennedy agreed to desperate pleas from Prime Minister Nehru for arms. The weapons began to arrive rapidly. The United States and Britain coordinated on major arms sales to India to deter further Chinese aggression.
Then Pakistan attacked India in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson suspended arms deliveries to both India and Pakistan. Six years later, President Richard Nixon reaffirmed the arms cutoff when Pakistan again attacked India. In 1971, Nixon urged Jordan and Iran to send Pakistan American arms to fight India even though it violated the arms ban. In 1998, President Bill Clinton cut military relations with India once again after New Delhi tested nuclear weapons, as he was required by law.
Indian politicians and generals concluded, not surprisingly, that America was an unreliable arms supplier. Dependence on American spare parts, ammunition and replacements for key weapons, they reasoned, would leave them defenseless in a crisis. Soaring rhetoric about shared democratic values would not defend India when Pakistan threatens. Nonlethal systems such as C-17s still would be useful, but weapon systems would be useless without access to resupply.
If India buys the Apache helicopters, it will be an important milestone in the U.S.-India relationship. New Delhi will be betting, despite bad odds in the past, that the United States won’t cut off further sales. Indian Apaches may mark a new page in Washington’s courtship of New Delhi.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).