In a joint press conference with President Joe Biden on June 22, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that “even the sky is not the limit” for U.S.-India cooperation. India’s state visit is nothing short of historical, considering the widespread craze for Modi’s charisma as well as the number of agreements signed across various sectors like defense, semiconductors, critical minerals, space, climate, education, healthcare, and more. Out of all of those, the proposal to jointly produce the GE F-414 jet engines stands out. This is because only four countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France—can make jet engines. Manufacturing behemoth China is yet to crack it. The jet engine technology is so precious that the United States has been careful to share it even with its allies. This, however, is about to change.
General Electric has signed a memorandum of understanding with India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to co-produce the GE F-414 engine for the Indian Air Force. While GE is pursuing necessary export authorizations with the U.S. government, the agreement is set to usher in a new phase of defense cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.
In the last six months, both countries have been working through the initiative for Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) to set channels for strong private sector cooperation in technologies of strategic consequences. When Secretary of Defense Austin visited New Delhi, India and the United States also agreed on a Defense Industrial Cooperation Roadmap. The jet engine deal marks the beginning of a promising collaboration on defense innovation and technology cooperation. It is also a significant step towards settling the two fundamental differences in an otherwise thriving defense relationship. First, the United States wants to increase military sales to India, while the latter presses on technology transfers for indigenization. Second, India’s role as a maritime power has been central to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific, while India has prioritized the land border with China. The GE jet engine deal shows how both countries can balance these mutual concerns.
From Buyer-Seller Relationship to Co-Production
Defense cooperation between the United States and India has grown exponentially in recent years. India’s elevation as a Major Defense Partner status (in 2016) and Strategic Trade Authorization I (in 2018) strengthened the foundation of the defense partnership. However, impediments such as different national bureaucratic structures, acquisition models, and budget processes held both countries back.
Until the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative could figure out the institutional nitty-gritty as a “silent enabler,” the United States supplied arms to India via Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sale mechanisms. However, a buyer-seller relationship was not feasible for India in the long term—though cutting-edge, American weaponry is costlier than French and Russian counterparts. It was a major reason India could not make big-ticket purchases from the United States and instead chose France (for the Rafale jet over F-16s, for example) and Russia (for the S-400 missile system over PATRIOT PAC-3). On the contrary, India sought technology transfers to develop its defense-industrial base. For the United States, it was difficult to divulge sensitive technologies without adequate trust in the Indian defense ecosystem.
The jet engine deal shows a modus operandi to realize the true potential of the strategic partnership. The jointly-produced GE F414 will fit into India’s advanced light combat aircraft (HAL Tejas Mk-2) and the first batch of prospective fifth-generation stealth fighters (HAL AMCA). As Indian Air Forces aim to maintain forty-two squadrons (around 756 fighter aircraft) by 2035, thousands of jet engines will enter the production line over the next decade. Through this deal, the United States has made a long-term investment in the Indian defense market.
The jet engine deal, in addition to the General Atomics UAV deal, will also advance India’s goal for military modernization. From assembling components to performing maintenance operations, Indian companies will gradually learn the know-how of jet engines. Technology transfers have a long gestation period before the receiver can independently develop some part of the system. In the next few years, India’s defense industry will absorb immense skill to build the capacity to produce high-tech systems.
If the United States and India begin more joint production projects of such scale, their military industries will be engaged for decades. The United States wants a share of India’s defense market, while India needs access to advanced military technology.
Addressing India’s Conundrum: Land or Maritime?
America’s interest lies in seeing India as the central maritime power in the Indian Ocean region. In contrast, India’s present primary concern is the volatile Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Though India has a development-centric approach to the Indian Ocean, a hot border has constrained New Delhi from committing desired military resources in the maritime domain. Time and again, U.S. policymakers acknowledged India’s border challenges but lacked a sustainable strategy to facilitate India’s proactive posture in the Indian Ocean.
The jet engine deal has also opened a pathway for India to mitigate the Himalayan threat while promoting its maritime assertiveness. Most fighter jets using the GE-F414 engine will be deployed at India’s land borders. Procuring MQ-9B SeaGuardians UAVs will also ramp up its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The development comes after Washington leased two Predator drones in 2020 for surveillance after the Ladakh standoff with China.
Future areas of defense-industrial cooperation include aerial combat, land mobility systems, ISR, and munitions. Considering the regional threat environment, India will primarily use these technologies in the Himalayan theater. But this is not all. The official iCET handout refers to an “initial focus” on these seemingly land-oriented technologies, after which both would identify their operational use cases in maritime security. Furthermore, deployed U.S. ships will now be able to access Indian shipyards for service and repair. Such access to the American fleet on Indian naval facilities is unprecedented.
The United States is farsighted in realizing that New Delhi will go maritime only when the 2,167-mile Sino-Indian land border is taken care of. India’s inroads in the Indian Ocean will also directly result from its economic rise and territorial security. A strong India on the land can also commit more to external balancing in the maritime domain, which supplements America’s wider Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Setting Future Goal Posts
Though the GE jet engine deal is a significant milestone, the United States and India can do much more to enrich the partnership. Some of the future goals posts for both countries can include the following.
First, the United States should strive to become the largest arms provider to India. Russia’s ability to act as a reliable arms supplier for India has diminished due to the prolonged war in Ukraine, a bottled-up economy, and subservience to China. America can fill the vacuum created by a weak Russia. At the same time, New Delhi can cultivate the Department of Defense and the military-industrial lobbies to maintain a level-headed realist India policy in the corridors of Washington.
Second, the United States and India should build on the outcomes of the visit to negotiate a Security of Supply Arrangement and Reciprocal Defense Procurement. The former will allow India to request prior delivery of orders with U.S. firms while the latter will promote synergy in research, development, and interoperability between the two countries. These agreements will facilitate working together during unanticipated disruptions and possibly open channels for wartime cooperation.
Amidst all the Modi-mania and euphoria regarding India, the United States policymakers must apply sober thinking. The United States is accustomed to leading its allies and having partners who toe the line on almost all issues. India, however, does not like to be led by superpowers; it instead strongly pursues issue-based alignments. Yet though their strategic worldview differs, the U.S.-India bonhomie cannot be more natural in today’s strategic environment and, one daresay, shared democratic values. Washington and New Delhi must be persistent because relationships of such importance are seldom a sprint but a marathon.
Ambuj Sahu is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. He was previously trained as an electrical engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He tweets at @DarthThunderous.
Image: Image courtesy of GE.