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US ambassador proposes Indo-American helicopters, unmanned combat vehicles

Kenneth Juster, America’s recently arrived ambassador to India, has identified defence and counter-terrorism as a “key pillar” of Indo-US cooperation.

Making his first public speech in New Delhi on Thursday, Juster noted that “In little more than a decade, US defence trade with India has expanded from virtually nothing to over 15 billion dollars and includes sales of some of America’s most advanced military equipment.”

Juster outlined a US wish list for the next wave of arms sales to India, naming “fighter aircraft production; and the co-development of next generation systems, including a Future Vertical Lift platform or Advanced Technology Ground Combat Vehicles.”

Washington officials have been backing an offer by Lockheed Martin to manufacture the F-16 Block 70 fighter in India, and Boeing’s offer to build its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter for the Indian Navy. However, this is the first time a senior US official has publicly mentioned a proposal to co-develop a range of combat helicopters (Future Vertical Lift platform) or unmanned ground vehicles (Advanced Technology Ground Combat Vehicle).

So far, these have been discussed only within the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), a high-level US-India joint forum for overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and exploring new initiatives.

Senior Indian military officials, speaking off-the-record, say an Indo-US helicopter or an autonomous combat vehicle would provide a major impetus to the relationship.

Juster, who has worked since 2000 on the US-India relationship, is keenly aware of the potential for enhancing trust through co-development projects. He stated: “I want to emphasize that the United States is more than just another [arms] supplier… We seek to assist India’s efforts to build up its indigenous defence base and capabilities, as well as enhance the inter-operability of our two forces as major defence partners in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Pointing out that the two countries already conduct robust single-service exercises together, the US ambassador suggested: “it is time to consider a multi-service exercise, perhaps focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief… [in order to] increase our comfort, ease and confidence in working together.”

The only country with which India conducts a tri-service exercises is Russia. In October, the Indian army, navy and air force sent troops to Vladivostok to take part in the tri-service Exercise Indra 2017 alongside the Russian military.

Juster also sought increased military-to-military exchanges between the two countries to build operational familiarity. “Over time, we should expand officer exchanges at our war colleges and our training facilities, and even at some point post reciprocal military liaison officers at our respective combatant commands.”

Behind the scenes, Washington has been encouraging New Delhi to station a senior military official in each of the two US combatant commands whose responsibilities cover South Asia: the US Pacific Command (PACOM) headquartered in Hawaii, and Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida.

Juster outlined a vision of US-India ties that rest on five pillars: defence and counter-terrorism; economic and cultural relations; energy and the environment; science, technology and health; and regional cooperation, including on Afghanistan.

Underlining Washington’s changed approach to Afghanistan, and its growing disenchantment with Pakistan, Juster pointed out that India and the US “both have a strong interest in promoting peace, security and prosperity… [by] supporting Afghanistan’s National Unity Government and helping build that country’s democratic institutions.

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