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The Next Chapter In India-UK Defense Relationship – Analysis

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By Javin Aryan

Despite the cancellation of the UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson’s trip to India owing to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, London and New Delhi’s advance toward a closer and more meaningful partnership is unlikely to dampen. During the virtual summit between Johnson and Prime Minster Narendra Modi next week, the agenda is likely to be quite expansive. It will include signing an enhanced trade partnership agreement and unveiling a roadmap for the future of the bilateral relationship in this decade that will specify engagement in the realms of trade and investment, defence and security, technology, climate change, clean energy, and healthcare.

Of significance is the strengthening defence relationship between the two countries, especially in light of the UK’s declaration that it will “pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and sees India as a “key pillar” in this endeavor. India, too, has been keen to shore up support from like-minded countries to safeguard its national interests and bolster its territorial and regional security. This has led to India formalizing defence agreements, participating in joint military exercises, and striving to modernize its military through numerous means. Hence, the UK’s foray into the Indo-Pacific is sure to be warmly welcomed by India. And while it is too early and strategically unwise for either side to publish the specifics of how this mutually beneficial partnership will unfold, history and contemporary events provide an excellent perspective to gauge where they are headed.

Past engagements in defence sector

After independence from the British Raj in 1947, India embarked on its own foreign and national defence policy that was characterized by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). With the colonial experience fresh in their minds, India’s policymakers chose this approach to not get caught between the great powers in their cold war. This, however, did not mean that India was isolated in times of need. During the India-China War of 1962, the UK fully supported India’s claim to the disputed territories, and soon after China declared a ceasefire, it granted India’s request for arms and equipment to defend itself “against Chinese aggression.” Two years later, in 1964, the UK extended a £4.7 million special Defence Credit to India for “reconstruction of the Mazagon Dockyard at Bombay, and the construction there of Leander Class Frigates.”

Over the next few decades, India’s defence relationship with the UK remained largely stagnant, apart from procurement of defence systems. This began to slowly change after the end of the Cold War, and the two countries entered into a strategic partnership in 2004. Annual summits and meetings between heads of government and foreign ministers were envisaged, as was cooperation in the areas of combating terrorism, civil nuclear activities, and civil space programs, amongst others. The UK reaffirmed its support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council as well. Then in 2015, the Defence and International Security Partnership framework was unveiled, calling for enhanced cyber, defence, and maritime collaboration and stating UK’s support for projects under the “Make in India” initiative.

Arms imports and defence production

One would expect that as India had inherited its military establishment and equipment from the UK at the end of colonial rule, it would continue to rely on the island country for its future needs. Predictably, so was true, but for a remarkably short period. From enjoying a 100 percent share of India’s arms imports by value in 1950, the UK’s share of the pie began to quickly decrease throughout the century, accounting for just 4.6 percent in the 2000s.

UK’s share of India’s Arms Imports (by value)

Year/Periodpercent share
1950100
1950s64
1960s
1970s
1980s
1990s6.95
2000s4.6

Source: The Limits of the India-United Kingdom Defence Relationship (2013)

This continuous decline can be directly attributed to the Soviet Union’s (and later Russia’s) willingness to sell its defence systems and transfer technology to India, even at times when the US and the UK refused to do so. Consequently, Moscow established itself as a more reliable defence partner for New Delhi, as epitomized by the India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation signed in 1971. Nevertheless, India continued to procure some defence systems from the UK, notably the now-decommissioned aircraft carriers INS Vikrant and INS Viraat, Jaguar attack aircraft by Anglo-French manufacturer SEPECAT, and Sea King helicopters.

Aiming to reenergize their defence industrial partnership, India and the UK signed the Defence Equipment Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 1997. The MoU has since been renewed twice, in 2007 and 2019, but the initiative has had limited success so far. While a few joint-ventures (JVs) and co-production agreements have materialized—namely AgustaWestland–Tata Sons’ JV manufacturing AW119 Koala utility helicopters, Mahindra Defence-BAE Systems’ co-production of M777 howitzers, and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited-BAE Systems’ licenced production of Hawk advanced trainer aircraft—more ambitious projects have not been able to take-off.

On India’s side, the key hindrances have been its red tape-ridden and perilously slow procurement/acquisition process, low incentives for foreign original equipment manufacturers to invest in India, and uncertain rules and regulations regarding the exportability of systems developed. In the past few years, however, there has been a consistent effort to overcome these obstacles. The limit on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defence production was raised to 49 percent in 2014 and then to 74 percent in 2020 under the automatic route. New methods of acquisitions, such as the Strategic Partnership model and Buy (Global – Manufacture in India), have been added. Two Defence Industrial Corridors have been created in the country as well, one in the state of Uttar Pradesh and another in Tamil Nadu. Notably, UK’s arms manufacturer Webley & Scott has set up production in Hardoi, UP, taking advantage of this initiative.

Further, the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and Indo-Israeli Barak 8 surface-to-air missile systems have emerged as shining examples of India’s defence industrial collaboration with partner countries and have great export potential.

On the other hand, the UK has been slow to adapt to the Indian government’s increasingly preferred method of acquisition—through Government-to-Government (G2G) agreements or Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for deals with the US. Recently, India’s two big defence procurements, the Rafale fighter jets from France and S-400 Triumf air defence systems from Russia, were made through the G2G route. Realizing the untapped potential, London has come up with an appealing G2G framework whose focus will be on the co-development of intellectual property by “creating and making in India.” Projects on offer under this arrangement include joint development of jet engine technology and sixth-generation fighter jet technology that can be used in India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) currently under development. The UK has also offered designs of its Queen Elizabeth-class carrier for the development of India’s third aircraft carrier. Additionally, collaboration on integrated electric propulsion technology that the Indian Navy was considering for its future warships, is a possibility as well.

Indo-Pacific: The new point of convergence

With the UK expanding its footprint in the Indo-Pacific and India working toward gaining prominence as the net security provider in the region, both countries’ aspirations and future seem to be intertwined. Though, faulty execution may still be its undoing.

An area of focus up ahead should be to enhance military-to-military interactions. While there exist service-specific joint training exercises, such as the biennial exercise Ajeya Warrior for the Army, exercise Indradhanush for the Air Force, and exercise Konkan for the Navy, their pace has not matched with India’s exercises with the US. India and the UK have not conducted more complex tri-service exercises either, nor have they taken part in trilateral or multilateral exercises with other partner countries.

Here, apart from geopolitical and strategic calculations, the lack of foundational agreements may be acting as a limiting factor as well. While an MoU on joint training is under development, a military logistics agreement is expected to be signed soon. This will give India and the UK reciprocal access to each other’s bases and formalize the procedures for receiving and paying for logistic support, such as servicing and refueling. India has similar agreements with Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the US. As the UK plans to deploy Offshore Patrol Vessels and Frigates in the Indo-Pacific, access to India’s bases will increase its fleet’s operational efficiency.

The UK, with its bases in Kenya, Brunei, Bahrain, Oman, Singapore, and the British Indian Ocean Territory, is by no means new to the region. Having such an infrastructure already in place will not only aid its ambitions in the region but also be valuable to its partners. For India, access to these bases will augment its reach further into the Indian Ocean. Working with other like-minded countries, such as Japan and Australia, there is great scope for close cooperation in areas of maritime domain awareness and intelligence sharing by leveraging the strength of each other’s assets. In this regard, Japan’s initiative to enhance defence intelligence sharing with India, Australia, and the UK is a significant step.

The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific brings with it yet another opportunity. And although the recently released Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy specifically calls for showcasing the strike group’s interoperability with the US, a similar or joint demonstration should take place with India, which is a regional power with experience of operating carrier battle groups.

Moving forward, the India-UK defence relationship will no longer be limited to being one of a buyer-seller. It will not stop at defence production either. Through close maritime cooperation and a joint approach toward maintaining regional security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, the two countries have the potential to forge a truly comprehensive strategic partnership in action.

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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