The US Congress has approved the sale of eight Boeing P8-I multi-mission spy planes to India, apparently clearing the decks for transfer of a variety of other sophisticated defence systems by the new Obama administration to New Delhi.
A Congressional committee comprising members from both the Senate and House of Representative examined the proposed sale, and cleared it through a notification on April 11. As per the US rules, the notice for the proposed sale was sent to the Congress on March 12 by the US State Department, and the Congress had 30 days to consider and approve or reject it.
According to a report in the coming issue of India Strategic defence magazine, defence sources in Washington and New Delhi have described the clearance as significant as it indicates that the administration of President Barack Obama would continue to build up defence and strategic ties with India, initiated actually by President Bill Clinton although pursued aggressively by President George W Bush.
A top naval official told India Strategic that although the US government had cleared the sale of six Lockheed Martin C 130Js in the past, the sale of Boeing P8-I aircraft actually determined the course of India-US defence ties as of now. "If the sale had been blocked, then all other equipment that the US companies are trying to sell to India would automatically be off the acquisition list of India."
In its notice to the Congress, mandatory under US rules for selling weapons to foreign countries, the State Department had said that it had factored in "political, military, economic, human rights and arms control considerations" before deciding on the $2.1 billion sale of these aircraft.
Because of the change of administration in Washington, the sale had become a test case, particularly as Washington cannot sell military and dual use systems without certain End User stipulations.
Boeing's Vice President and Country Head for Integrated Defence Systems (India) Vivek Lall said that the approval was "historic" as it clearly signified that "both the US and Indian governments were leaning forward in cooperation on newer technologies".
Boeing was offering lifetime support and modernisation of its systems in accordance with bilateral agreements. Lall described the deal as "unprecedented" as this is the first time that the US is sharing the technology developed for US armed forces with another country at the same time.
It is significant that the Indian Navy will be the first foreign naval force to get this technology after the US Navy, which has paid for the aircraft's development for its global maritime role, and nearly at the same time. Canada, Australia and Italy are the other countries which have expressed interest in the MMA, designated as P8-A for the US Navy.
The aircraft is still under development, and will take off for the skies for the first time later this year. Its delivery to India would begin in about four years.
Notably, India is in a major drive to replace its outdated, Soviet-vintage equipment for the Army, Navy and Air Force with latest and contemporary generation precision strike systems and their supporting infrastructure. Boeing itself is trying to sell heavy lift C 17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, heavy lift Chinook helicopter, Apache combat helicopter, F 18 Super Hornet attack aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and more Boeing P8-I and other Boeing 737-based aircraft.
The big deal though is for the $10-15 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF), in which Boeing has fielded the F 18, and another US military giant, Lockheed Martin, has offered the Indian version of F 16 designated F 16 IN Viper. IAF is looking for 126 aircraft, with an option for an additional 63.
Four other aircraft, European consortium's Eurofighter, Russia's Mig 35, Sweden's Gripen and the French Rafale are in the fray.
Notably, IAF has just commissioned three new Boeing Business Jets (BBJ) for ferrying VVIPs, replacing an earlier set of three older Boeing 737s acquired during the 1980s.
Both the BBJs and P8-I are built on the Boeing 737 platforms, which are being flown in India for some 40 years and are easy to maintain. However, these are new generation aircraft are equipped with totally brand new systems. The BBJ for instance, which is specifically to ferry the president, vice president and prime minister, can also serve as an airborne command and communication centre in a war.
The same is also true of the P8-I, which is designated as a Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA). But its profile is much wider than the name suggests: it can locate hostile submarines, and can attack them as well as small or large ships near or far from the coast.
Lall said that Boeing is committed to provide continuous technology insertions on all its systems in accordance with agreements with the buyer countries.
Notably, US companies develop technologies, mostly at the initiative of and funding by the US armed forces. But they are allowed to sell them to foreign countries only with the approval of the US Departments of Defence and State.