US seals key ‘jet engine deal’ ahead of Modi’s visit

By, Washington:
Jun 19, 2023 05:16 AM IST

The US administration has completed the executive approvals for the manufacture of F414 jet engines in India.

Sealing a key deliverable during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington DC, the United States (US) administration has completed the executive approvals for the manufacture of F414 jet engines in India and begun the process of notifying the US Congress about the impending Memorandum of Understanding to be signed between General Electric (GE) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), people familiar with discussions on the subject said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden in Oval Office, at White House in Washington,on September 24, 2021. (Reuters)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden in Oval Office, at White House in Washington,on September 24, 2021. (Reuters)

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This is the first time that the US will share what it called a “crown jewel” in its defence capabilities with a non-ally; it is the first time that there will be coproduction of jet engines with a country with which Washington DC doesn’t have a treaty; it is also the first time that the US system is sharing a substantial share of sensitive jet engine technology with a provision for tech transfer ratio to increase.

“It is transformative. India will have access to the full engine. There are no black boxes here. The manufacturing in India is going to start with technology sharing of way over 50% which rises over the production cycle. There will be a flexible licensing agreement. India will have designs and sensitive technology. This is more tech transfer than the US has ever authorised. We are breaking through into new frontiers,” said a person aware of the discussions.

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It is understood that commerce, state and defense departments have pushed through executive approvals, with regard to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR); the administration is notifying the Senate and House armed services and foreign relations committees; and the process will take a few weeks to get to the full Congress. But given the strong bipartisan support India enjoys on the Hill, it is expected to move through smoothly.

In the meantime, during the PM’s visit, GE and HAL will sign an MoU on the manufacturing deal. The jet engines will power Tejas MK 2 fighter planes.

Explaining the significance of the decision, from the American perspective, Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), said, “For the US, this is a significant move – a ‘costly signal’ as social scientists say – to share some highly sensitive technology, which it has never shared with a non-ally. Such transfers can be made possible, not simply with blueprints but from the transmission of tacit and organisational knowledge through a shared ecology of joint research, manufacturing, and supply chains.”

From the Indian perspective, Lalwani said, the deal offered access to better fighter jet engines than what China possessed – “with greater power and efficiency, longer service life, and less maintenance”. “It also offers India a coveted technology cooperation partnership and path to research, design, and produce its own cutting-edge aeroengines and upstream inputs.”

Given the deal’s political importance, Lalwani said, it can help catalyse a much broader defence technology and industrial partnership between the US and India, “ranging from basic science to lab research and development to codevelopment and commercialisation of new capabilities for advanced domains”.

In a recent report arguing for the deal, Heritage Foundation’s John Venable and Jeff Smith noted, “The deal would bolster India’s capacity to field indigenously produced fighters with some of the most powerful and reliable engines in the class, saving decades of research and development costs.” They added that the F414 engine technology transfer will also expand on the “already growing interoperability between US and Indian military systems”.

Under the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (ICET), unveiled by national security advisers Ajit Doval and Jake Sullivan in January, the US acknowledged that it had received an application from GR to “to jointly produce jet engines that could power jet aircraft operated and produced indigenously by India”. During secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and NSA Sullivan’s visit to India this month, they discussed the subject in detail with their Indian counterparts. Those involved in the discussions said that ICET and the leadership of NSAs made a big difference, as did the focus on actual deliverables.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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