Keith Webster , a 32-year veteran of the US Defense Department, has joined the newly launched US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) as senior vice-president for Defense and Aerospace. A big ‘catch’ for USISPF, Webster has dealt with all aspects of the India relationship, from technology transfer to export controls, from laying out new roadmaps to executing old ones. Few have his overview of the sprawling US bureaucracy and its intricacies. He talked to Seema Sirohi in Washington. Excerpts:
Where are we in the defence relationship?
For the past four years plus, the Pentagon has led the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative [DTTI]. It accomplished a couple of things – it was able to transform views on India and to treat India as a very close partner… as if we were allies in terms of capabilities, research and co-development. It was a historic period in the Pentagon, serving as a cornerstone for the contemporary relationship. Then on June 7, 2016, India was declared a major defence partner.
What’s on the horizon now?
We have very transformational offers for two advanced fighter jets – F-16 and F-18 in partnership with industry. The proposals have pre-positioned US government approvals for co-production and tech transfer, which is unprecedented for us. Previously, denials were automatic because India is not an ally but now we treat India as if it were. Normally approvals come after the request is made. But India said that was not helpful and challenged us to pre-position [pre-approve] and we worked for two years with both Lockheed Martin and Boeing to develop proposals for Make in India. I led the first briefing in April 2016. The Ministry of Defence asked very significant questions and we drilled down another level. This past February, I did another set of briefings. Now we are waiting for formal RFPs [Request for Proposals]. It can come any day now.
India was less than impressed with the US offer for the MMRCA [Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft] in terms of performance and tech transfer issues. What’s changed?
Those were fair concerns a decade ago. The DTTI was launched in 2012 – after the MMRCA. Today the proposals are completely different. They are far more forward-leaning than MMRCA. There is a fair mix of technologies on offer at various levels.
What about advanced technology?
Decisions on the most advanced capabilities will be incorporated over time… not immediately transferred to India. The US is conservative about sharing radar technology for national security reasons. I don’t believe there are any significant surprises in what will or not be transferred. It is a significant beginning as we continue to build trust.India hasn’t signed what were once called ‘foundational agreements’ but are now rebranded as ‘enabling agreements’.The Government of India wanted a different term. They were part of the discussion in recent meetings. Secretary of Defence Mattis in a very subtle way showed he was aware of them and put some emphasis. We need to find a way to move forward on them at the right time… find innovative ways to work through them… when the time is right politically.
How does their absence impact the defence relationship?
The absence of these agreements is not ideal. Our industries can’t share classified industrial information with the government of India and its industries. That complicates timelines and our ability to move swiftly forward. We have to find workarounds, which are not easily available. Then there is the thoroughness issue. These issues are well understood by India. We have been successful in working around these obstacles but this will not be sustainable as we ramp up. It will become apparent if and when the F-16/F-18 programmes move together.
What if India doesn’t choose the F-16?
It would be a significant disappointment. Just to develop these Make in India proposals took two years of intense work, to demonstrate DTTI and move beyond MMRCA, to demonstrate this is a new relationship… It would begin fatigue in our prime industries, not only in Boeing and Lockheed. But that is speculation. We have had successes – Apache helicopters and M777 howitzers – but the programmes were extended 12 or 13 times. I don’t fully understand the decision-making process but I know there is incredible anxiety within the bureaucracy on making a deal.