Broadsword column: India’s strategic choices - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 6 July 2023

Broadsword column: India’s strategic choices


Despite the bonhomie between the US and India, New Delhi's geopolitical constraints remain visible


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 7th July 23


By the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi winds up his visit to France on July 14th, he will have had a busy couple of weeks juggling competing priorities. Mr Modi’s travels began on June 21 with a three-day state visit to the US, including meetings in New York with American business leaders; and then continued to Washington DC for the ceremonials. On his way home, the Indian PM took in a state visit to Egypt on June 24-25, a much-needed reaffirmation of relations with a regional powerhouse. Following that he participated in a virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on July 4, attended by the leaders of all the SCO member states, viz. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Now, after a brief halt in New Delhi, Mr Modi will head out to France on July 13-14.


The last time Mr Modi visited France was in April 2015. A few days before he embarked for Paris, a small section of the Indian media published “scoops” that foretold a government-to-government acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF). As predicted, Modi and French President Francois Hollande announced the controversial sale of 36 Rafales for Euro 7.8 billion. India’s opposition parties lost no time in accusing the government of a crooked deal.


As Modi readies to visit Paris again, there are echoes of a similar clamour. The usual suspects in the Indian media have announced that the government of France – now one of India’s closest strategic and military-industrial partners – has cleared French engine-maker Safran (earlier called Snecma) to jointly design, develop, test, manufacture and certify an engine to power India’s futuristic, fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).


There will inevitably be controversy if Safran is arbitrarily “appointed” as the development partner to co-develop an Indo-French engine for the AMCA. It would be impossible to bulldoze through such a contract on a single-vendor basis because British firm, Rolls-Royce, has already thrown its hat in the ring and offered to partner the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) in designing and developing an engine for the AMCA. The IAF is following these developments carefully, since the AMCA is slated to form the backbone of the IAF’s fifth-generation fighter fleet in about a decade.


Meanwhile, India’s ministry of defence (MoD) has already committed itself to using US-made General Electric (GE) engines for the Tejas fighter. The Tejas Mark 1 and 1A, a fleet of 123 fighter jets, will sport GE F-404IN engines. The IAF has already signed a Rs 5,375 crore contract with GE for 99 F-404IN engines.


The more powerful GE F-414 engine, which powers Sweden’s Gripen E fighter, will also power the Tejas Mark 2. The contract between GE and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for building the F-414-INS6 in India was signed during Mr Modi’s visit to America and taken note of in the joint statement issued after the meeting.

General Electric engines for India




F-414 Enhanced 






Tejas Mark1 & 1A

Tejas Mark 2

Tejas Mark 2 and AMCA


84 kN

98 kN

116 kN


391 cm

391 cm

391 cm


70 kg/sec

77.1 kg/sec

85 kg/sec

Max diameter

89 cm

89 cm

89 cm

Inlet diameter

71 cm

79 cm

79 cm

Pressure ratio




(Source: General Electric official website)

* kiloNewtons, or kN


With two types of GE engines from the same family already powering two Tejas fighter variants (the Mark 1, Mark 1A and Mark 2), it would make sense for the more advanced Tejas fighter variants to opt for more advanced engine variants. A logical choice would be the more powerful F-414 Enhanced Engine, which incorporates additional technical advancements that can be retrofitted into the F-414. This would provide improved component capability, leading to reductions in ownership costs, or to a 20 percent increase in thrust with improved specific fuel consumption and improved reliability. This option is being explored for the US Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler fleet, which operates off the US Navy’s 11 aircraft supercarriers.


A key constraint to US-India high technology cooperation has been the capability differential, with the Indian side having only a limited menu of offerings. However, this time the two sides have thought beyond merely co-developing or co-manufacturing defence and strategic equipment. Affirming that technology will play a defining role in deepening the US-India partnership, Mr Modi and President Joe Biden termed the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), signed in January 2023 as a major milestone in India-US relations. They recommitted the US and India to an open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem. 

Having discovered India’s limitations in co-developing defence equipment, Messers Modi and Biden set a course for space cooperation, in which the US has so far played a limited role. India can offer a tradition of “frugal engineering” of spacecraft and satellites.Welcoming the decision of National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to develop a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation by the end of 2023, Messers Modi and Biden hailed NASA’s announcement to provide advanced training to Indian astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with a goal of mounting a joint effort to the International Space Station in 2024.


Ambassador Alexander Kadakin, Moscow’s envoy to New Delhi for 12 years, liked to recount an anecdote about India-Russia space cooperation. As a young diplomat, while visiting an Indian space establishment in Hyderabad, he was surprised to hear snatches of conversations between Indian scientists – which were all in the Russian language. Making enquiries from the Indians, he learned that most of them had been trained in Russia and that their lingua franca was Russian. More tellingly, when New Delhi wanted to make a statement by putting an Indian astronaut into space, it was Russia that hand-held India through the long process that culiminated in Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma becoming India’s first astronaut in 1984.


Now, with India’s expertise having grown, Messrs Modi and Biden welcomed India’s Space Policy – 2023 and called for enhanced commercial collaboration between both countries’ private sectors in the entire value chain of the space economy and to address export controls and facilitate technology transfer. 


Notwithstanding the US-India bonhomie, New Delhi’s geopolitical constraints remain visible. During the SCO virtual summit on July 4th, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, China’s supremo Xi Jinping and Mr Modi could find little meeting ground, with each of them focused on their own immediate aims rather than on a united front. Mr Putin, shaken by his setbacks in Ukraine, especially the revolt of the Wagner mercenary militia, insisted that his Ukraine campaign enjoyed international support. Mr Xi, seeing an opportunity to castigate the US, called for an end to “hegemonism” and “power politics”. Mr Modi, who was hosting the virtual meeting, chose to jab at archrival Pakistan by calling upon the global community to join efforts in a “fight against terrorism”. Disappointingly, Mr Modi chose not to say a word about China’s military occupation of chunks of Indian territory in Ladakh.

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