Decision makers in New Delhi have approved the purchase of 145 ultra-light weight howitzers from the United States for an estimated $560 million.
Manufactured by the US subsidiary of BAE Systems, Inc., the weapons will be acquired through the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Sales program that facilitates the sale of US arms and defense equipment to foreign governments. The howitzer purchase is part of a much larger effort by New Delhi aimed at modernizing India’s aging defense arsenal in the face of growing regional threats, particularly from China. The arms deal is also welcome news for US-India bilateral ties, which recently have shown signs of strain.
Over the last half decade, India has emerged as the single largest arms importer in the world. Its super power ambitions partially explain this development but New Delhi’s growing concern over its regional security is the underlying concern motivating its unprecedented defense spending. While Pakistan has traditionally been regarded as India’s most significant threat, India’s security establishment has turned its attention towards China, watching Beijing’s rising military and economic power with growing alarm. Unresolved border disputes, fierce competition for naval primacy in the Indian Ocean, and other geostrategic rivalries have prompted Indian policy makers to shift its focus to China over the last decade. Additionally, Beijing’s well-documented conventional military superiority over New Delhi, in conjunction with painful memories of India’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Chinese forces during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, have also prompted New Delhi to regard China as a central threat more so than ever before.
As a result, New Delhi has embarked on an ambitious military spending spree aimed at transforming its entire defense arsenal. Predictably, China is increasingly regarded as the primary focus of India’s military modernization and procurement goals. The 155mm M777 model howitzers India is purchasing from the US, for example, are particularly well suited for the high altitude, Himalayan frontiers India shares with China, and will be used by the Indian army’s mountain artillery divisions.
Having already spent billions of dollars thus far, India is expected to spend more than $80 billion over the next five years modernizing its armed forces. New Delhi’s efforts towards this end have taken on an even greater sense of urgency after India’s outgoing army chief, General V.K. Singh, wrote a confidential letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cataloging the glaring deficiencies afflicting India’s armed forces. Describing the state of India’s artillery and infantry as “alarming” and characterizing its air defenses as “97% obsolete,” the letter was leaked and made public during a visit to India by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
New Delhi’s purchase of the howitzers is also welcome news for US-India relations, which have been confronted by a series of challenges lately. While continuing to trumpet the close partnership between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, officials in the US and India have recently found themselves at odds with one another over a host of issues ranging from New Delhi’s reluctance to join Washington’s sanctions campaign against Iran, to a bitter trade dispute over India’s ban of US poultry exports. Usually robust ties between the US and India also suffered a setback in 2011 after New Delhi rejected US bids from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build 126 fighter jets for India at a cost of more than $10 billion. Failure to win the contract despite intense lobbying efforts by Washington—including President Obama himself—allegedly was a key factor behind the resignation of US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, who stepped down as envoy to New Delhi just hours after India rejected the Lockheed and Boeing bids.
At the same time, however, managing China’s rise regionally and internationally in a way that serves both American and Indian interests is a key concern to Washington and New Delhi. Viewed through this lens, it is therefore unsurprising that the US is willing to supply India with the military hardware that it is seeks despite some inevitable disagreements. The howitzer deal is an effective reminder that close strategic and defense cooperation continue to be critical cornerstones of the strong partnership between the two countries.
Ronak D. Desai practices law in Washington, DC and holds a joint law and public policy degree from Harvard Law School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government