Few purchases are more demonstrative of the changing nature of US-India ties than the deal that will result in the gradual makeover of the Indian military’s helicopter fleet from a largely Russian line-up to a mostly American one.
From choppy to chipper could well be the title of this saga, as India’s defense minister Manohar Parrikar arrived in Washington DC for his sixth meeting in less than two years with his US counterpart on Monday, with a sortie thrown into a chopper manufacturing facility in nearby Philadelphia, where Boeing makes the CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
With 15 on order at a cost of $ 1.1 billion, the storied American Chinook will replace (New Delhi prefers the word “supplement”) the haloed Russian Mi-26, the last of which is currently limping out of the Indian Air Force. The legendary Russian machine has written itself into history by transporting heavy stuff ranging from a 25-ton block of ice encasing a 23,000-year old Woolly Mammoth to gargantuan railway equipment from Konkan to Kashmir.
But such is the current weight and momentum of US-India ties that the Russian workhorse has gotten eclipsed by the distinctive twin-rotor U.S chopper that has been part of every American march of folly from Vietnam to Iraq. Also in the chopper mix are 22 AH-64E Apache Longbow attack helicopters worth $ 1.4 billion that New Delhi has contracted to buy almost simultaneously to replace the aging Mi-35, some of which Afghanistan is getting as hand-me-downs.
The 37 choppers, worth $ 2.5to $ 3 billion in all, to be delivered by 2020, bespeaks of a military relationship that was once so choppy that the very mention of American military equipment evoked images of bullying and confrontation. And there is more to come.
Today, everything from an aircraft carrier to the latest fighter jet is on the table as Washington seeks to expand its ties with a country to which it is already the largest supplier of arms, stacking up some $ 13 billion in sales over the past decade since the two sides decided to go ”strategic.” In fact, the Chinook-Apache deal with India (both choppers ironically named after Native American tribes that Americans call “Indians”), is just a tip of the India’s military equipment upgrades that will eventually cost more than $ 150 billion over the next decade.
The cynical-skeptical view of this is that the American masters of war and merchants of death have finally gained a foothold in India. But the practical realist view is that India was going to have to upgrade its military in any event given its aging equipment and the threats it faced, and the United States was a strategic choice given that compulsion.
Officials on both sides emphasize that the ties are more than just about military sales. On Monday, ahead of his sortie to Philly, whose moniker is City of Brotherly Love, Parrikar was also heading out to Fort Meade in Maryland where the US Cyber Command (US CyberCom) is located, another first in the bilateral military relations.