India, US seal intent on drone swarms, hi-tech defence technologies

Photo: US Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord and India’s Secretary (Defence Production) Subhash Chandra greeting each other during the meeting of the DTTI working group in New Delhi today.

New Delhi: India and the US are making last ditch efforts to revive an already dead Defence Technology and Trade Initiative between the two nations and have signed a ‘Statement of Intent’ at today’s meeting to work on seven futuristic projects, including drone swarms. A sample of the drone swarms’ lethality was showcased during the attack on the biggest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia in September.

As part of Indo-US bilateral defence cooperation, the 9th DTTI meeting was held between the delegations of India and the United States, co-chaired by India’s Secretary (Defence Production) Subhash Chandra and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment of the United States Ellen M. Lord.

“A significant achievement of the meeting was the signing of ‘Statement of Intent’ with respect to key deliverable in the near, medium and long terms. This will assist in bringing sustained focus on some of the projects and signal commitment of both sides towards continued collaboration on mutually beneficial issues,” an Indian Ministry of Defence statement said.

These meetings are held to bring leadership focus to the bilateral defence trade relationship and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of defence equipment. The Joint Working Groups, established under DTTI to progress mutually agreed projects for the armed forces, provided status update during the meeting. Engagement with the industry remains a key focus of DTTI for both the sides and measures to achieve this goal were also discussed.

In a briefing to a select group of reporters after the meeting, Lord said the two nations had decided on three short-term, two medium-term and two long-term projects.

The short-term projects, to be decided in six months, are the air-launched small aerial systems (drone swarms), light weight small arms technology systems, and Intelligence-Surveillance-Targetting-and-Reconnaissance (ISTAR) systems. The medium-term projects are the maritime domain awareness solutions and the virtual augmented reality solutions for aircraft maintenance. The long-term projects are terrain shaping obstacles (lethal munitions) and anti-drone technology called the ‘counter-UAS rocket, artillery and mortar systems’.

The projects on the air-launched small aerial systems, which can be used from the C-17 Globemaster-III and C-130J Super Hercules aircraft acquired by the Indian Air Force (IAF), and the counter-UAS systems are indeed cutting-edge in modern-day warfare. The lethality of drone swarms can be gauged from the fact that it is low-cost, intelligent and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), working in conjunction with cruise missiles. There have also been mysterious drone swarm attacks on military bases, including a Russian one in Syria, in recent times.

Speaking at the meeting, Subhash Chandra said that while DTTI has been an ongoing process, both sides were now poised to actually achieve tangible outcomes. The shared values that form the bedrock of stable relations between the two sides have led to deepening of defence ties. The Government of India remains committed to continually engage with the US government and facilitate cooperation between the defence industries of both nations.

Lord, in her remarks during the bilateral, said that the US National Defence Strategy envisages strengthening defence alliances and partnerships. The DTTI has now matured enough where its varied activities could be translated into accomplishments. She added that the interface of the industry with DTTI would provide necessary fillip to various projects under consideration.

“Next, we agreed to a near-term timeline to complete a DTTI Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that will guide us as we try to coordinate projects under two different systems. We identified the upcoming 2+2, potentially this December in Washington D.C., as a near-term opportunity to finalise the SOP,” Lord said. India’s External Affairs and Defence ministers will be meeting with their American counterparts later this year, which Lord indicated could be the deadline to agree on the SOP.

Lord also noted that the DTTI project, earlier agreed upon, to develop jet engine technology for India through a joint working group had been suspended, admitting that the project ran into US export control laws.

“We could not come to an understanding of what exportable technologies would be useful to the Indians. We did run into a challenge in terms of US export controls. That being said, we think there is an enormous amount of aircreft technology that we could work on together. So, the teams are looking for areas of common interest,” she said.

Reporting on the progress made regarding the communications interoperability between the Indian and US armed forces after the signing of the COMCASA agreement in 2018, Lord said a secure communication link had been established between the US Navy Pacific Fleet and the Indian Navy headquarters.

“We have installed two Pacific Fleet-provided flyaway Centrix kits in the Indian Navy Headquarters. An agreement (in this regard) was signed in March 2019. We are also in discussion to install more (kits) in a variety of places,” she added.

The two sides have also tried to get the industry from the two countries more directly involved in the DTTI process. “We are going to formalise this into an industry-to-industry framework. This week, my counterpart and I committed to complete this framework ahead of the 2+2 (meeting),” she added.

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