- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

NEW DELHI — With American special forces training in its remote jungles and indigenously developed helicopters and cruise missiles ready to hit the international market, India’s defense establishment is breaking down old barriers and gaining influence on the world scene.

Even before a bilateral nuclear deal is approved by the U.S. Congress, India is already reaping the benefits of closer ties with the United States. The nuclear deal was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to vote on it later this year.

So far, the Bush administration has authorized the offer of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets and even a U.S. amphibious warship, the USS Trenton, to India.

If approved, the sale would make India the first nation apart from the United States to own and operate a landing vessel of this class.

Considering the Indian air force plans to acquire 126 combat aircraft to replace its aging fleet, it seems the agreement came just in time for American arms dealers. But that’s just the beginning, said defense specialist Praveen Sawhney, editor of the magazine Force.

“The outside players know that India will have a requirement of something like $50 billion worth of equipment in the next 10 years. … A fierce interaction is going on.”

India’s tensions with neighbor Pakistan, however, still loom large in comparison with its ambitions to be a big player in the global defense market.

Following the recent train bombings in Bombay, India’s main objective at the Group of Eight meeting in Russia was to draw out a stern statement condemning the attackers, who many here think were aided by the Pakistani intelligence service. And after last year’s U.S. offer of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, many journalists in New Delhi gleefully noted that India was offered an even newer model.

New Delhi is also setting its sights on having a military presence in strategic locations in South Asia with a view to protecting its interests and as a counterweight to the influence of Pakistan and China in the region.

Jane’s Defense Weekly and other sources recently reported that India has established its first foreign military base in Tajikistan. The base is said to be located near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on the site of a former hospital where Indian doctors used to treat members of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance during their war with the Taliban.

Pakistan was one of the closest supporters of the Taliban regime until it was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. India remains a close ally of the new democratic government in Kabul led by President Hamid Karzai, providing millions of dollars in aid and helping rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

Most analysts agree that the real change in India’s international image came after the 2004 tsunami, where the Indian navy played a key role in not just helping its own citizens, but those of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The aid won India acclaim and a new respect internationally.

Last week, India sent a warship to Beirut — with three more staying nearby — to evacuate hundreds of people from India as well as neighboring countries from Lebanon, which has been hit by Israeli air strikes targeted at Hezbollah.

Before the 1991 end of the Cold War, India bought most of its arms from the Soviet Union, and developed a few products on its own through government-owned companies. It wasn’t until 2001 that the former Bharatiya Janata Party government opened up the defense sector to private players.

Though optimistic about gaining a foothold in the international arms market, India’s technical capabilities are far from advanced, and its industry has been hobbled by excessive government controls. To produce viable weapons with up-to-date technology, the government teamed up with its oldest ally, Russia.

BrahMos, a long-range supersonic cruise missile, is a joint product of India and Russia — named after the rivers Brahmaputra and Moscow. It is three times faster than the American Tomahawk — though missing other features — and both nations have already started showing it off to potential buyers.

India is also making overtures to South America, a continent that has never played a significant role in Indian diplomacy. Defense Secretary Shekhar Dutt and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh have visited South America, primarily Chile and Brazil, in the past two years.

Chile has reportedly expressed interest in the Indian-made ALH Dhruv helicopter — produced with assistance from Israel — and BrahMos missiles.

“Of late, many countries including some of South America have evinced keen interest in the Indian army, especially with our reputed training institutions and rich operational experience, both in conventional and subconventional warfares,” an army statement said recently.

In the field of military training, India’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJW) has troops from all over the world sweating it out in the jungles of the northeastern state of Mizoram.

Set up in 1970 in a region plagued by militant groups, CIJW has become one of the best anti-terrorism schools in the world, where troops undergo rigorous urban and rural combat drills in over 90 percent humidity. India has a large backlog of requests from Western nations to train there, the Indo-Asian News Service said. U.S. soldiers trained with Indian anti-terror specialists there last year.

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