The recently concluded Initiative on Critical Emerging Technologies (iCET) between the United States (US) and India holds promise for one reason—the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC). If the US is going to balance effectively against the PRC, it will need India’s pool of strength in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to take on the PRC. However, New Delhi will also need the US’s technological expertise that the iCET promises in areas that were hitherto not part of any specific technology cooperation agreements between the US and India. iCET pledges cooperation in multiple areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), High-Performance Computing (HPC), quantum technologies and supply chain resilience in the area of semiconductor cooperation. Supplementing these initiatives is an increased bilateral space cooperation. Excluding the latter, these are admittedly new areas of cooperation that hold considerable promise, especially in the frontier technologies such as AI and quantum technology, which could generate real gains for New Delhi. The agreement aims to foster greater cooperation by strengthening the defence and scientific ecosystems, if it crystallises into concrete reality, especially bringing great gains for India.However, iCET should not founder as the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which was launched in 2012 under the Obama Administration specifically promising to deliver cooperation in some key conventional capabilities such as Land Systems (LS), Naval Systems (NS), Air Systems (AS), and Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (ACTC), which are primarily led by the military services on each side. A further grouping is headed by the Department of Defence’ (DoD) Undersecretary of Defence for Acquisitions and Sustainment and from India’s end the Secretary for Defence Production at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Engagement at these and lower levels is considerable between the two countries. However, as a vital cooperative endeavour, the DTTI promised a lot but not much was achieved. Several of the initiatives at the incipient stage of the DTTI were generally deemed “low-technology” with the US offering technologies that the Indian armed services did not want such as the next generation Raven mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which was rejected by the Indian Army (IA). Another subset of technologies included the Roll-On, Roll-Off (Ro-Ro) kits for the Indian Air Force (IAF) C-130 Hercules transport fleet and protection equipment against Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) warfare, which was deemed insufficiently advanced in technological terms. These limited promises of technology were admittedly compounded by bureaucratic inertia and a lack of high-level engagement by apex decision-makers or policy advocates, especially in the US for a more robust and comprehensive defence technology sharing with India. The one area where Washington could have made good on transferring technology was jet engine technology for India’s native fighter development programme, which the US refused. Although the US, “commits” under the iCET at most “…to an expeditious review of this [jet engine technology] application.” As a consequence, the DTTI’s non-delivery even in this key technology has left India very exasperated. Indeed, one set of analysts observed: “While DTTI has served as a “silent enabler” to support greater defence technology cooperation between the US and India, it has also generated frustration as it has often been perceived, incorrectly, as a venue for fast-tracking sole-source contracts on major defence articles. Technologies identified for co-development and production were unviable and of questionable commercial potential and operational requirements.”
Contrast this with another agreement. In September, 2021 the Australia, United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS) agreement was concluded with very specific focus areas in applying emerging technologies to ensure trilateral defence cooperation. The AUKUS initiatives cover Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS); early trials and experimentation for this capability are scheduled for this year. Secondly, the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQua) with “initial focus on Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT)” and by 2025 is expected to implement the integration of quantum technologies through trials and experimentation. Thirdly, the AUKUS initiative on AI and autonomy geared towards improving decision-making by making it more precise and fast and creating A- enabled capabilities. In addition, the agreement involves using cyber technology for the protection of communications and systems used during operations. All three commit to jointly working on hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities and greater cooperation in developing techniques and instruments to operate in the increasingly contested Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS). Finally, mutual learning between the three countries’experience in the area of innovation and mechanisms to carry out the integration of new commercial technologies for warfighting.
As the foregoing testifies, the depth of the technological cooperation between the AUKUS countries is likely to be greater than whatever India can expect from iCET. This is not an unreasonable conclusion, simply because the three states that constitute the AUKUS are already Five Eyes members, which is an intelligence cooperation agreement established during the Cold War among the five English-speaking countries that also include New Zealand and Canada. Consequently, there is deep mutual confidence and a well-established understanding that undergirds relations among the AUKUS states. They are also capable of pooling scientific and technological resources far better and more effectively given their decades of cooperation.
The iCET, notwithstanding its promising possibilities, but unlike AUKUS, will require further engagement and more concrete technological gains that benefit India. Also with AUKUS, there are time-defined benchmarks for measuring progress in key areas of technological cooperation, which is not the case, yet, but could happen with iCET. New Delhi is likely to be more the recipient than a “giver” or “contributor” to technological innovation between the US and India under iCET. This is unlike the two smaller members of AUKUS, namely Australia and the UK, which are, if not as much as the US, already fairly advanced technological states, whose technological inputs in the core set of emerging technologies central to AUKUS cooperation is unlikely to be minuscule or absolutely negligible. Indeed, leveraging the cumulative and combined strengths in niche and frontier technologies for the mutual gain of the three member-AUKUS is the aim of the agreement.
Challenges at India’s end in leveraging iCET for defence
Finally, one of the key problems from India’s end is its own Research and Development (R&D) investments geared towards meeting the needs of the Indian Armed Forces. Take the latest budget for instance, it does not offer much in terms R&D to the private sector, despite Nirmala Sitharaman’s promising as much as 25 percent to the private sector in last year’s budget. She had also pledged the establishment of an “independent nodal umbrella body” that would meet the testing and certification necessities of industry and allocation of 68 percent, a 10-percent increase from last year’ capital budget toward procurement from domestic industry, which has not crystallised. She also reneged on a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that would facilitate and enable greater cooperation between private industry and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Indeed, the SPV would have ultimately paved the way to make the private sector a repository of defence R&D. However, for the US, the Indian private sector tends be the preferred partner. The DRDO and its associated laboratories, as one former Commander of the IA’s Corps of Signals (CoS) noted, are not the best at developing cutting edge or emerging technologies like AI that the military can use. The private sector, along with academia, has to be among the primary repositories for the R&D in emerging technologies like AI, quantum and cyber technology, which can then be leveraged towards the specifications and requirements of the military. More generally, India’s total spending on R&D as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is estimated to be 0.7 percent, which is far too low compared to even near-peer countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa, let alone China or the US according to the NITI Aayog. Thus, given the less-than-promised allocation of defence R&D resources by the government in this year’s budget geared to involving the private sector, New Delhi has still some stiff challenges internally to overcome on how effectively it can leverage technological gains promised under the iCET agreement.