Defense minister Rajnath Singh interacts with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during the fourth US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the State Department, in Washington, DC. (PTI photo)

NEW DELHI: From situational awareness high up in space to deep underwater domain awareness, with cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, counter-drone technology, stepped-up military engagements, exercises and logistics in between, India and the US have chalked up an ambitious agenda to take forward their already expansive defence relationship.

With defence minister Rajnath Singh stressing the need for co-development and co-production of high-tech military systems during the two-plus-two dialogue, India and the US have decided to “revitalize” the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) that was launched in 2012 but has largely failed to deliver the goods till now.

India wants the DTTI to transform the “buyer-seller” relationship, with the US having already bagged lucrative Indian defence deals worth over $21 billion just since 2007, into joint manufacture of advanced weapon systems.

Towards this end, two DTTI projects specifically identified during the dialogue were counter-unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and an ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance) platform.

These will add to the pact inked last year to jointly develop air-launched unmanned aerial vehicles (ALUAVs) at an initial cost of $22 million, which could in the future lead to manufacture of AI-enabled drone swarms capable of being launched from aircraft to overwhelm an adversary’s air defence systems.

Even as the MoU on “Space Situational Awareness” was concluded during the dialogue, the two countries also decided to conduct their inaugural Defence Space Dialogue as well as AI Dialogue this year to add to the existing Defence Cyber Dialogue.

“The ministers acknowledged the importance of deepening collaboration in science and technology in the India-US Joint Technical Group, and in evolving new defence domains, including space, AI and cyber,” the joint statement said.

In the traditional domain, the two nations will further increase the “scope and complexity” of their military combat exercises as well as “deepen cooperation” between their elite Special Forces.

“We are also glad that India has joined the multilateral Combined Maritime Force (CMF) based in Bahrain as an associate partner. This will strengthen cooperation in regional security in the western India Ocean Region (IOR),” Singh said.

With the two navies being “a driving force in advancing shared interests” in the IOR and the wider Indo-Pacific, they will also further deepen maritime cooperation, including in underwater domain awareness, which becomes important with Chinese submarines prowling around in the region.

Similarly, work is underway to fully implement the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) of 2020, which provides for real-time exchange of geospatial intelligence through advanced satellite imagery, topographical and aeronautical digital data for long-range navigation and pinpointed strikes against enemy targets.

Two other foundational military pacts, the Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA), which allows India access to advanced military platforms with encrypted and secure communications and data links like armed drones, and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) are already operational.

While the two sides have been providing refuelling and operational turnaround facilities to each other’s warships, US aircraft like P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes have also landed at the strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar archipelago for similar facilities. The dialogue agreed to expand the scope of such reciprocal military logistics.

“We’re doing all this because the US supports India as a defence industry leader in the Indo-Pacific and a net provider of security in the region. And we all understand the challenges that we face there,” US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said.

“China is seeking to refashion the region and the international system more broadly in ways that serve its interests. And so I’m pleased that we’ve identified new opportunities to extend the operational reach of our militaries and to coordinate more closely together across the expanse of the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

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