Due to American and Indian negotiators’ failure to reach a trade agreement, some media reports panned President Donald Trump’s visit last week to India as more show than substance. Yet a closer look at the U.S.-India defense deals finalized during the trip shows that the visit facilitated deeper security cooperation with a critical U.S. partner in Asia.
Washington and New Delhi used the presidential visit to announce India’s decision to purchase more than $3 billion in defense equipment. This purchase includes six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army and 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy. According to a U.S.-India joint statement, the helicopters will “advance shared security interests, job growth, and industrial cooperation between both countries.”
The AH-64E specializes in armed reconnaissance, mobile strike and close-air support missions. The Apache has seen extensive combat experience with the U.S. Army and is also flown by countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom and Israel. The Apache will provide a significant capability improvement over India’s legacy attack helicopters.
The Indian Air Force, which has traditionally operated military helicopters, already has 17 AH-64Es and expects to induct five more. But this new sale will provide the Indian Army Aviation Corps organic attack helicopters. The Apache will provide the Indian Army valuable close-air support in India’s challenging border regions. India’s infantrymen in need of close-air support will no doubt appreciate that the Indian Army’s Apaches will be equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra-70 rockets.
The Indian Army needs many more attack helicopters, so this initial Apache purchase could represent just a first step toward the acquisition of around 40 total helicopters.
Pakistan has taken notice of New Delhi’s Apache purchases and is reportedly threatening to purchase Chinese Z-10 attack helicopters if Islamabad cannot acquire new Turkish or American aircraft. Given India’s concerns with China, as well as the increasingly close relationship between Moscow and Beijing, Pakistan’s actions may further encourage New Delhi to deepen its military partnership with the United States.
In addition to the Apaches, New Delhi is also purchasing MH-60R helicopters for its Navy. The MH-60R excels in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and can operate from a variety of vessels. The MH-60R helicopters will begin to address an important Indian capability gap with respect to anti-submarine warfare.
China has worked to increase both the size and capability of its submarine fleet — and Beijing has increasingly deployed its submarines to patrol in the Indian Ocean. This development causes justifiable consternation in New Delhi.
The helicopters will also be able to perform a variety of other missions, including special operations insertions, search and rescue, resupply, as well as command-and-control functions.
The capabilities of both the AH-64E and MH-60R will be further augmented by the recent Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement, or COMCASA, which formalized the integration of secure, bilateral communication networks between the United States and India in 2018. The helicopters will be the first post-COMCASA hardware available to the Indian military.
If India decides to do so, upon delivery the helicopters could come fully integrated with bilaterally secure networks and communications. This would increase Indian military capability and dramatically enhance U.S.-India military interoperability. More broadly, this could help incorporate India into the larger sphere of cooperation with other Western militaries that use similar equipment and software. It would create a pocket of exceptional capability and connectivity in an Indian force traditionally dominated by inferior Russian equipment.
The agreements for both helicopters include the provision of logistical support and spare parts. This will deepen valuable U.S.-India defense ties for decades to come, long after all of the helicopters are delivered.
The agreement also addresses New Delhi’s desire to strengthen its domestic defense-industrial and innovation base. The Apache’s manufacturer, Boeing, has already established a factory in Hyderabad in a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems to produce helicopter fuselages, with the plant expected to become the sole producer of Apache fuselages in the world. Boeing notes that 90 percent of the fuselage parts originate with Indian suppliers.
The sale of the helicopters follows the Tiger Triumph military exercise in November, the first U.S.-India military exercise to include all three of India’s military services. These new helicopters will enable additional future U.S.-India training opportunities that Washington and New Delhi should seek to maximize.
In the joint statement last week, the U.S. and India asserted that a “close partnership between the United States and India is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”
To defend those shared interests against persistent terror threats and a growing threat from China, the U.S. and India will need an even deeper and more effective defense partnership. India’s purchase of the AH-64E and MH-60R American helicopters represents a significant and positive step in that direction.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Cleo Paskal is a nonresident senior fellow and U.S. Air Force Maj. Liane Zivitski is a visiting military analyst. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of any U.S. military service, the Defense Department or any other government agency.