A clear signal from the White House to collaborate on critical technologies with India: former US envoy Atul Keshap

Former US envoy to India Atul Keshap tells Manish Kumar Jha about the need to converge on technology-sensitive areas. Speaking on the sidelines of Aero India 2023, he says things are moving at a very rapid flip with governments as political leaders are stepping up.

January 30, 2023 - Washington, DC, USA: The U.S.-India Business Council hosts a roundtable on the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET). Featuring Commerce Sec. Gina Raimondo Photo by David Bohrer / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce
January 30, 2023 – Washington, DC, USA: The U.S.-India Business Council hosts a roundtable on the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET). Featuring Commerce Sec. Gina Raimondo Photo by David Bohrer / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The U.S.-India relations are unfolding in greater strength in defence and aerospace with the launch of the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology. The US Air Force brought its fight-generation Joint Strike Fighter F-35A and B-1B Lancer heavy bombers at Aero India 2023.  It assumes strategic importance in the backdrop of such initiatives, as former US Ambassador to India Atul Keshap tells Manish Kumar Jha about the need to converge on technology-sensitive areas.  Speaking on the sidelines of Aero India 2023, he says things are moving at a very rapid flip.

Atul Keshap, who headed the US embassy in New Delhi, is the president of the US-India Business Council (USIBC). In the past, he also served as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He also served in the White House National Security Council. Ambassador Keshap contributed to advancing U.S. relations with India, finalizing an agreement on civilian nuclear energy cooperation and the QUAD.


The debate around defence cooperation lies at the heart of India-US relations, which are unfolding on a sheer magnitude. Could you give us a brief overview of how the bilateral relations between both countries are unfolding especially in the areas of critical technologies? And through what mechanism are we cooperating in this domain?

At the very outset, I would like to say that things are moving at a very rapid flip. Both governments have sent a very strong signal in launching this initiative in the areas of critical and emerging technologies. We were privileged to host India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and NSA Jake Sullivan at the US Chamber of Commerce last week along with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. We also had Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) from several Cyber Security, defence, semiconductor, and telecommunications firms, visit us. What was clear is that there was a very clear signal coming from both the US and the Indian governments that our firms need to now converge on technology-sensitive areas, especially in the areas where we are concerned about technology bleeding into our countries where we have our apprehensions. And so, the question is, how can we create a sustainable partnership? The White House and the Indian government at the highest levels of national security have given an obvious message. So, now the implementation is the key.

January 30, 2023 – Washington, DC, USA: The U.S.-India Business Council hosts a roundtable on the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET). Featuring Commerce Sec. Gina Raimondo Photo by David Bohrer / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Apart from this, we have seventeen American defence firms at Aero India. A whole bunch of Indian firms are members of the US-India business council. Altogether, these firms in the defence area will need to partner up and build the products and services that will defend India and the United States in the decades to come. Therefore, these will be commercial decisions for companies to decide and negotiate. Still, they have to do things to supply what both governments want—the systems to protect free people and open societies across the 21st century. I think governments can encourage and send the signal, after which it is the work of the companies to make the business negotiations.

Governments play a unique role in defence. They have to ensure that the companies have permission to partner together. And this is where the signal from the White House, the commerce department, and the national security council staff of Ajit Doval is abundantly clear. So, on that side, the energy is high, just like the energy here at Aero India reflects the kind of ambition both governments and companies across these two countries have.

On semiconductors?

Then there is the domain of semiconductors, where there is an enormous interest in the Prime Minister’s PLI Scheme for semiconductors. The acute need of the hour is in the packaging and testing. Therefore, if Indian and American companies can work on packaging and testing, we can move towards semiconductors.

The other important domain is cyberspace. There is an enormous amount of convergence between the US and India on protecting our systems, our technologies and innovations, and the ideas that free people design in free societies. And finally, there are enormous prospects in the domain of Aerospace, as well. The reason I keep using the word “enormous” is because India is booming, its economy is booming, the demographic is booming, and I think, India and the US have such a convergence of strategic and economic commonality across the entire Indo-pacific that there is no choice but to get together for our companies to partner and cooperate. I was touring the facility of a world-class Indian company the other day. And they are doing some highly advanced aerospace work for their international clients. They are ready to be a significant defence partner with the US. As far as the United States is concerned, our companies bring the best managerial skills, ethics, transparency, know-how, and capability. They can lift the US-India defence ties in significant ways.

Ambassador, we do have strategic alignment in the Indo-Pacific region, and the QUAD is the reflection of strategic convergence. We do have military-to-military cooperation in terms of defence acquisitions and military exercises so far. Still, in terms of critical and advanced technology, there is hardly any significant investment from the US in R&D and design. Is it changing as we need to step up from the strategic talk to the actual execution part? How do you address the gaps?

We have had our modern defence relationship for only 20 years. We overcame enormous strategic differences of opinion to get to our current relationship. The Nuclear deal transformed US-India relations. In the last 20 years, we have had an incredible run. With C-17 and P8-Posidons and Apache and C-130s and so much of this size.  Look at the MQ9, which is doing surveillance along the borders. They do an incredible job for India every day. Our systems, countries, and societies have no choice but to intensify technology cooperation.

Your country has the largest amount of scalable skill talent on earth bar-none. And all of our companies know it. We must work together to build the next generation of defence needs for our countries and all free societies. So, the need of the hour is to build those relationships, build into the technological areas, and we have no other choice.

Geostrategic tensions being what they are, we have to get closer together. Our companies are completely ready to work with India to ensure the strength of the Indian Armed Forces and the Indian people now and for decades to come. They have proven that they are good partners with Japan, Australia, the UK, Canada and many other allies and partners around the world. They can be best-in-class leaders; they have the best technology, the best industrial base, the best know-how, and the capacity to bring our two countries closer together and weave us together strategically and economically reinforcing ways for both of us. So, this is the acute need of the hour.

In terms of specific technology and in the context of the recent visit of the National Security Advisor, are we talking about some specific exchange as you quoted MQ9 Drones? Besides, the aero engine remains the most complex thing to achieve for India. How can the USA help India realise these? And how far have we progressed in terms of our talks in this direction?

On the flight line, there are F-35s, F-16s and the latest blocks, and F-18s out there. We have MQ9s that are already working very well between our two countries. There are things like Sea-Guardian, Global Hawk, and so many other products, the Poseidon; capabilities that the United States brings that India can use very well. So, my view on this is, let’s not judge ourselves too hastily and too impatiently; we have overcome oceans of problems to get to where we are. And I think that we are now beginning to develop our industrial partnership. We have had an industrial partnership with the UK, Japan, Korea, and Australia for decades. Now we do very advanced things with them.

Two-Spool Afterburning Turbofan Engine Applications:
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; EA-18G Growler and HAL Tejas Mk2 (credit power web)

This is a pathway of trust. We trust you; you trust us. But now, let us embark upon that trust. You don’t go straight away to the end game in a relationship. We are now in the walking stage, we should now walk and soon start running, and government and political leadership can signal. A bureaucrat can ­sometimes have lingering distrust and concerns in both systems. Our political leaders need to tell the bureaucracies and encourage the companies to make partnerships to build the future of defence ties.

For some of the international programmes, the EU, South Korea, and Japan have been your partners for a couple of decades. So far, India is not part of international programmes like AKUS, fighter jet programmes and submarine programmes. While India needs all of such hi-tech platforms, do you think the time has come when you offer India to be part of such strategic advanced programmes?

Well, look…it is not only an American decision. India also has to decide, so this would be a question of whether India expresses interest. And then we’ll have to see where things go, but governments are very ambitious right now. And I am speaking for the industry when I say our companies are highly ambitious about partnering with each other. Indian and American companies are members of the US -India business council. From the perspective of American business, we would love to do more. It is up to the governments on both sides to decide how fast we go and how quickly they clear projects in both directions. Because it takes time, and it is not just that one side that will have to take steps; both sides will have to step up. That is an urgent need. And all this starts with governments and political leaders telling the bureaucracies what to do.

F-35A-Lightning-II at Aero India 2023

Ambassador, you have a fantastic display of the F-35, the most advanced 5th gen stealth fighter jet besides the B1-B Lancer bomber and India has its running programme of Multirole Fighter Aircraft (MRFA). Do you think the US government intends to offer these specific advanced jets to India?

I will give you my standard disclaimer; I do not work for the US government now. So, you’ll have to ask the US government.

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First published on: 15-02-2023 at 12:42 IST