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The UK Has Pledged to Help India Build Its Advanced Fighter Jets. Here's Why

Photo By Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images| Hindustan Times | Getty Images
  • In a first for an Asian country, the U.K. will issue an open general export license to India.
  • In its open embrace of India, London is one step ahead of Washington.
  • While India is unlikely to abandon ties with Russia immediately, Britain's move will allow India's strategic cooperation with the West to grow faster, C. Raja Mohan, visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Britain has promised to help transfer advanced technology to produce fighter jets in India — the first concrete attempt by the West to move India away from its dependence on Russian arms.

The move was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he visited his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi last week, when India and the UK reiterated their commitment to cooperate on defense and security issues.

Details of the project were not released but U.S. defense publication Defense News reported that the offer likely relates to the U.K.'s sixth-generation Tempest Future Combat Air System program.

The U.K. also announced that it will issue an open general export license to India to speed up defense procurement. This is the first time that this facility has been extended to a country outside the European Union and the U.S.

"The new system of open general license will significantly enhance India's access to U.K. weapons and related technologies," visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, C. Raja Mohan, told CNBC.

Johnson also announced that a trade agreement between India and the U.K. would be ready by October. Talks on the deal began in January but an interim agreement that was to be inked by Johnson during his trip did not materialize.

U.K. a step ahead

In its embrace of India, London is one step ahead of Washington.

When the foreign and defense ministers of the U.S. and India met in Washington earlier in April, there was no talk of transferring weapons technology. The two sides only promised to create a "framework to advance cooperation" in critical and emerging technologies — such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and semiconductors.

The U.S. is only gradually waking up to the fact that Russia and China use economic leverage for political purposes, said an adjunct defense researcher at California-based think tank RAND Corporation Bruce Bennett.

"If the United States were really serious about helping allies and friends, it could do so. (But) Russia and China have built dependence over decades. Turning that dependence around isn't going to happen in a matter of months or even a few years," Bennett told CNBC.

While India is unlikely to abandon ties with Russia immediately, Britain's move will allow India's strategic cooperation with the West to grow faster, said Mohan, the NUS professor. "Like the U.S., Britain is eager to reduce India's dependence on Russia and draw Delhi closer to the West."

Indian defense expert and founder of "Force," a defense magazine in India, Pravin Sawhney, dismissed the British offer, saying it won't be useful. "India has too many types of fighter jets, and there will be restrictions on the type of technology transfers. Russia has no such restrictions. Putin is a one-stop shop for India," he said. 

Largest arms importer

Over at least the past decade, India, the largest arms importer in the world, has been diversifying its supplies and importing arms from France, the U.S. and Israel.

Still, displacing Russia will be an uphill task.  

Russia accounts for over 60% of all Indian weaponry, requiring a constant supply of spare parts.

India imported 46% of its arms from Russia between 2017 to 2021, according to SIPRI, a Swedish institute that tracks arms exports and imports around the world. It was followed by France at 27% and the U.S. at 12%, according to the institute. 

Imports from Israel came in fourth place. India accounted for 37% of all Israeli arms exports during this period.

Describing the Indo-Pacific as the "geopolitical center of the world," Johnson said Britain was pursuing an "Indo-Pacific tilt," ignoring the questionable human rights record of Modi's Hindu nationalist government in favor of the West's geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.

India is the centerpiece of the western nations' Indo-Pacific strategy, an attempt to contain China's belligerence in the region. India is also one of the members of the Quadrilateral security dialogue, which also comprises the U.S., Australia and Japan.

As a country highly dependent on Russian weapons for most of its arsenal, India has not joined its Quad partners in condemning Russia's unprovoked and illegal attack on Ukraine, nor has it imposed sanctions on it.

In fact, India has stepped up its purchases of Russian oil and coal in defiance of international sanctions against Moscow.

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