Fighter jets, drones on table as Mattis visits key ally India | World

BACKGROUND: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers a keynote address, Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland, September 20, 2017. AFP/Mark Wilson/Getty Images; SUPERIMPOSED IMAGE: US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, DC, June 26, 2017. AFP/Nicholas Kamm

NEW DELHI: Apart from the concerns over Afghanistan’s security challenges, fighter jets and drone deals are set to dominate the agenda when US Defence Secretary James Mattis visits India this week.

Mattis is likely to seek to convince India to purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 aircraft — a lucrative deal pegged at approximately $15 billion.

In 2016, the United States designated India a “Major Defence Partner” and Trump has sought to further boost military ties, praising India for contributing to regional peace and stability and purchasing US military equipment.

Lockheed has offered the most upgraded version of the fighter jet to India, which is the world’s largest weapons importer.

The US manufacturer competes with Swedish defence giant Saab, whose Gripen E made its maiden flight in June.

India has said it requires at least 100 single-engine fighters to counter the growing air threat posed by China and Pakistan.

Both Saab and Lockheed offered to build the jets locally to comply with Modi’s “Make-in-India” initiative, which aims to cut imports and build a domestic defence industry.

US giant Boeing has also made an offer to set up a manufacturing facility in India for production of its F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft if it bags a deal.

A drone deal for the Indian Navy will also likely be up for discussion, a source familiar with the negotiations told AFP.

“Since Chinese assets have started to dominate the Indian Ocean region, the Trump administration is keen on fast-tracking the acquisition of the drones,” the source said.

Many commentators have said that US-India cooperation is crucial to countering an increasingly assertive China, which has been developing its military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Interests ‘well beyond South Asia’

Mattis is scheduled to arrive in Delhi late Monday and will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new defence minister in the first visit by a top US official since Donald Trump became US president in January.

“The United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia,” a Pentagon statement said.

US India Strategic Partnership Forum President Mukesh Aghi said Mattis’ visit is a sign “the political leadership in both countries place defence cooperation as a top priority”.

Trump and Modi met for the first time in Washington back in June.

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