Journalist | Writer | Analyst
24 March 2011
How India blinked on U.S. inspections of PM’s jet
‘India wary of image of U.S. officials tramping around head of state’s plane’
New Delhi: Three years after issuing a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) on Boeing aircraft that India was buying for use by the Prime Minister and other VVIPs, the United States unilaterally foisted an amendment mandating intrusive annual end-use inspections of them by American personnel.
When the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the purchase plans in September 2005, it was on the basis of an LOA that did not require physical inspection of the highly sensitive aircraft. But in May 2008, the U.S. handed over to the Indian side a number of changes to the LOA, including a requirement for annual Enhanced End-use Monitoring inspections of the Large Aircraft Infrared Counter-Measures (LAIRCM) the planes come equipped with.
The LAIRCM is a self-protection suite that allows the pilot to take counter-measures if the aircraft comes under attack while in air.
According to a cable sent to Washington on May 5, 2008 from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, the Indian side strenuously objected to the American demands when they were first made. In a meeting with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Clad in May 2008, Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary Gaitri Kumar “raised Indian concerns over what it perceived was the ‘reopening’ of the LOA for the Boeing VVIP aircraft India had agreed to purchase in 2005, specifically mentioning the ‘intrusive’ end-use monitoring (EUM) agreement for the protection suite India was now being asked to sign as problematic. We don’t mind if it is recast for some financial or technical thing,’ she stated, ‘but to insert an EUM requirement retroactively and say if you don’t agree we’ll put it in storage, that would make our people flip’.” (152359: secret).
That India eventually agreed to American monitoring of the aircraft is already known, even if the details were never made public. But the Embassy cables give an unprecedented insight into the tug-of-war that followed the demand. The cables also reveal the “creative wording” the two sides used, in which India agreed to give U.S. inspectors annual physical access to the LAIRCM on the planes but the politically explosive term of “on-site inspection” was replaced by “on-site review.”
According to a cable sent on May 29, 2008 (155930: confidential), the amended LOA was initialled that day. In fact, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan expressed his “appreciation for the text’s creative wording, such as using ‘joint consultation to include an on-site review’ in lieu of ‘on-site inspection’”, because of “political sensitivities… over the principle of on-site inspections.”
The Indian side, however, remained wary of how the story would play out once it became clear that the government had allowed the U.S. to arbitrarily alter the terms of the aircraft deal. India made it clear on the day of the initialling that it wanted no public discussion of the fact that the goal posts had been moved. “Following [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Mitchell] Shivers’ expression of empathy for India’s perception that the U.S. had added the EUM requirement after an initial LOA had been signed in 2005, Foreign Secretary [Shiv Shankar] Menon noted his appreciation but asked that there be no future reference to any ‘shifting of the goal posts,’ rather that the entire deal had just been a continuum of discussions,” the cable, sent under the name of U.S. Ambassador David Mulford, recorded.
Other cables track the meetings Mr. Mulford had with Mr. Narayanan and Mr. Menon in the run up to May 29 in order to convince the Indian government to agree to that shift.
More than the substance of on-site inspections, the Indian government was worried about the public reaction to American inspectors getting access to the Prime Minister’s plane, American officials dealing with the matter of end-use monitoring for the VVIP Boeing jets concluded. On May 14, Ambassador David Mulford met Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon to discuss the matter and “urged him to begin ‘sensible negotiations’ to resolve the enhanced end-use monitoring (EEUM) arrangements for the VVIP jets quickly (153810, May 14, 2008, confidential). The cable quotes Mr. Menon saying he had been through the proposed amendment and that he felt “there are ‘no insurmountable difficulties in reaching an understanding that would meet your requirements and ours’.”
Though Mr. Menon “found the amendment ‘reassuring,’ because the details that it laid out [for keeping the LAIRCM secure] mirror those that the Indian government also wishes to enforce”, Ambassador Mulford wrote. “We have a huge interest to make sure it is well protected — not just by us but by others — and we have no problem with high standards, the Foreign Secretary stressed. At the same time, notes the Ambassador, “Menon also pointed out that, because the aircraft attracts high-level political attention, the presentation of the inspections regime needed rewrQing [sic]”.
Mr. Mulford ended his cable with the following comment: “At no point in the conversation did Menon reject inspections, and he appeared resigned to on-site verification, as shown by his acceptance of a site visit by negotiators. The problems that the Foreign Secretary saw in the US’ proposed amendment dealt primarily with the cosmetic presentation it seemed, which he believes gives the impression of associating the VVIP aircraft, and by extension the Indian Government, too closely with the U.S.”
The Indian stake
In a meeting with Mr. Mulford (155283, May 23, 2008, confidential), the NSA “agreed that the Indian government had a stake in protecting the LAIRCM’s technology, and he recognized that if the U.S. and India prolong negotiations over the EEUM, ‘our Prime Minister will not have a plane’.” But, he insisted, “We need to work in a manner that provides comfort to both sides.” Mr. Mulford ended his cable with the observation that “As Narayanan makes clear, on-site U.S. inspections of the prime minister’s jet make the Indian government pause”. The risk, he wrote, is “that the UPA government’s opponents might use the image of U.S. officials tramping around the Indian head of state’s plane to garner votes in the upcoming general elections”.
Such an image “fits into the campaign messages already espoused by the opposition BJP, which accuses the government of an overriding weakness, and the Communists, who denounce the growing friendship with the U.S. But our willingness to resolve the issue in New Delhi at a high level could help alleviate the Indians’ anxiety and point the way towards a middle ground that protects both the LAIRCM and the UPA government”.
Text of EUM note, initialled on May 29, 2008
May 28, 2008
Proposed EUM Note for Indian VVIP Aircraft:
“Pursuant to section 40A of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), as amended, the USG will accomplish end-use monitoring for the defense articles and defense services transferred in this Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) as set forth in this note and the specific Enhanced EUM physical security and accountability requirements annotated in the note to this LOA titled ‘Unclassified AN/AAQ-24(V), Large Aircraft Infrared Counter-Measures (LAIRCM) System (Revised).’
“At least annually, at the request of either party, at a mutually acceptable date, India and the USG will execute joint consultations, to include an on-site security review of the transferred articles and related security and custody procedures. India agrees to make available inventory and accountability records it maintains to U.S. personnel conducting end-use monitoring. The provisions of this note apply only to LOA IN-D-QJD and to no other transfers with the Purchaser or any other country or international organization.” [155930: confidential, May 29, 2008].
(This article is a part of the series “The India Cables” based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)
In the print edition of The Hindu, this story was split in to two. The URL of the second part is here.