India is set to give final approval to a $2.6 billion deal for military helicopters from U.S. defence firm Lockheed Martin ahead of a proposed visit by U.S. President Donald Trump this month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is trying to pull out all the stops for Trump’s trip in a bid to reaffirm strategic ties between the two countries, which have been buffeted by sharp differences over trade, to counter China.
India’s defence purchases from the United States have reached $17 billion since 2007 as it has pivoted away from traditional supplier Russia, looking to modernise its military and narrow the gap with China.
Trump is expected in India around Feb 24 on his first official visit to the country, although no formal announcement has yet been made.
Trade officials have pointed to large-scale U.S. arms purchases, from surveillance planes to Apache and Chinook helicopters, as proof of India’s willingness to tighten strategic ties.
The multirole helicopters will be equipped with Hellfire missiles and are meant to help the Indian navy track submarines in the Indian Ocean, where China is expanding its presence.
The government outlined only a modest rise in its 2020/21 defence spending to $73.65 billion in the budget on Feb. 1, of which a part will go towards making a down payment on the helicopter purchase.
The clearance came after the Trump administration rolled out a new “Buy American” plan in 2018 that had relaxed restrictions on sales, saying it would bolster the American defence industry and create jobs at home.
The United States has also offered India the armed version of Guardian drones that were originally authorized for sale as unarmed for surveillance purposes, the first such approval for a country outside the NATO alliance.
India plans to buy 30 of these unmanned aircraft for surveillance of the Indian Ocean, at a cost estimated to be about $2.5 billion, from General Atomics.