Boosting India-UK defence and military ties: New thinking and emerging opportunities

by Rahul Roy-Chaudhury

A strategic expert takes note of the present defence alliances between the UK and India and highlights areas where the cooperation could be strengthened further.


  • Top-level defence dialogue between the UK and India should discuss issues of strategic convergence and the increasing levels of risk to mutual interests.
  • The UK government is working on finalising a new government-to-government framework for arms transfers to India.
  • The future lies in the delivery of defence technologies through bilateral collaborative programmes, with an increased focus on defence industrial collaboration.

Despite the absence of a visit to the UK by India’s Minister of Defence for nearly two decades, bilateral military ties remain multi-faceted. But, to take advantage of new and emerging defence priorities and technological and industrial opportunities, these need to be re-examined and bolstered to ensure a true strategic partnership post-Brexit. This involves a meaningful defence dialogue; complex joint military exercises; and increased focus on arms acquisition, technology transfer and production opportunities. This could be highlighted by a visit by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to the UK in 2020, the first since Defence Minister George Fernandes’ visit in January 2002.

Military exercises and defence dialogue

The Indian and UK armed forces share historical ties and regimental links, have a similar ethos and train well together on a rotational basis. The joint army-to-army Ajeya Warrior biennial exercises have been held since 2005 at battalion-level strength; they will next be held in the UK in February 2020. The joint navy-to-navy Konkan annual exercises (held since 2004), include destroyers/frigates in ship-to-ship passage exercises; held last in August 2019. And, the joint air-to-air Indradhanush exercises, run since 2006, include modern combat aircraft.

A bilateral Defence Consultative Group (DCG) meeting has taken place annually between the top officials of the Defence Ministry since 1995; most recently in November 2019. In November 2015, a Defence and International Security Partnership (DISP) was established; the UK Defence Secretary (Minister) last visited India in April 2017 for the first of what was expected to be an annual strategic dialogue.

However, much more needs to be done. The top-level defence dialogue should discuss issues of strategic convergence and the increasing levels of risk to mutual interests, such as freedom of navigation and a rules-based order. The creation of the Chief of Defence Staff post in India now enables a useful scope for exchange and learning on how it operates within the civilian-led MoD and NSC system. Air force exercises need to be held regularly, having taken place only four times in the past 16 years; they will next take place in February 2020 after a gap of four-and-a-half years. Joint navy exercises need to be expanded and made more complex; the maiden deployment of the new UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II and its strike group into the Indian Ocean in 2021 provides such an opportunity.

Arms acquisitions and military links

Although India is the world’s second-largest arms importer, the acquisition of arms from the UK remains limited, focusing largely on 123 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) aircraft from the UK’s largest defence company BAE Systems from 2008. Russia, Israel, the US and France are New Delhi’s trusted defence partners. This is partly due to the framework of arms sales to India.

Most of India’s large arms purchases now take place as Foreign Military Sales/government-to-government transactions through negotiations between governments rather than as direct commercial sales. This not only enables higher ‘comfort levels’ for the Indian government, but also provides ‘sovereign guarantees’ in terms of product liabilities, timelines, and costs.

Unfortunately, the UK does not, as yet, have such a government-to-government framework for arms sales to India, relying instead on commercial-led transactions. But, in a potential ‘game changer’ for India-UK arms sales, the UK government has been working hard on finalising a new government-to-government framework for arms transfers to India. This is expected to come into effect within the next few months.

Alongside, to deepen military-to-military links, the UK government has discussed a new logistics MoU with Indian officials, expected to be formalised shortly, as well as a new training MoU. In addition, a UK liaison officer will shortly be posted at India’s recently established information fusion centre for the Indian Ocean. Indian and UK military personnel continue to take part in flagship courses in each other’s training academies, including at one-star level.

Technology transfers and arms production

The Modi government seeks advanced technology and local manufacturing through its high-profile Make in India policy in defence. In this endeavour, it has established two defence industrial corridors in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh and revised the defence procurement procedure in November 2019 to encourage foreign direct investment in defence.

The future lies in the delivery of defence technologies through bilateral collaborative programmes, with an increased focus on defence industrial collaboration. UK defence companies could also use India’s industrial capacity to build scale and lower costs of their own products for competitive advantage in the exports market. In this endeavour, emphasis could be placed on bilateral collaboration in the development of aircraft carriers, integrated electric propulsion and sixth-generation fighter aircraft.

Bilateral defence and security equipment talks in April 2019 led to the strengthening of the Defence Equipment Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (DEC MOU) of 2007 to identify mutual defence and security capability needs and collaborate on issues to support long-term defence cooperation. To mitigate UK concerns over the transfer of sensitive defence technology to India, an official framework in relation to defence manufacturing will be needed, alongside secure communications for the sharing of classified material.

British defence companies are also keen to further enhance the ease of doing defence business in India. The establishment of an Aerospace and Defence Industry Group by the UK-India Business Council in November 2019 is a welcome initiative; the second defence industry forum will be held on the sidelines of DEFEXPO 2020 in Lucknow on 5-8 February 2020 at which around 20 UK defence-related companies are participating.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.

2020-01-31T15:44:12+00:00January 31st, 2020|2020, UK Edition – 31 Jan-13 Feb 2020|

About the Author: Rahul Roy-Chaudhury