There's suddenly silence over the spectator's pavilion at the Camp Bundela range in Babina. All eyes trained on two US soldiers 50 feet away, the shape of a portable launcher unmistakable at this proximity. Then with a dull whoosh, a Javelin anti-tank missile not so much blasts as pops out of the launcher. For the most fleeting of moments, the missile falls -- at this moment, the missile is perfectly distinct. You can make out the fins, the shape, everything. Then, before you know it, the missile's motor kicks in and converts the up-until-then discernible missile shape, into a blinding point of light that careens in a flat arc towards its target, a retired Indian tank two kilometers away. About halfway through its trajectory, the missile pops up into a steeper flightpath and comes smashing down on its target. It's always fun waiting for the dull smack of the explosion that reaches you a couple of seconds in waves after you see the blast. It's an impressive demonstration. And just so you never forget the sight, the soldiers fire two more Javelins. Both bang on. No mistakes. A lot of work goes into stuff like this.
Moments after the launch, a US officer, Major Bhatti, starts handing out CDs with photographs and B-roll footage of Javelin launches conducted over the week gone by at Babina. While there's a mad rush for sound-bytes from the US soldiers, I notice two fellows skulking about with the US contingent, who don't look like soldiers from any stretch of imagination. I mean one of them has an enormous belly, and is finding it killing hauling himself up and down the pavilion hillock in the blazing Central Indian sun. He's a guy from Raytheon. There are two others. A guy from Lockheed-Martin, and a third -- who appears to be bossing these two around -- is a senior chap from the Pentagon's Close Combat Project Office, a department that contains, among other things, the Javelin Product Office. As the three executives assist a pair of US soldiers to assemble a Javelin photo-op mount, a young Indian officer asks the Raytheon guy if he has any literature on the missile. Out of his black knapsack comes a stack of custom folders with brochures, a DVD, the stuff you get a expos. If that's not getting into the heart of a sales pitch, I don't know what is. I'd heard that this sort of thing happens, but had never seen it for myself. Come to think of it, I don't remember seeing a Boeing person in Agra at Cope India, but then again, when you've got Ambassador Tim Roemer making an embarrassingly unabashed pitch (in a ceremonial speech no less), you've pretty much got it covered.
Are Indo-US exercises simply about selling weapons? Not entirely, but here's what I suspect. If Washington had to choose between achieving such lofty ideals as "perfect interoperability" with the Indian military on the one hand, and getting the Indians impressed enough to sign on the dotted lines for a gazillion tank-killing missiles on the other, they'd choose the latter any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Ironically, that's precisely what they're probably going to get as far as the C-17 and Javelin are concerned.
As my friend Vishal Thapar of CNN-IBN said in his camera stand-up, "I hate to be the spoilsport, but the possibility of India and the US conducting joint operations under a UN mandate is too remote to consider." That's darn true. So what was Yudh Abhyas all about then? A message to the Chinese maybe? Anything else? Something to think about for sure. The one thing that isn't ambiguous in the slightest is the wheeling-dealing part of it.
I'll end with something that has stuck with me. It's what one Indian Army major, who seemed surprisingly aloof to the general euphoria at Babina on Monday, said to me while the Javelins were being fired. "They are seducing us with their weapons," he said, his eyes carefully following the missile as it whooshed perfectly towards its quarry.
Labels: Columns, DEFENCE PROCUREMENTS, Diplomacy, Exercises, Partnership, UNITED STATES-RELATED, WRITERS AND CONTRIBUTORS