HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden visit to India signals strengthening of UK-India defence ties

By Richard McCallum

After much anticipation, HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in Mumbai. Displacing about 65,000 tonnes and with a length of 284 metres, she[1] is the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy.

It is said, rightly, that the ship is a demonstration of the excellence of British naval design, manufacturing, and technology: its pioneering integrated electric propulsion (IEP) system, which uses gas turbines and diesel generators to generate electricity to propel the vessel to 32 knots, is just one example. (And one Britain is eager to demonstrate to the Indian Ministry of Defence.)

But I think the carrier – together with her escorts on this maiden deployment – is an even more powerful symbol of collaboration and cooperation.

Consider the ship’s IEP system: it uses gas turbines built by Rolls-Royce, alongside diesel engines provided by Wärtsilä, a Finnish company, harnessed to electric motors provided by GE Power Conversion, a subsidiary of American conglomerate General Electric. The platform was constructed by the ‘Aircraft Carrier Alliance’, a partnership of different companies, principally Babcock International and BAE Systems – which are UK listed firms – and Thales Group, which is headquartered in France, using different dockyards across the UK.

The act of her visiting India also signals collaborative intent. Not only does the Carrier Strike Group – a formation of satellite ships around the carrier – contain warships from the Royal Netherlands Navy and the United States Navy, it represents Britain’s recently announced ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, including a stronger partnership with India; a recognition of India’s growing geopolitical importance not just in the region but globally.

And economic importance. The defence industrial relationship between India and the United Kingdom is at a critical turning point, with distinct and powerful drivers on both sides.

The Government of India is focused on the modernisation and enhancement of its military capability. It is also determined to make more of what it needs in India rather than rely on imports. Even before the pandemic, India – the world’s 2nd largest importer of major arms – had a plan to raise the domestic share of its defence budget allocation from 5% to 20%. Since then, a key component of post-Covid stimulus in India has focused on the promotion of domestic manufacture: to this end, a carrot: further relaxation of FDI levels in the defence sector – up to 74% largely without permission and 100% with approval; and a stick: this year it was announced that 209 parts and systems – including major platforms – would gradually be prohibited from import.

At the same time, the UK is looking to deepen its international relationships after leaving the European Union and aims to replicate in defence the recent trade success it has achieved in other sectors in India. ‘Team UK’, including government, industry and intermediaries representing business such as the UKIBC, is now focused on forging a genuine, long-term defence industrial partnership with India: replacing an outdated, somewhat transactional, approach with an emphasis on technology and capability collaboration; supporting ‘Make in India’; and ultimately aiming for ‘export from India’. For this approach to work, the UK must think beyond simply hardware and embrace specific areas of technology collaboration as well as helping to foster new skills in India.

The UK was once a key provider of defence and security equipment to India. In 1970 the UK’s market share in India was 90%. By 2020 it was just 2%. For a country with 16% of the global defence market (as of 2019), the UK has under-performed in the Indian defence market.

Fortunately, the UK is now moving in the right direction in its defence industrial relationship with India and India seems to be receptive to the approach.

Why? Firstly, Britain’s strong intellectual base, including technology IP, skills, and standards, can be deployed across a range of India platforms, delivered in partnership with domestic manufacturers to meet India’s needs and create economic benefit for the UK. At the UKIBC, we advocate that co-creation, co-development, creative IPR ownership models, and government-to-government stewardship is critical to UK business success in the Indian defence sector.

Secondly, the two countries recently signed the Defence Technology and Industrial Capability Cooperation (DTICC) MoU, which has the capacity to become a critical enabler of business opportunity for UK industry in India. That this is the UK’s first such G2G arrangement reflects London’s appraisal of the importance of the bilateral relationship with India which has traditionally taken comfort in sovereign-to-sovereign, rather than commercial, deal-making.

Thirdly, in May this year the bilateral defence relationship featured prominently in the Roadmap for India-UK future relations published by Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson, and in the March 2021 Integrated Review published by the UK Government. High level backing makes lower level implementation that much easier to achieve.

Finally, with the establishment in 2019 of the UKIBC’s Aerospace & Defence Industry Group (ADIG) the UK now has a bilateral industry forum to promote and support collaboration between British and Indian Industry. ADIG comprises 20 diverse aerospace and defence firms – from both countries and with a combined global turnover of USD 60Bn – which are united by a desire to do more business with and in India.

The security and prosperity of the UK and India are already closely intertwined, and like the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when both sides embrace collaboration and cooperation.

[1] This term is used by the Royal Navy. I shall use it here.


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