UK Defence Advisor, Brig Gavin Thompson (third from left) and British Deputy High Commissioner Andrew Ayre (second from left) with the British delegation, in Sector 17 of Chandigarh, Friday. Kamleshwar Singh
A military team of the United Kingdom is in Chandigarh to take part in the Military Literature Festival. The Defence Advisor at the British High Commission in New Delhi, Brigadier Gavin Thompson, gives an insight into the military ties between the two countries and where they are headed.
What kind of defence ties does UK have with India and at what level are the relations right now?
When we talk about being shoulder-to-shoulder regarding defence relations with India, we must recall that this term was coined after 9/11 and it reflects the closest ties with our partners and it is an indicator of the strength of a relationship and is only reserved for the warmest of relationships. During the ongoing Military Literature Festival, we intend to discuss how the defence relationship between UK and India has evolved and is evolving. The seminal moment was 2010 when we had a strategic defence and security review. One of the key aspects of that review was the decision that the UK would not place more emphasis on the Indian Ocean region and since then we have been investing heavily on those capabilities.
What are your expectations from the India-UK military ties in the foreseeable future?
Let us first talk about convergence of security interests in this region. We both countries want to say that rules-based International system dominates the Indian Ocean region. And to protect that requires us to operate, collaborate and coordinate our efforts. At operational level, UK hopes it will be able to coordinate more effectively with India over the shared security interests in the region. If you look at our exercise programme, we have a series of more serious exercise objectives. The UK reaches out frequently to India to conduct combined maritime exercises, there’s MILAN coming up. In 2021, we will have the Carrier Strike Group coming into the Indian Ocean region and will jointly exercise with Indian Navy. That is the big ticket event coming up and that is a powerful signal in Indian Ocean region.
There is a shared ambition to understand defence reform. Cyber, space, special forces are some of the areas of interest to both countries. We have a shared ambition to have a defence reform working group in future as well. India stands on the threshold of a big reform process with the announcement of the Chief of Defence Staff.
Are there any plans to increase the participation of student officers of both countries in courses at the Staff College or NDC?
If you look at the defence education relationship between the two countries I would view that the India and the UK is the richest East-West relationship in terms of longevity and the number of people involved each year. The competition for places in UK defence academic market is very high and India holds three places on DSSC and NDC that is extremely rare and no other country has so many places on that course. We have just finished the visit of the Commandant of UK Joint Services Command and Staff College and part of the discussion last week was to extend the relationship into more sophisticated areas. We want to do more on cyber exchange. We have a cyber Chevening Scholarship programe in UK and Indian armed forces are the biggest bidders for that course this year. That shared ambition in cyber area is enriching as well. There is much greater focus on technology. There is a big ambition for electric propulsion system in maritime field.
UK is a big supporter of Make in India. The UK hears the call from India for the need for India to increase the technological understanding of its defence and industrial base. UK is working in partnership with India to do that in some very sophisticated areas.
Isn’t the UK lagging behind on defence exports to India as compared to other countries?
In word, yes. The UK is missing out. It has a small percentage of Indian defence market. I think the figure is two per cent. Given that India is the fifth biggest defence in the world and the UK is the second largest defence exporter in the world, there is definitely a mismatch. If we are going to be close partners then you have to have strong trade. UK has invested massively in maritime defence capability and it makes sense for us to have that conversation with India. Our future combat air programme has same sort of delivery timelines as India does. It is no secret that UK is working to bring its maritime design understanding to India around the carrier programme. Your new Chief of Naval Staff has gone on record about the ambition for a 65,000-tonne electric propulsion carrier. Well there is only two of those existing in the world and both of them are in UK. We are looking at bigger strategic programmes in future.
Do you think, given the close historical ties that the British Army has with Indian Army, there is a need to foster regimental affiliations which may have been weakening over the years?
In answer to the question on have the ties weakened, I would half support that. I think they have and the fault lies on both sides. I am a cavaltyman and I am the Colonel Commandant of my regiment. What I have been able to do in my two years in India is to revive the relationship between the UK and the Indian Cavalry Associations. So last year, for example, we had two Indian cavalry officers over to UK. My regiment-Royal Tank Regiment-hosted them. This year the return visit has just finished and we had two British cavalry officers over here and they were generously hosted in Ahmednagar, Jaisalmer and in Delhi. My ambition is to expand on that next year. Once we get the cavalry bit going, then I would like to expand it to others. These things take a little time doing them. The bond weakened but in re-building it, it will be a two-three year programme. I am sure other regiments would also come and want it. I walk into an officers mess in India and I feel like I am in an officers mess in UK and this is the same way Indian officers feel in UK. This living bridge is something precious which needs to be nurtured.