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We Move to Permanently Base Royal Navy Ships In The Western Indian Ocean: UK Defence Adviser Brig Gavin Thompson

On the sidelines of Aero India 2021, I spoke with UK Defence Adviser to India Brig Gavin Thompson and Deputy British High Commissioner, Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford on the Indo-UK strategic security partnership. While the ongoing crucial military logistic agreement is expected soon, UK's Rolls Royce is in talk with India over building aero engine of 110 KN capability. Along, PM Boris Johnson is looking to reinstate his visit to India, Deputy HC Jeremy told BW Businessworld.

Photo Credit : UK MoD


HMS Queen Elizabeth's Carrier task group

UK Defence Adviser Gavin Thompson (Left) & UK Deputy High Commissioner Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford(Right)

HAL and UK Rolls-Royce have agreed to expand their partnership in India for collaboration in two areas augmenting the supply chain for both Civil and Defence Aerospace by establishing a maintenance centre for Adour Mk871 engines to support Rolls-Royce's global customers. How exciting is it for you to see India UK defence relations building on? Along, we have seen that the Covid-19 has wrecked up the economy, resulting in muted defence budget and activity. Overall, could you comment on UK India defence relations?

Brigadier Gavin Thompson: First let’s applaud the government of Karnataka and India for being brave enough to do this in the blended format and it has been a great success, the footfall out there is incredibly high and the interaction among the government and also from business to business is incredible. So, firstly, they should be praised who are in the planning for the fantastic outcome. In terms of defence relationship, we are on a journey Manish. We are on a journey that involves co-development for the UK and involves the co-creation of international community. The announcements we had today with Rolls Royce was a part of the journey. I mean, this was about maintenance overhaul of existing platforms. It was about exporting into the current supply chains but it is also about transitioning the UK supply chains into India which is very India friendly in terms of Indian policies. 

Jaguar Aircraft is powered by two Adour MK 804 / MK 811 Engines. MK 811 Engines are manufactured from 1981 under licence from RR/TM 

It is indicating of the trend as where we are going which is much more sophisticated ambition on intellectual property in the future, and now I like to say to people that imagine in 5 year time where we would be. We have been investing in intellectual thought and discussions with India about how we can move into a world of co- creation. For the last few years, we're on the threshold of some breakthrough opportunities. Today's announcements are part of that. The UK defence industrial base is renowned for being one of the highest defence exporters in the world. And it's built on high technology. And we're talking about a journey of co-creation with India. 

Imagine, where you got the defence industrial bases of UK in high technology and the scale and potential in India, if we can bring these 2 things together, that is a fantastic vision for the future. 

Could you also give us a broad sense of UK companies participating in Aero India 2021 and some of their demonstrations in terms of equipment and technology?

Rolls Royce has got high ambitions in the aerospace sector and they are having conversations as to what they can do in the maritime sector as well. Again, we have BAE System  which has all the aerospace potential for the indigenisation of India’s aerospace sector, the transition to LCA Mk2 and then on to fully indigenous 5th generation plus technology after that.  And UK companies see the vision is being laid up by India and we have got a credible part to play both as UK industry and UK government. So, those are the two big players equally balanced between aerospace and maritime. Then you look at some of the smaller companies who are here as well in missile technology. It is not well understood but the companies like Thales and MBDA have some of the greatest missile technologies. Message is to create in India just not make in India.

Do you see defence is a sort of foundation of greater UK-India bilateral relations, unfolding into something much bigger in dimensions and cooperation on security?

Jeremy Pilmore-BedfordYeah, I would say that definitely defense and security is what is one of the pillars of future UK- India relationship. I think it is one of the several pillars. It's the same in our broader trade & investment relationship. I am in Bangalore, the tech capital of India, one of the big tech cities in the world. And I see here that our British businesses here in a big way--actually co creating. Companies like similar sized Rolls Royce, the British retailer, Tesco, and other UK companies here got a huge research and development centres. Tech start-ups in the UK are coming here and developing and expanding here. We also see the education side of things where we've got research, I think, a lot of British universities cooperating and  working with the Indian universities. So I think these words-- cooperation and co-creation-- are actually hallmarks of a very broad and deep relationship while security cooperation is very big part of that.

UK has been talking about offering specific critical technology to India that is developing jet-engine for next generation fighter jets.  Building upon multiple talks that have taken place along with Rolls Royce, where are we now at the moment as far as jet engine program is concerned? 

Gavin Thompson: The legacy that we wrote for civil engine history in India. Today, 60 years of working on combat jet engine collaborations in India is a fantastic category. So it's unrivaled with any partner that India currently has leverage over. And sometimes it goes, like all relationships, it takes a different times when it comes up. I think, where we're looking is beyond the horizon, we're not looking at in terms of development for the immediate future, that space is quite classic in India. But in the longer term, we have program in the UK, that is aiming for a transition in about 2035 in the aerospace sector, that timeline aligns with India's ambition for another cycle of aerospace development and if we are looking at the same timeline together, then it makes sense to have conversations about how we might develop those kinds of, you know, for them 110 KN of Type engines together and with the engineering skill base people in India, and the manufacturing capability, there's a huge synergy that can't be provide to countries with a similar ambition. So discussions are ongoing. 

Tempest Concept Model(UkMod)

Collaborations are developing, it's something that we're not talking about too openly right now. Sometimes it's good to do things in public, sometimes it's not so good to do things in public. But for different reasons. But the two countries are talking and very healthy relationship based on similar development timelines.

India aerospace is at cusp of forging a robust ecosystem. India in near future needs 500 fighter jets. We have very next gen fighter program like AMCA and Tejas Mk2 where India is scouting for suitable jet engine technology.  Even or Offset program with Rafale did not work out for aero engine collaboration. Would UK fill that gap? Then how do you integrate with such programs?

Gavin Thompson: Well, I think Firstly, LCA Tejas is a brilliant outcome. You know, congratulations to India for that--you know, the largest indigenization contract.  So that's an incredible journey, it just tells you how far India, India has gone. Now, you can't go from one stage of aerospace development to a generational- beyond in one step, you have to move and get to a certain stage, test and adjust on it. So that's it. That’s a journey. And we want to go on that journey together. What's clear to us from India is that whatever happens in the future will be indigenous. You make the point that there's a unique place in the UK in that journey, because we are talking about co-creative development. We're not talking about selling the UK engine into the Indian market, which has got some way in Indian context to it. That's what triggered indigenization. We want India to be an independent security provider in this region, with its own high tech capability. That's only right you know, the country 1.3 billion projected to be the third largest GDP in the world in the near future; already such a significant part of the G-7.  It's only right that India gets its rightful place in the future. And that's not through buying other people's capability or making small parts of it. It's about doing it with a partner who is genuinely convinced. 

As a Dy High Commissioner, you touch upon the broader aspect of Indian-UK bilateral relations. I would like to know more about Covid vaccine collaboration with India which has turned out well. How did it happen?

Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford: I think the COVID crisis obviously is affected both our countries and its given expression of the opportunities of partnership. When the crisis started. We have started supplies of PPE equipment for doctors, nurses and care homes, to cope with the crisis and also the pharmaceutical drugs for our people during the crisis. At the same time, we've been very advanced on the vaccine program. We have two UK based vaccines, the one that has to be licensed out in Great Britain and the other countries as well as India, the Oxford AstraZeneca ones, as well as others coming down the track. 

On the Oxford's AstraZeneca, we have been partnership with the Indian Serum Institute in a major critical clinical trials, that vaccine is now passed through the medical trials process here that's been cleared some weeks ago, and it's being rolled out of the COVID Shield today. I think that's between those two sides of it as a good example of how our countries together can work to deal with international health crises like that. We're also very pleased to see India supplying those vaccines on to third countries as well. The vaccine has been developed and the fact that what is being done at that cost is because we want to make sure that vaccines for COVID are available globally. And the UK has been a big contributor to the COVID-19 funds for countries in Africa and elsewhere around the world have access to free culture.

The aspect of vaccine cooperation set for the great foundation and mood for celebration in realm of UK-India relations. But do you think the cancellation of PM Boris Johnson’s visit to India in the nick of time somehow dampened the whole mood?

Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford: I don’t think he did. So we have a really strong appetite to deepen and take forward the relationship.

In the UK we have a government that some classify as the most pro India ever. We have a prime minister who is very passionate about India, and he has family connections to this country. We have a cabinet of very high profile of British of Indian origin—we have the finance minister, we have interior minister as well, as well as others. And on the other side, Prime Minister Modi and the government has a very strong desire to also build that relationship. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to postpone or cancel his visit to India. And he did that very reluctantly, because of the spiking COVID cases in the UK in January, which were driven by a new more virulent strain of virus in the UK and identifying many other countries.

PM Boris Johnson (Reuters)

Fortunately, that that spike in cases in the UK has been on its way down for 35%, just in the last seven days. And with the roll out of the vaccine, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the worst of the crisis. 

So, he [PM Boris Johnson] is looking to reinstate that visit. He said that he would like to do it in the first six months of this year. On the other side, he also invited Prime Minister Modi to G -7 summit in UK in June. So I think that that appetite is there, it’s going to be fulfilled, we’ll get to see some, some really strong business relationship. 

This is very important. We keep getting message from entrepreneurs who have stakes in the UK on the Brexit situation. How will it impact Indian entrepreneurs and their investment in UK? Could you simplify this because nobody has a good idea?

Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford: As you as you know, the UK left European Union at the end of January last year, and we exited the transition arrangements in December of last year. Last year, India actually was the second biggest investor.  

First of all, Britain gets to set up our own migration policy. But at the same time, we have liberalized the roots of things like inter-company transfers and one of the biggest beneficiaries of that here would be India. So we’re sitting here again, by the law, most of the work of over 50% of the inter-company transfer balances are actually from India, and the lion’s share of those from the companies from India, to the UK. So, we saw one of the first immediate, tangible benefits. 

The second one is that it gives the opportunity to set our own trade policy. The first time since we joined the European Union in 1973. We’ve published our own universal Tariff Schedule, which actually, again, new tariffs and sets that benefit for India, around about 40 million pounds worth of reduction of tariffs, according to companies just from the first of January. And it also now allows us to take for dialogue on trade investments, with the goal of a free trade agreement between the two countries that we’ve already had some of those dialogues on international trade. 

Could you talk about India- UK Strategic relationship and some of the initiatives in maritime like Fusion Centre and role of UK in the Indo-Pacific and QUAD? 

Brigadier Gavin Thompson: Yes. So we're expecting an announcement, an integrated review in the UK. It's no big secret though that part of that integrative review is going to be a much closer focus on the Pacific. 

It's not that we ever left the Indo-Pacific; UK has got several points of presence in the Indian Ocean region. And we've got seven bases operating permanently in the protecting sea lanes that are around the western Indian Ocean Region (IOR). So there's no disengagement from the UK, it's just that we are now prioritizing that even higher. So we move to the future permanently base ships to the Royal Navy, in the western IOR.

Where that take us two countries that UK has very well established connections in the western region. India is of course, always concerned about activities in counter terrorism in the western region. So there's a discussion to be had. we believe that there's a unique conversation there between the UK and India to be having that part of the region. The Indo- Pacific is a big place. It's important to split it down to a sort of a bit of geography to talk meaningfully about as two countries with more shared reasons.So we would like to concentrate our effort in the Western IOR, I think that's an emphasis we'll see increasingly coming out from conversations in the near future. 

You mentioned the integration, integrating fusion centre liaison officer that is just one part of what you would like to see as a much broader maritime domain awareness, information exchange relationship going forward into the future. Certainly, it's an obvious physical manifestation of a growing relationship. But it's not the only part of that. It's much richer conversation about how we coordinate activity together in the western Indian Ocean region, not just for maritime security, but for, you know, the political economy, for the health of the oceans. Going forward and I think that's the thing you should watch out for in the future. When we want to have the conversation, I think there's an appetite to just have that conversation.

I understand there is a discussion going on in terms of military exchange program, which will enable India-UK to forge the ties further. But how soon is going to happen? And will it enable India to use UK's bases overseas and do joint patrolling and naval exercises together?

Brigadier Gavin Thompson: Yes, so I think we share that ambition. Let's look at the biggest manifestation of that exercising opportunity in 2021. 

Carrier Strike groups coming to the Indian Ocean region, we hope that that will provide the opportunity for the UK and India to operate or exercise together at a scale that we've never done before.

It would be ideal if we could do that as a joint exercise, try service exercise. And that's the sort of level of ambition we've got for 2021. So I think all around, you know, not just logistics agreements, which form part of that discussion on the western IOR. I think you could expect this year to be really promising year for a discussions on working together in the Indian Ocean region.