As the UK moves to renew global relations and New Delhi focuses on Make in India in the aftermath of Covid-19, cyber security and the defence sector could emerge as one of the biggest areas of convergence for both.
A 72-hour joint counter-terror exercise involving 240 ace anti-insurgency specialists and commandos, simulating operations carried out in urban and semi-urban areas, and conducted at Salisbury Plains in the UK this February.
That was the focus of the fifth edition of Ajeya Warrior - the joint military exercise between India and the United Kingdom dubbed by the Indian defence ministry as the “shining example of long-standing strategic ties between India and the UK”.
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The exercise this year not only offered the 120 soldiers each from the Indian and United Kingdom Army the opportunity to share their experiences of various counter-terrorist operations, but also valuable insights into training on modern weapon systems and equipment. That's one key reason why Ajeya Warrior stands out among the various joint military exercises conducted by India with various other countries, becoming a crucial operation in terms of the security challenges faced by both India and the UK due to the rapidly changing facets of global terrorism and geopolitical disruption.
Held at battalion-level strength and alternating between the UK and India every year, Ajeya Warrior is a highlight of the many deep areas of cooperation that mark India-UK defence relations, enhancing interoperability while sharing experiences between both the armies.
But it's by no means the only such bilateral exercise.
The Indian and UK armed forces share both historical ties and regimental links and train well together on a rotational basis. The joint navy-to-navy Konkan annual exercises (held since 2004), include destroyers/frigates in ship-to-ship passage exercises and was held last in August 2019. The joint air-to-air Indradhanush exercises, run since 2006, include modern combat aircraft. In the field of strategic defence dialogues, a bilateral Defence Consultative Group (DCG) meeting has taken place annually between the top officials of the UK and Indian defence ministry since 1995. A Defence and International Security Partnership (DISP) was set up in 2015 and the British Defence Secretary visited India in April 2017 for the first of what was expected to be an annual dialogue.
Despite the fact that George Fernandes was the last Indian defence minister to visit the UK way back in 2002, bilateral military relations have gained robust momentum. A scheduled visit by Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh to the UK this year has been thrown into uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, but both sides remain acutely aware that as the post-Brexit UK moves to recalibrate relations and post-Covid New Delhi focuses on Make in India, defence could emerge as one of the biggest areas of convergence for both.
Dominic Asquith, the Former British High Commissioner to India, succinctly summed up the potential of the UK-India partnership when he said earlier this year: “In the four years I have been here, an additional 150 UK companies have invested in the Indian market, while the combined revenue of Indian companies in the UK has more than doubled. Between June 2016 and December 2019, Indian issuers raised over £9.1 billion on the London Stock Exchange through masala, dollar and green bonds...
The CDC Group, the UK's development finance institution, invests more in India than anywhere else in the world, with more than 300 projects valued at £1.3 billion and supporting around 350,000 direct jobs. In the other direction, there are some 850 Indian companies in the UK employing almost 105,000 people. These companies together raised almost £48 billion in revenue last year.”
Noting that the UK and India were working together on AI to deliver better health care for all, he also underscored how defence cooperation had evolved in the era of cyber espionage, surveillance and state hackers, to protect vital personal and public assets from what he called “virtual, but very real, threats”.
That latter part - cyber security - is an often overlooked aspect of UK-India defence relations, though both countries have forged close ties on this in the past decade. The first India-UK cyber dialogue was held in New Delhi in November 2012, where both sides agreed to tackle cyber-crime and the threats from cyberspace to international security; build skills and capacities; and create a global multilateral, democratic system of internet governance. With India's gigantic e-commerce sector of nearly $30 billion expected to get a massive boost with the introduction of Fifth Generation (5G) cellular network technology, the recent UK ruling with regards to Huawei's 5G infrastructure plans underscore the challenges for setting up secure national cyber networks. While Reliance Industries is set to roll out India's own 5G network, targeted cyber threats - especially from non-state entities based in Russia and China - run high in India due to their domination in the smartphone market and fibre optic routes.
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The India-UK cyber cooperation got a major boost in April 2018 with the signing of a five-year 'framework agreement' during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to London, and defence analysts say that both countries now need to focus hard on the new and emerging defence priorities and technological and industrial opportunities.
“Opportunities to enhance cyber cooperation relating to threats, challenges, defence, crime, international law, diplomacy, governance and prosperity could ensure substantive bilateral security convergences post-Brexit,” said Rahul Roy Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
While the bilateral relationship between UK and India has remained strong, it's no longer a secret that it's still short of its huge potential - and neither the UK nor India can afford to rely on historical connections to deliver a modern partnership. With the UK government publicly acknowledging that India remains central to its aspirations for a more outward-facing Global Britain, solid defence cooperation is what will bring an enduring security and stability to that rapidly-growing friendship.