Exclusive Interview with H.E. Alex Ellis, UK High commissioner to India, By Kamal Shah
Q 1: The virtual summit at PMs level in May had many major and positive outcomes, especially in the Defence and Strategic domains. What are the major takeaways of the summit, in your opinion?
The Summit and the resulting 2030 Roadmap mark an historic commitment to strengthen work between the UK and India over the next decade, bringing our countries, economies and people closer together and boosting cooperation in areas that matter to both countries. With it, our prime ministers renewed and upgraded the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – the UK is the first European country to be afforded that status by India.
The key takeaway is the breadth of our shared interests on full display in the Roadmap – from the ambition to double bilateral trade by 2030 and begin negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, to the launch of a first-of-its kind Migration and Mobility Partnership to boost talent flows between our countries and tackle illegal migration.
The UK and India have also agreed to step-up the defence and security relationship, with a particular focus on industrial collaboration and maritime propulsion, space and cyber. This includes working to conclude a Logistics Memorandum of Understanding that will enhance our joint ability to tackle shared challenges and the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 2021, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing to India in the autumn on its maiden operational deployment.
What struck me personally was the ease with which the PMs were able to talk, discuss and agree on a shared vision for the future relationship. With the UK’s presidency of the G7 and COP26 – the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties – this year, it is good that our two leaders see eye-to-eye on these important issues.
Q 2: How do you see the Indo-UK ‘Roadmap 2030’? Is it a major departure from the earlier direction and magnitude of the Indo-UK ties?
The 2030 Roadmap signals a transformation, not just evolution, of our ties. Government-level statements can sometimes be non-specific, using words that may not translate easily into tangible goals. The 2030 Roadmap is different. It clearly lays out targets and goes into a level of detail on real commitments.
For example, on technology collaboration it names joint development of India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Mark 2 and the UK’s proven integrated electronic propulsion for future warships. It also sets out new agreements on maritime information sharing, an invitation to the UK to join India’s Information Fusion Centre in Gurgaon and an ambitious exercise programme which includes joint tri-lateral exercises. That for me is where the Roadmap differs.
Q 3: How is the Indo-UK comprehensive strategic partnership moving? What are the major goals & developments in this domain?
The UK is the first non-regional country to enter into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India. Our defence and security collaboration is an important pillar of the new relationship but for the relationship to be comprehensive, it has to have a much broader base.
Recognising the biggest challenge facing the world today, we are expanding the UK-India health partnership to enhance global health security and pandemic resilience. This includes firming up international supply chains to ensure critical medicines, vaccines and other medical products reach those who need them most.
On trade, we have made bilateral commitments on an Enhanced Trade Partnership and UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss has kicked off preparations for a trade deal with India, launching a 14-week consultation to seek the views of the UK public and industry.
We are also increasing cooperation between British and Indian universities on crucial research in areas like health, emerging technologies, and climate science – and bringing enterprises together to propel ground-breaking innovations to communities that need them most. This will no doubt further strengthen our living bridge – the incredible people-to-people relationships that link our countries so closely together.
The UK’s Integrated Review – a landmark review of our foreign, defence, development and security policy, published earlier this year – committed the UK to becoming the European country with the broadest, most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific in support of trade, shared security and values. It highlights multiple areas that the UK must focus on to achieve this vision – and India’s role in all of them is crucial.
Q 4: What are the technologies and areas where the Indo-UK Co-development propositions are being worked upon or have already been agreed upon?
The 2030 Roadmap reaffirms the benefits of closer cooperation in a free and open Indo-Pacific, recognising our shared interest in regional prosperity and stability. The PMs discussed our ongoing collaboration on combat air engine development. We have high hopes that we can go on from where we are now with the Gas Turbine Research Establishment in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop the engine into a full development programme on a model in which its intellectual property is retained in India.
Naturally, if we are co-developing a combat air engine with DRDO, it makes sense that we should also work together on the design of the aircraft. We have agreed to look at how we can work with the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency on the development of India’s Light Combat Aircraft programme. Beyond aerospace we are in detailed discussions with the Department of Defence Production on including integrated electronic propulsion for future warships. Our world leading complex weapons technology is another area on which we are collaborating.
Q 5: One of the MoUs signed in the virtual summit was on MT30 Marine engines. There have been some talks on the MT10 marine engines too. What’s the status on it? What’s the broader plan and proposal from the UK in the sectors of Maritime and Electric propulsion systems for India?
The Rolls Royce MT30 Gas Turbine is a world-class maritime engine. It powers the Queen Elizabeth Class Carrier as well as other high-end platforms in the UK fleet, like the Type 26 Global Combat Ship – a highly successful UK design with proven global export potential.
The MT30 is now at a stage where parts of its manufacture and supply chain could be moved out of the UK to a trusted partner. Rolls Royce went some way in doing that at AeroIndia 2021 where they signed an MOU with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to move aspects of the manufacture of the MT30 Gas Turbine engine to India, supporting PM Modi’s Make in India initiative.
Q6: How does the UK government and UK companies look at India’s Make In India plan? How do you see the UK government playing an important role in helping India in Self-reliance?
The Government of India has some of the world’s best engineering people and skills at its disposal. It is only right that it should seek to benefit from that for its own security and economic growth; which country would not. For too long, that engineering base has been focussed on supporting intellectual property that sits outside of India. India’s growing role on the international stage demands that it produces technology of its own and the Government is putting policies in place to ensure that this can happen. It may not happen overnight and some areas may be open to co-development with like-minded partners.
The UK wants to work with India to combine our engineering experience with India’s growth in the defence sector in a way that increases the security for both countries. We have much to offer one another in defence research, development and training. We remain committed to encourage collaboration, cooperation and partnerships across our two defence industries. This approach is vital in a world where future defence technologies are increasingly going to be delivered through collaborative programmes.
Q7: India has been working on an indigenously developed combat aircraft for a long time. How is the UK government and UK companies planning to help India in developing/ co-developing it?
From the earliest days of manned flight, the UK has had a world leading aeronautical sector. Companies like BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, and Martin Baker are still world leaders. UK industry played a major role in the development of Eurofighter and has content on many of the current leading edge combat aircraft. We also have a long history of working with India in this sector. We go back a long way with HAL and the jointly built Hawk Aircraft (as flown by Surya Kiran), but we are not yet taking full advantage of the potential in the relationship. After the Government of India’s decision to invest in the Light Combat Aircraft Mk1A, it is clear that a full indigenous development programme has to be the future of combat air in India. India’s engineering base is vast. It can be at the forefront of next generation combat aircraft development and the UK is invested in making that happen.
Q 8: The UK Carrier Strike group has been in the news for some time. What’s the plan and progress on it for the Indian Ocean and India? When exactly is it scheduled to visit India?
The Carrier Strike Group 2021 (CSG21) is a British and allied task group representing the UK’s most ambitious global deployment for two decades. It is the embodiment of our Indo-Pacific tilt. It will demonstrate our interoperability with allies and partners
The Group will be led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, and comprises nine cutting-edge frigates, destroyers, one Astute Class nuclear-powered submarine, support ships, and a carrier air wing of 32 Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35B jets and helicopters – as well as 3,700 sailors, aviators and marines.
The Group set sail from UK waters on 23 May and the deployment will take place over 28 weeks, in six phases, lasting until December 2021. It will transit over 26,000 nautical miles, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea, and from the Indian Ocean to the Philippine Sea. The Group will first sail through the Mediterranean interacting with a number of our international partners in the region. It will be heading East through the Indian Ocean around the time of the monsoon during which the Indian Navy and Carrier Strike Group will conduct initial at sea training and exercising. However, the major interactions with India will be after the monsoon. This is when we plan to conduct high-profile port visits and our most ambitious at sea interactions including a tri-service exercise.
Q 9: India has invited the UK to be part of the Information Fusion Centre- Indian Ocean Region, a rare and selective invitation by India. How do you see this step by India cementing the Indo-UK ties and how will the UK take it forward in the maritime domain?
It is a great privilege to receive the formal invitation to the Information Fusion Centre. The UK and India have shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific, and a strong maritime partnership benefits both nations as well as the wider region.
The UK already has a 7 x 7 presence in the Western Indian Ocean Region, alongside its presence in India: with 7 permanent bases in Kenya, Singapore, Brunei, Nepal, Bahrain, Oman, and the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and 7 ships deployed at any one time to provide security in the Western region of the Indo-Pacific. We would like to look at how we can use that presence, and our regular maritime patrols, to bolster security in a more systematic way. The Liaison Officer is part of that, as is a commitment to enhanced information exchange.
The UK is world renowned for its maritime awareness capability – we are the lead on anti-piracy in the western Indian Ocean region, contributing over £20 million to tackle the problem. The UK’s White Shipping Agreement with India, for example, enables us to share information covering the whole of the Indian Ocean Region.
The UK’s Royal Navy and Indian Navy, too, have strong bilateral ties conducting annual training together under the banner of Exercise Konkan. And not just in the Indian Ocean but also in 2019 in waters to the South of the UK.
The strong maritime relationship with India and other regional partners, regular deployments and a permanent naval presence provides the ability for the UK Government to react quickly to a variety of emerging security and humanitarian situations with partners, as well as, upholding international maritime law in support of the rules based international system. Our agreement to institute a bilateral maritime dialogue is a positive step in that direction.
Q 10: Tri- Services exercise between the Indian and the British armed forces was one of the major positive outcomes of the May summit. What’s the plan and progress on the execution of it?
The commitment for the UK and India to conduct a tri-service exercise during the deployment of CSG21 to the Indian Ocean demonstrates commitment from both countries for a bolder, stronger relationship. We understand that India has conducted tri-service exercises with very few countries. We are working very closely with the planning team in the Integrated Defence Staff with whom we are making excellent progress although you will have to wait a little longer before specific details can be revealed.
I want to add that our future force development goals also include plans to enhance our professional military education programme. We have a long-standing successful exchange programme in defence education. Arguably the strongest East West collaboration on defence education. This year, despite Covid, the UK has increased the number of students attending military courses in India. Now we want to take that part of our force development collaboration to even greater heights. The ambition is high on both sides and I am eager to see where working at this level of complexity takes us next.