Top US defence official on India visit

(dpa) - United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in India Tuesday on a brief visit aimed at expanding defence cooperation with India and boosting military sales.

Gates, who is accompanied by a 50-strong delegation of US military officials and defence industry representatives, is scheduled to hold talks with Indian leaders on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and bilateral defence cooperation, including a proposed logistics support agreement, diplomatic officials said.

The US side is also expected to push bids for Indian defence contracts.

Gates held a lengthy luncheon meeting with India's National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, who has been a key player in negotiating the civilian nuclear deal under which the US would trade in fissile materials and technology for civilian reactors in India, ending a three-decade ban.

But before the deal is operational, India has to secure support of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group and draw up a country-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Talks with the IAEA are currently on in Vienna.

Gates is scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee later Tuesday.

Discussions with these leaders and Defence Minister AK Antony are expected to cover a wide range of defence and strategic issues including the threat of terrorism in the region, diplomatic sources said. Gates is scheduled to address a joint press briefing with Antony before leaving on Wednesday.

The two sides are expected to review their strategic cooperation and explore ways to enhance these ties, the sources said.

India has recently started engaging with the US in military matters and participated in a combined naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal along with Singapore, Japan and Australia.

The logistics support agreement which is being negotiated for more than a year proposes to provide access to each other's bases and provide refuelling facilities and similar logistical support for fighter aircraft and warships.

India's ruling United Progressive Alliance's left partners have opposed the proposed agreement saying it would turn India into a stooge of American military "designs."

Gates is also expected to meet the leader of the opposition LK Advani, a senior member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Wednesday. The BJP has expressed reservations on the deal and Gates' meeting with Advani is being seen as an attempt to drum up bipartisan support.

The deal has run into hurdles with the left partners opposing it and the BJP expressing reservations.

The US defence official's visit comes just days before bids close on March 3 for an Indian government request for a proposal for 126 fighter aircraft. US aviation company Lockheed Martin is in the race for the contract, tipped to be around 10-billion dollars, along with Russian and European companies.

India has, in the past, sourced a major part of its defence requirements from Russia but is now looking to the US and Europe as it upgrades ageing equipment and several deals are in the pipeline, making it one of the world's leading arms' importers.

India recently acquired six Super Hercules C-130J military transport aircraft from the US and the warship USS Trenton renamed INS Jalashwa.

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