In an effort to establish a U.S. arms relationship with India in the face of a virtual Soviet monopoly, Fred C. Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy, began three days of talks with senior Indian officials today.
Ikle's visit, which will be followed in a week by a visit by Air Force Secretary Verne Orr, is intended to counter Indian anxiety over Washington's sale of a $3.2 billion package of sophisticated weapons systems to India's traditional enemy, Pakistan. It also is designed to take advantage of what the Reagan administration views as a "window of opportunity" for better U.S.-Indian relations, presented by the election of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi following the assassination of his mother, Indira, diplomatic sources here said.
The sources said that a major policy objective of the U.S. administration is to encourage diversification of Indian arms purchases beyond the Soviet Union, which has been India's major foreign arms supplier for years.
The United States has not made large-scale arms transfers to India since it airlifted weapons to the northern frontier following the 1962 Chinese invasion. U.S.-Indian relations became strained when the weapons were used later against Pakistan in a war in 1965 and worsened when the U.S. refused to supply weapons to India then and during a 1971 war with Pakistan.
Officials close to the talks said that the Indian military had expressed interest in purchasing self-propelled 155-mm howitzers, wire-guided TOW antitank missiles, Harpoon missiles for naval warfare, .50-caliber machine guns and C130 transport aircraft, which would be used largely by scientific teams in the Antarctic.
However, U.S. sources stressed that India had not presented a formal, detailed arms purchase request yet, and they denied that Ikle was bringing with him a list of weapons to offer for sale. "We haven't reached that stage yet," one official said.
The diplomatic sources said that the major hurdle in the negotiations involves proposed "conditions and assurances" to be attached to any weapons contract. While officials would not reveal details of the conditions under discussion, these were understood to cover restrictions on the transfer of weapons to third countries, terms of payment and the right of the supplier to cancel contracts without compensation.
In 1980, India negotiated an arms deal with the United States that reportedly involved 3,700 TOW missiles and 297 M198 howitzers, both of which were test-fired here. But the deal fell through, reportedly because of U.S. insistence on advance payment in hard currency, Washington's refusal to provide infrared night sights for the missiles and because the United States insisted on the right to cancel the contracts without compensation. The Indians also were said to have balked at the Americans' insistence on the right to control the supply of spare parts.
Similarly, direct negotiations last year between the Indian government and U.S. arms manufacturers for coproduction here of .50-caliber machine guns collapsed when the Reagan administration said it would not allow India to make third-country transfers of guns that it produced.
While the Reagan administration is understood to be eager to produce a showcase agreement with India as a symbol of improved relations between the two countries during Gandhi's visit to Washington, scheduled for June 11, officials here said there may not be time to iron out the differences over the conditions and assurances attached to the arms sales.
U.S. officials have been cautiously optimistic about the Ikle visit, saying that at best it could lead to a "watershed" in U.S.-Indian relations, and at worst it could advance contacts between the two countries.
Optimism in military cooperation has been increased somewhat by a series of recent calls by U.S. naval ships on such Indian ports as Cochin, Bombay and Goa, although India previously has discouraged visits to its ports by U.S. war vessels.
U.S. officials, however, have said that they are keenly aware of the advantages the Soviets are able to offer India in weapons transactions, including rock-bottom prices and highly concessional terms involving barter or credits repayable in Indian rupees instead of hard currency.
While India in recent years has sought in a limited way to diversify its arms purchases abroad by buying some Mirage fighters from France, Jaguar jets and combat helicopters from Britain and submarines from West Germany, it remains heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for the bulk of its imported weaponry. Indigenous defense production includes field artillery, tanks, trucks, rockets and aircraft.
Ikle was scheduled to meet with Indian Defense Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari and Policy Planning Committee Chairman G. Parthasarathy.