Signalling that it's ready for intensifying defence ties with New Delhi, Washington has cleared the sale of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile defence system to India on the eve of Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit to the US this month.
Government sources said that the possible sale offer has been conveyed through diplomatic channels to the highest levels including the Defence Ministry.
Though New Delhi has just been informed of the offer, Washington has given a green signal to the PAC-3 manufacturers, Lockheed Martin, to give a technical presentation to India on the state-of-the-art anti-missile defence system.
The PAC-3 system is a big step beyond Washington's earlier offer for sale of PAC-2. In February this year, a US team, headed by Edward Ross from the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, had briefed South Block on technical details of PAC-2.
Unlike previous Patriots, which operate by getting close to targets and blasting them out of the sky, PAC-3 interceptors have no explosives, relying instead on kinetic energy (hit to kill concept) to eliminate short and medium-range missiles carrying nuclear, biological or chemical warheads.
A PAC-3 system carries smaller but four times more missiles than PAC-2 (16 vs 4) and has a longer range (150 km vs 70 km). Until last year, 175 PAC-3 systems were inducted into US Army.
Sources said that the PAC-3 offer, along with possible sale of F-16 and F-18 fighters to India, is going to be discussed during Mukherjee's trip to the US beginning June 27. Accompanied by Defence Secretary Ajai Vikram Singh, Mukherjee will meet US Vice President Dick Cheney and visit the National Aerospace Command Centre at Colorado Springs. Mukherjee will also visit the joint command centre at Norfolk, Virginia.
The growing defence ties between India and US have already raised concerns in Pakistan with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz looking forward to visit Washington after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trip. It is learnt that Pakistan has already sought dates for Aziz's travel but the visit is expected to fructify towards July-end.
However, both New Delhi and Washington are pitching their engagement in a larger context. The PAC-3 offer is a clear indication that Washington is satisfied with New Delhi's commitment to non-proliferation. For its part, New Delhi sees it a step towards opening of all barriers on high-technology trade.