NEW DELHI - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates plunged into one of the world's hottest arms market Tuesday, saying rapidly expanding US-Indian defence ties were in both countries' interests.
His arrival coincided with news that India successfully tested its first nuclear capable missile from a submerged platform, completing its goal of developing air, land and sea-based ballistic missiles.
Asked if helping to arm an emerging nuclear power carried risks, Gates said, "We have to deal with the world as we find it."
"India is the world's largest democracy. It is in our interest to develop this relationship, just as it is in India's," he told reporters in New Delhi after strolling the grounds of the tomb of 16th century Mughal emperor Humayun.
He cited the ambitious schedule of US-Indian exchanges and exercises, and the growing defence trade relationship.
He also expressed hope for completion of a US-Indian civil nuclear technology agreement that has been held up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's communist allies, but said that was not part of his talks here.
Gates flew in from Indonesia, where he also pledged strong US support for arms sales to the Indonesian military and its emergence as a power in southeast Asia.
"This is a much bigger deal," a senior US defence official travelling with Gates said of India. "There are larger amounts of more complicated equipment involved. But the real takeaway is that it's not just the equipment, it's the broad military relationship."
"We have a much broader set of agenda items to keep ticking along here which move on their own timelines and set of actors," said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
India announced last month that it will buy six Hercules C-130J aircraft from US giant Lockheed Martin in a deal worth a billion dollars.
"We have tried for some years now to get a seat at the table, a chance to compete, and we are finally there with India's signing a contract to purchase six C-130Js at the end of January," said another US official.
US firms also are competing with Russian and European rivals to supply India with 126 multi-role fighters, a deal valued at 10 to 12 billion dollars.
Gates was scheduled to hold a series of meetings with Indian leaders before departing Wednesday for Turkey.
India traditionally has relied on Russia as its primary military supplier but is now diversifying as the country modernises its military with an eye to China's parallel drive to develop a military capable of projecting power in the region.
"Looking around the world they saw they were falling behind, and that they needed to modernise," the US defence official said of the Indians.
"If you look at what the navy is doing, they want blue water power projection capabilities. They are looking to have one of the most advanced air forces in the world."
The US officials said India has a broader defence relationship with the United States than with any other country, including Russia.
Each of the US military services conduct separate annual joint exercises with Indian forces.
Without mentioning China, Gates in earlier stops emphasised US interest in Australia and Indonesia assuming a larger security role in the region and the world in partnership with the United States.
"One of the reasons we're having all these discussions about weapons procurement and joint training and exercises is that there is a fundamental commonality of interests between the US and these three democracies that we are visiting," the senior defence official said.
"There are reasons for having interoperable forces between armed forces who can smoothly train and work with each other, not in an aggressive sense but certainly as a hedge," the official said.
© 2008 Agence France Presse