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A new moment in India-US defence ties

The promise of a transformed relationship between India and the US seems more likely to be realised.

Written by Michael O’Hanlon , Stephen P Cohen |
Updated: January 26, 2015 7:59:16 am
obama-modi cartoon Illustration: CR Sasikumar

Great powers are often characterised by a worldview that is widely shared from generation to generation — a strategic culture, and a good deal of consistency in vision and strategic priorities. The present visions of US and Indian elites go back to roughly World War II. The US sought — in that war and in the subsequent Cold War — to create a world order in which its economic and ideological interests would be protected; this vision was implemented through a strategy of alliance, institution-building and democracy promotion. India — which became the world’s largest democracy when it became a republic in 1950 — saw a desirable world order as one in which colonialism was rooted out and replaced by a non-aligned block that would be free of Cold War pressures, allowing it to take its proper place as one of the great civilisational powers, even if its economic and military power measured in traditional terms might not immediately rival some of the other great powers. These visions were, in their historical context, like ships that pass in the night.

A new period of strategic engagement began after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and there were discussions, albeit futile, of American technology sales to India, especially the development of a light combat aircraft. Americans had serious doubts about India’s technical capabilities; India had doubts about America as a reliable source of technology (in the end both were correct). However, India’s nascent nuclear weapon programme intruded and both Indian and Pakistani nuclear and space programmes fell under US sanctions.

The US-India nuclear agreement of 2005 was a positive milestone. But more recently, the joint statement of September 30, 2014 by US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced another new beginning. Like earlier statements, it placed defence cooperation — embodied in the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) — at or near the core of the relationship. This time, however, three developments may make the promise of a transformed defence relationship more likely to be realised.

The first is the arrival of a new defence leadership in both Washington and New Delhi. India’s new minister of defence, Manohar Parrikar — a former chief minister — was trained as a metallurgical engineer at IIT, Mumbai. His future counterpart, Ashton Carter, has considerable defence expertise, including on matters related to South Asia. A few years ago, Carter was the lead department of defence official who pushed to develop defence ties between Washington and Delhi through the DTTI. As for Parrikar, although there have been discussions about privatising the defence sector for decades, he is the first defence minister to actually meet with private Indian firms trying to produce and sell weapons.

Second, a new realism may be creeping into Indian thinking regarding its overall strategic situation. Modi has, from his first days in office, demonstrated a keen interest in defence and military policy— going to sea on a carrier, witnessing a missile launch and reviewing the troops. The appointment of Parrikar may indicate that he is interested in reform, not just rhetoric. The mood of “getting real” regarding defence policy may be spreading. There are now many defence correspondents, as well as a lively think-tank community. In addition, the parliamentary committee on defence has detailed the shortcomings of the military acquisition process. It pointed to substantial gaps between the defence ministry’s promises and its woeful performance. To informed opinion this comes as no surprise, but it was a rare critique of the woeful Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), more notable for self-promotion than production of weapons. As if in response, Parrikar fired the DRDO’s chief.

Third, India now sees its defence relationship with the US as providing the technology that it lacks, and that other countries cannot provide. India is routinely described as the world’s largest arms market. This is true, but there is an irony: massive purchases are primarily a function of the nation’s inability to produce quality weapons on its own, as well as the absence of a system to establish defence priorities.

The following steps leading up to and beyond the second Obama-Modi summit can strengthen US-India defence ties, as well as the quality of defence policymaking in each state. First, Secretary-Designate Carter should, in his confirmation testimony, indicate that he would be eager to support joint India-US studies that would bring together parliamentary committees to examine concerns common to the two countries. Senator John McCain might just agree to this on the spot.

Second, Carter can also announce support for the exchange of defence officials and bureaucrats, including military personnel and defence scientists, and defence contracts between private Indian and American firms. While not a formal ally, this is one area where India can be treated as such.

Third, when thinking about expanding US-Indian defence trade, policymakers should consider the foreign subsidiaries of US defence firms. In some cases, the Japanese or European branch of an American company, with its own ties to local suppliers and governments, may be better placed to expand defence trade with India than via the America-based headquarters.

Fourth, both India and the US should look for new defence manufacturing projects that have not been publicly discussed. Here are several of varying complexity and technological sophistication:

One, both the American and Indian armies need new rifles. The technology is available to produce a reliable, modular and advanced system that would have more range and firepower than present systems but would also be simpler.

Two, another medium technology project would be to sell to India the production line of the A-10 Warthog close-support aircraft, assuming the US makes good on the Pentagon’s preference to eliminate the A-10 from its inventory. India lacks a modern close-support aircraft, so this could be a win-win proposition. Improving this platform — a big-ticket item compared to the co-development of the Javelin anti-tank missile — would be a good test of how the US and India can work together on developing very good, but not necessarily cutting-edge or gold-plated, technology.

Three, the US could allow private firms to sell electric-launch technology to India for a new generation of small Indian aircraft carriers and other platforms.

Four, there may be areas where cooperation is possible in intelligence, homeland security, and counter-terrorism capability as well, given the two nations’ common concerns in this domain.

Five, after decades of viewing the Indian navy as a virtual adjunct to the Soviet navy at times, the US now tends to see Indian naval power as a useful regional force vis-à-vis China and others; as such, cooperation on other elements of naval power may be feasible as well.

More generally, the two nations can play for the long term. There need not be any rush; indeed, no rush is desirable at a time when Washington is trying to stabilise relations with Pakistan and China while also viewing India strategically as its closest great-power friend in that broader region. US and Indian strategic interests increasingly align, and can be expected to do so into the future. They can be developed slowly, so as not to get ahead of politics, nationalism, pride or historical baggage. But that baggage is gradually dropping away, and the future is increasingly bright.

Cohen is a senior fellow with The India Project at the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and acting director with the Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for the Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institution.



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