Indo US Defence Relations: The Next Decade

The US Department of Defence popularly known as the Pentagon provided a descriptive summary of Indo US Security Relations to the US Congress as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 on 1 November. The one time report covered military to military relations for the past decade to identify key markers for growth in the years ahead, assuming a natural partnership of, “shared interests and values.” Structured in three parts, the first outlines current state followed by a road map for the next five years ending with the third part curiously titled, “Joint Strike Fighter Potential Co Development of Military Weapon Systems”.

The United States aspires India to have a larger role in the international security system particularly in the Indian Ocean region ...

The Indian media picked up the last part linking the same with ongoing contract for the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) with some even suggesting that the current commercial evaluation of Euro Fighter and Rafale be scrapped in favour of the F 35. The focus on F 35 has failed to do justice to other vectors of Indo US Defence relations highlighted in the Report to include policy dialogues on defence trade, technical cooperation and so on, training which is the most intense sphere of engagement, personnel exchanges and broader defence sales and armament cooperation.

The United States aspires India to have a larger role in the international security system particularly in the Indian Ocean region given maritime challenges envisaged in the most important Sea Lines of Communication in the World in terms of energy flows to countries dependent on oil and gas from the Gulf including US strategic allies, Japan and South Korea and challengers China and India. All these are dependent on Indian Ocean SLOCs for up to 80 percent of their energy requirements. 

The spectre of China filling up gap in the Indian Ocean also looms large in the US scheme though India appears to be less concerned some analysts would say smug towards a larger presence of the PLA Navy. With expected expansion of the Chinese in the Pacific, an Indian Ocean presence would give Beijing possible influence over both the seas. Indian thinking with the Defence Ministry Mr A K Antony highlighting the, “net security provider,” role for the Indian Navy most recently in the Navy Commander’s Conference in New Delhi seems to have veered away from an ostrich like approach seen so far.

India is however wary of assuming a larger security role under American tutelage. There is considerable divergence of interests as well as values from the Indian perception. Differences were evident more sharply in the Security Council recently on Libya and Syria and India would like to develop more nuanced relations with China than what Washington will like it to be. More over New Delhi is not likely to give up strategic autonomy as its power rises in global polity. Thus while wanting to acquire advanced technology, operational and training concepts from the US military, Indian armed forces are wont to keep the Americans at a distance wary of intrusive supervision of activities.  Thus there is dichotomy of convergence vis a vis distance which makes the relationship somewhat complex.

Against this backdrop what is the scope and trajectory of Indo US defence relations in the decade ahead? Continuance of defence policy dialogue and expanding the same at the ministerial level should be a logical step but this has not been highlighted in the Report possibly for not having realized the goal so far after trying hard recently.
Expanding scope of exercises will also be natural given that this has been the real success story with effective engagement of all the three services, the army, navy and air force as well as the coast guard on annual basis. Exposing the military to some of the most modern maneouvres as Red Flag for the Indian Air Force has been an enriching experience. Networking between the navies is also likely to be expanded. 

Increase in personnel exchanges and training may also be forthcoming, though impeding slash in the US defence budget would mean that some of these activities would not assume the intensity envisaged in the Report. While exercises as Red Flag are paid for by the participants as India other exercises in the Indian Ocean involving aircraft carriers and submarines are costly ventures. Multilateral maneouvres seems to be the US answer to this dilemma but may not find traction in India given that New Delhi is unwilling to unbalance the delicate relations with China. 

Maritime security including counter piracy, domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster response appear to be promising prospects for the future. Given the emerging security scenario in the Indian Ocean requirement of deployment and synergy of a multinational force is essential, though as a policy India has sought a United Nations mandated rather than multilateral flotilla.

While defence technology and trade should be most promising given US interest in even offering F 35, yet US Arms Exports Act may be the main dampener as India is unlikely to agree to intrusive clauses in the Act. Given the unlikelihood of tangible amendments to the same, defence sales may grow in spurts on case to case basis such as the Apache attack helicopters rather than the expansive trade that the US seems to be inclined now.  While India is looking for TOT or transfer of technology there may be challenges in providing the same including legal and IPR. More over till the Foundational Agreements as Logistic Support, Supplies and Services Agreement (LSA), Communication Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is inked greater compatibility will be difficult to build in.

The offer of F 35 may also have come too late in the day given that India has already inked a comprehensive agreement with Russia and the F 35 programme has its problems including pricing. However a statement of intent for co-development of armaments should be good news for Indian defence R & D as well as industry.  Future vectors of cooperation would have to be identified on these lines even though this may take some time to fructify.

India would be interested in cooperation in cyber, space and counter terrorism but possibly as this is a multi department sphere for the US the same have not been highlighted in the Pentagon Report. Any overtures in these areas would be welcomed by New Delhi.

The legacy of acrimony particularly during fateful Nixon years and 1971 Bangladesh gunboat diplomacy is now being replayed in the India media through documents which have been recently unclassified. This may prove a hurdle for taking the relationship forward.

India should be able to smartly leverage US offers of defence cooperation with its traditional military partners Russia, France and UK and emerging one’s as Germany and European conglomerates to seek the best in technology and capacity building at the most economical cost. A new defence cooperation strategy will have to be charted out for this purpose based on cold calculations as much on sentimentality. Are the lumbering corridors of power in India’s Ministry of Defence willing to undertake such an exercise remains to be seen?


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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