A new US-India defence relationship

The flow of US weaponry to India to ‘rebalance’ Asia – at a price, of course.

The US-India relationship is being built on something more solid than the sand of shifting world events [Getty]

US President Barack Obama’s visit to India’s capital New Delhi is a historic occasion. He will become the first US president to attend India’s Republic Day parade as chief guest. His trip will also be longer than that of his predecessors.

The invitation, sent out last year, was unexpected but not surprising as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in September 2014 had a triumphal tone – with massive events for the Indian diaspora in New York and a prominent joint op-ed from both the leaders. The US-India relationship seems to be picking up speed once more after several years of inertia, continuing a rapprochement that began in early 2000s under Presidents Clinton and Bush.

The two leaders will have much to discuss, such as the prospects for Afghanistan’s unity government and Obama’s intentions towards troop levels there; the increasingly confident administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the future of the US’ so-called “rebalancing” towards Asia; and the progress of the military coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which affects India’s energy security and counterterrorism.

Significant differences

However, the US-India relationship is being built on something more solid than the sand of shifting world events – not least because both sides have significant differences on all of these issues, and overt policy convergence would be viewed as toxic within India.

Indian PM addresses supporters in New York

Far more important is the US view that a strong India is good for the United States regardless of its policy on specific issues. A strong India ensures that no single power, least of all autocratic China, dominates Asia in the decades ahead. A strong India takes may forms – diplomatic, economic, political, but also military. 

Hence the symbolism of Obama’s attendance at the January 26 Republic Day parade, where every year, India proudly displays a cavalcade of its most advanced warplanes and missiles.

This year, India will also mark the 50th anniversary of its 1965 war with Pakistan. Indians have not forgotten that Washington sanctioned much of the technology during most of the Cold War, and then embargoed New Delhi after that war.

Today, by contrast, the US wants to increase the flow of US technology and weaponry to India – at a price, of course – and thicken ties between the defence establishments of both countries.

So far, the weapons have flowed. Whereas Russia accounted for three-quarters of all Indian arms imports and the US a paltry seven percent, the order reversed starting in 2011, and the US lead is likely to grow with sales of key aircraft and helicopters.The real question, however, is whether both sides can go further, perhaps even developing new technologies and weapons together. Already in New Delhi to discuss exactly this, is US undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology, and logistics, Frank Kendall.

Little more ambitious

The US has already offered to work with India in making a new generation of the Javelin anti-tank weapons, although India has responded cautiously and hasn’t helped by choosing to buy Israeli anti-tank missiles last year. But this and other proposals are still on the table, including naval guns, unmanned systems, mine-scattering vehicles, and helicopters. Early reports suggest that this trip is likely to see agreements to build the RQ-11 “Raven” surveillance drone, and roll-on/roll-off modules for the C-130 transport aircraft, in India. But there’s an outside chance that we could see something a little more ambitious.

Only a few decades ago, the US was sailing aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean to intimidate India, a Soviet ally. Today, it’s considering helping to develop India’s own carriers and grow its firepower.

One boost to all this is that the next US defence secretary will almost certainly be Ashton Carter. It was Carter who pushed many of these ideas forward while he was still a junior official at the Pentagon. But several irritants remain.

First, despite the belated appointment of a dedicated Indian defence minister in November, India’s decision-making remains lethargic. A cabinet committee is yet to sign off on purchases of Chinook and Apache helicopters, despite having had ample time to consider it. 

Second, India has been wary of signing “safeguard” agreements that US law stipulates as part of the deals, without which India wouldn’t get key technology that come with a ship or aircraft. Third, the head of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation was sacked only last week, over a year before his contract was due to end. It’s possible that this could complicate US-India discussions on defence technology.

Yet, both sides have powerful incentives to make progress. The US understands that India, one of the few countries splashing cash in the arms market, is being aggressively courted by a plethora of alternative suppliers across Europe and Asia. India realises that no other supplier brings the volume of high technology that the US can, and that defence engagement with Washington is part of a much broader strategic package that could have major implications for India’s rise.

Only a few decades ago, the US was sailing aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean to intimidate India, a Soviet ally. Today, it’s considering helping to develop India’s own carriers and grow its firepower. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable. It may be US technology that is paraded through the centre of Delhi on Republic Days in the future.

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities. He specialises in the international politics of South Asia and the Middle East.


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Published On 23 Dec 2013
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