Carter’s India visit: Strategic gridlock?

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar address a joint conference on April 12, 2016

The highlight of US Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to India has been an in–principle agreement to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which has been in the works for about a decade. The instrument, which will institutionalise an existing arrangement allowing American and Indian military units to use facilities in each other’s bases, is aimed more at enhancing overall defence cooperation in the face of a rising China. However, not signing on the dotted line mirrors the broader impasse in the Indo–US strategic relationship.

LEMOA, which is India–specific, was initially mooted over a decade ago in the form of the Logistics Support Agreement. It was never signed by then Defense Minister A. K. Anthony as he was sensitive to Russian and Chinese concerns as well as India’s non–aligned stance, among other things. The current announcement and the lack of a draft or fixed signing date reflect prudent caution from the Indian establishment, attempting to gauge domestic and international opposition before finalizing. According to reports, other foundational agreements such as the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo–spatial Cooperation (BECA) will be even tougher to sign, as the Indian military uses systems from many other countries, and sensitivities exist regarding sharing information about their systems with the United States.

If and when the LEMOA is signed, access to certain US military bases in Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Bahrain, and logistical assets will be crucial to India’s interests in widening its militaries’ reach in the Indian Ocean Region and West Asia. India has in the past been involved in Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) and piracy operations in these regions. However, it remains to be ascertained whether the Indian military establishment is well–attuned to these foreign policy goals to exploit agreements like LEMOA.

The bilateral  Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which sought to elevate the defence relationship to co–development and co–production and ties in with Modi’s flagship Make in India program, has seen little progress — two of the four previously agreed projects (C–130 roll–on, roll–off kits and Raven mini drones) have failed to move ahead over the last year.

During this visit, the two sides agreed on two new DTTI pathfinder projects on “Digital Helmet Mounted Displays and the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System,” in addition to the four already underway. Also announced was an information exchange annex (IEA), which would allow the sharing of data about aircraft carriers. This co–operation will enable India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vishal and its air wing with technologies to help counter an emerging Chinese naval threat in the Indian Ocean. The electromagnetic aircraft launch system or EMALS will improve INS Vishal’s operational capabilities since the Indian Navy’s current aircraft carriers depend on combat aircraft to take off on their own power, constraining their weapons payloads. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the feasibility of acquiring this capability has to be seen not just in terms of operational benchmarks set by US Navy aircraft carriers, but in the context of the threat from Chinese capabilities and from other competitors — China is decades away from acquiring a full–fledged carrier capability.

While acquiring systems, India must ensure they enhance its capabilities and align with its needs and long–term plans. Commissioning co–development of C–130 roll–on, roll–off kits under DTTI, when there was no need for this technology in the Indian Airforce, and seeking to buy armed Predator drones, when India’s exclusion from regimes like Missile Technology Control Regime and Wassenaar Arrangement prevent the transfer of such technologies, are two of the recent examples of the lack of planning in India’s defence procurement.

Announcements to set up a new bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue, boost ongoing discussions between the navies to include submarine safety and warfare, and enhance cooperation in maritime domain awareness by concluding a White Shipping Agreement are incremental steps. Forays by Chinese submarines into the Indian Ocean and visits to Karachi and Colombo last year have been a concern in New Delhi, and improving its anti–submarine warfare capability fits into Indo–US cooperation to balance China in the region. India’s Act East, having a much-touted convergence with US rebalance to Asia, has seen little enthusiasm from New Delhi on American proposals so far. US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harris’ proposal for joint patrols in the South China Sea received a less than enthusiastic response from Indian Defence Minister Parrikar. Secretary Carter’s visit saw a similar reiteration of India’s position on joint patrols and emphasis on joint exercises, clamping down on US desire for a closer relationship.

United States–Pakistan policy has remained a point of contention in the progress of this relationship, and New Delhi has again articulated its concerns regarding the delivery of  F–16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Also of interest is the recent decision to supply AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters to Islamabad, after strong Indian displeasure over the F–16 decision. These arms do not tilt the military balance in the region; these are emotive and political issues for India, even more so as the United States is trying to sell India the idea to set up a production line of F-16s to meet its shortage of combat aircraft.

As India actively aspires to shape its security environment in the South Asian region and beyond, its military engagements with the United States must bring it strategic and security dividends. However, identifying Indian interests as well as areas of cooperation with the United States will remain a challenge, as New Delhi seeks to balance its relationships in the region.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asian Voices.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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