Originally Published 2010-10-20 00:00:00 Published on Oct 20, 2010
The Indo-US strategic partnership is still evolving. At present, it seems that political sensitivity, deep-seated distrust, bureaucratic and procedural hurdles and some short-sighted domestic policies in both countries are stalling this process.
India-US defence relations: A close look at the emerging realities
Defence and military relations are an important aspect of the Indo-US strategic dialogue. As these relations are sensitive to political and strategic shifts, they cannot be separated from the overall geopolitical realities. This is evident from the turbulent history of the Indo-US political relations during the past seven decades. Despite the fact that the relations are better than they have ever been in the past, these have not achieved results at the desired strategic level. Many of the current problems require urgent political intervention. US President Barack Obama’s coming visit to India, therefore, has assumed great significance.

India’s engagement with the US on defence cooperation started with the 1991 Kicklighter Proposals. There have been a number of initiatives since then, guided by the changes in the geostrategic realm. These are the Agreed Minutes on Defence for the Expansion of Defence Cooperation between the US and Indian Defence Departments and Service-to-Service Military Exchanges in 1995, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, and, finally, the “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship” signed in June 2005.

The New Framework for US-India Defence Relationship has established an institutionalised framework. With a Defence Policy Group and its four sub-groups — the Procurement and Production Group, the Joint Technical Group, the Military Cooperation Group and the Senior Technology Group — it covers the entire spectrum of defence cooperation. The agreement states that in pursuit of the shared vision of an expanded and deeper US-India strategic relationship, defence establishments of the two countries will do the following:

They will conduct joint and combined exercises and exchanges and collaborate in multinational operations when it is in their common interest. They will strengthen the capabilities of their militaries to promote security and defeat terrorism, respond quickly to disaster situations, and assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operations. Steps will be taken to expand interaction with other nations in ways that promote regional and global peace and stability. India and the US will expand two-way defence trade. They will work to conclude defence transactions not solely as ends in themselves but also as a means to strengthen the two countries’ security, reinforce their strategic partnership, achieve greater interaction between their armed forces, and build greater understanding between defence establishments.

The two countries will increase opportunities for technology transfer, collaboration, co-production, and research and development in the context of defence trade and a framework for technology security safeguards.

Besides these, they will continue strategic-level discussions by senior representatives from the US Department of Defence and India’s Ministry of Defence on international security issues of common interest.

The agreement has also laid out a road-map for joint training exercises and exchanges. Indian armed forces have participated in about 30 exercises so far. Service officers have also been attending expert exchanges and participating in joint seminars, conferences and observer programmes.

Indian exposure to the combined arms training at the US National Training Centre has been very useful. Such training contributes to further refinement of the Indian military’s war doctrine, rapid force deployment, higher defence management, etc. Officers have also benefited from the US experience of fighting cyber terrorism and IED defeating mechanism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Indian military, on the other hand, has invaluable operational experience in all types of terrain, dealing with sub-conventional wars, conflicts in ethnically diverse societies and international peacekeeping. These are essential aspects in the nature of current conflicts and come handy in conflict resolution.

The crux of the Indo-US cooperation is related to defence procurements, dual-use technologies, R&D and India’s defence industrialisation. This is an important issue in view of our inability to set up a credible defence industry to meet the armed forces’ requirements: an unbearable weakness in India’s security infrastructure.

During the last few years, there has been some improvement in defence trade through the foreign military sales route, with its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is the procurement of the state-of-the-art equipment in government-to-government deals. One disadvantage is the US insistence on separate agreements for spares with original manufacturers which gives them a “single vendor” situation. After the delayed supply of spares for weapon-locating radars, doubts over US reliability continue to persist in India. Just when India is intending to purchase key military platforms like the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft and M777 ultra-light Howitzer, the latest problem is the US demand that unless India signs two technology safeguard agreements — the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMoA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) — these platforms would have to be divested of cutting-edge electronics.
With neither side giving ground further negotiations have stalled. Also threatened is the transfer of crucial avionics, satellite navigation aids and secure communications equipment that power the already purchased P8I Poseidon maritime and C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft.

According to the US, their law mandates that sensitive American electronics goods can only be transferred abroad after the recipient country signs the CISMoA and BECA. The CISMoA promotes tactical systems interoperability between the two armed forces and allows them to provide the communications security equipment to protect sensitive data during communications. The Indian government is reluctant to allow the fitting of such equipment on the platforms that India buys. The growing distance between New Delhi and Washington DC on the CISMoA is causing frustration on both sides. Last year, after extended negotiations, India reluctantly gave in to an End-User Monitoring Agreement but rejected US proposals for a Logistics Support Agreement and Cross-Servicing Agreement that would allow the US forces ready access to Indian logistics.

In the field of research and development, the dual use technology issue remains the litmus test by which healthy relations can be measured. Unless some regulations are waived by the US, high-tech cooperation does not appear possible.

We expected that the US defence industry will be able to transfer some latest technologies and help us establish the much-needed industrial complex. Such collaboration now appears to be a long way off. Off-the-shelf sale and purchase do not build long-term partnerships. However, it must be stated that the Americans are not the only one to blame for the lack of progress on defence manufacturing. The US companies find it hard to collaborate with India’s DRDO ordnance factories and public sector undertakings due to bureaucratic stranglehold, decision-making delays, and work culture differences. They prefer to work with more efficient and profitable private sector. Despite several revisions of procurement procedures and off-setting policies, the Government of India has not been able to provide an even-playing field so far.

How does one see the current level of strategic partnership? It is clearly not a strategic alliance as many people tend to perceive. India cannot afford to compromise its strategic autonomy and let this partnership dilute strategic relations with other nations. It cannot allow the emergence of a situation when India is perceived as a hedge against China, or accept the US policy of ensuring peace between India and Pakistan through a “military balance”. In the present world order, a nation of India’s stature and potential has to play an independent role and cooperate or compete on issues with other nations, depending upon its national interests.

The Indo-US strategic partnership is still evolving. At present, it seems that political sensitivity, deep-seated distrust, bureaucratic and procedural hurdles and some short-sighted domestic policies in both countries are stalling this process.

(The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff)

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