Originally Published 2013-02-02 00:00:00 Published on Feb 02, 2013
The growing US-India defence relationship would have been unthinkable in the past days of sanctions. Whether communication between the two countries' systems can be improved or not will be a key determinant in how far, and fast, it can go.
McGuffin or not? The US-India defence 'technology' relationship
Some years ago, there was talk in the Indian press about whether the US would offer India the USS Kittyhawk, the last conventional aircraft carrier in the US Navy, which was being decommissioned. The idea was given a lift in Track-2 (or informal) circles, but was quickly put to rest in public. Whether or not the idea of the Kittyhawk coming to India had merit, there is one fact: there wasn’t an official high-level request from India to the US to that end, nor was there a US ’offer’.

This theme resonates through the US-India defence relationship, when looking beyond defence sales where India issues RFPs (Requests for Proposal) for equipment it wants to buy, to niche technology or capability areas and to joint development of technologies. Unless it hears from the ’customer’ what it wants, the US doesn’t do well at coming up with ideas and ’offering’ them; India doesn’t do well at asking.

There are three explanations for this: first, a simple mismatch between the US defence ’marketing’ process and the Indian ’buying’ process. In the Indian bazaar, it is frequently up to the ’seller’ of ideas to come up with an ’offer’. The US interagency process just isn’t set up to work like that.

Second, a desire in India to maintain a manageable political distance from the US, and avoid being seen to be getting too close. Here, making the effort to ’ask’ could be construed within the Indian system as doing exactly that.

Third, the limited bandwidth of the US political milieu. Consumed by domestic crises and foreign hotspots, senior leadership in Washington will likely not have time to intellectualize on defence co-operation with India. The water has therefore to be carried by the mid-levels of the bureaucracy, but to table prickly issues on which there will inevitably be interagency debate in the US, it can often take an official, high-level, request as a trigger.

How does India, a country whose perception of the US as a defence partner is still colored by fear of sanctions, unanswered requests for information, the vagaries of the US export control process, and a desire to keep its political distance, get used to a culture of making such requests? And get over the negativity of past experiences while doing so?

How does the US, a country with a defence export system used to responding to requests from partner countries, turn itself into one that generates ideas and present them to India? How can it convince India that the worm has really turned, that there is a changing paradigm in the Washington interagency discussion of defence co-operation with India? Whether this circle is squared or not will be a bellwether for the long-term health of defence co-operation. This isn’t a Gordian Knot, with no solution in sight.

For its part, as a result of the Defence Trade Initiative (DTI), led on the US side by Deputy Secretary of Defence Ash Carter, the US now has a superstructure in place -- by way of greater interagency dialog than ever before -- to holistically examine issues related to the defence trade with India. This initiative, started after Leon Panetta’s visit in June, was intended to break down the notorious barriers to communication within Washington.

The unanswered question across Washington remains: what does India want to do with the US from a future defence technology and capacity building standpoint? This question has to be seen in India in the context of the US ’rebalancing’ its strategic priorities in Asia.

Debate about the shape of the ’rebalance’ is ongoing in Washington, and India has a chance to influence it, within its own strategic context, by identifying areas of capability or technology development it sees as national priorities that the US can uniquely help with. And, by being able to table them.

India can, and will, take several paths to these national priorities. Indigenisation is a desirable strategic goal, as is strengthening defence relationships with other countries, consistent with India’s foreign policy. But, there are some areas in which the US has capabilities to offer that no one else can.

In this new paradigm, presuming to know beforehand what Washington will or will not give India, as some in the Indian strategic community seem wont to do, is self-defeating. There certainly will be some areas in which the US is not able to work with India.

But, if India chooses to strengthen the process of the DTI by encouraging debate on its priorities, thereby strengthening mid-level communication between the two bureaucracies, it is likely to find a payoff.

For a non-export dependent defence economy like the US -- exports as a percentage of total defence expenditure are below 10% -- economics are not the primary driver of the defence trade. If the US is to dilute its technological advantage, the strategic imperative has to clear.

The USS Kittyhawk case is worth noting. Would the tone of the debate in Washington over giving the carrier, which is still in fleet reserve, to India have been different if there had been an official high-level request from the Indian Navy? Possibly. A lesson perhaps for any future co-operation in the development and operation of large aircraft carriers.

As the ’strategic partnership’ continues to evolve, so will the logic of a defence technology and capability building relationship. However, if it is to mature, then India has to get better at asking for what it prioritizes, and the US better at brainstorming what it wants India to have.

The best way to succeed is probably to start small, grow big. Niche areas such as counter-IED technology co-development are a good place to look. India could also think about whether license producing mature US-origin equipment still with potential uses in India -- as an arbitrary example, the A-10 Thunderbolt -- would be a good model to build industrial capability.

Alfred Hitchcock used to use a plot device called a ’McGuffin’ in his movies -- something non-essential to the narrative. The growing US-India defence relationship would have been unthinkable in the past days of sanctions. Whether communication between the two countries’ systems can be improved or not will be a key determinant in how far, and fast, it can go. And, to the narrative of the ’strategic partnership’, whether it remains a McGuffin, or the hero of the piece.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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