Originally Published 2012-12-27 00:00:00 Published on Dec 27, 2012
The ongoing challenge for the Indian and US governments is to define what exactly the "strategic relationship" is in form and function, in which context a defence relationship will mature.
Stars, stripes and chakras: The future of US-India defence ties
Two weeks ago, the US Senate passed an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2013, asking the Pentagon to report on an approach for "normalising"the US defence trade and relationship with India, including discussions of co-production and co-development of defence systems.

Seen in isolation, this is a statement of intent by Capitol Hill, in particular spearheaded by Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn, to provide some ballast on the defence relationship. In fact, this mirrors a quietly ongoing coalescence of the US government's notorious interagency process on the very same issue.

This coming-together, a revolution of sorts in Washington's India orientation, has been sparked by the Carter initiative - led by Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, with Indian NSA Shivshankar Menon as his interlocutor. When taken together with the interest shown by Capitol Hill, the US now has a superstructure in place to look holistically at issues surrounding defence ties with Delhi, including India's long-expressed concerns about technology release.

The November 6 election results conferred the blessing of continuity on President Obama's "Asian pivot". While the re-balancing of US strategic priorities in Asia will be happening regardless, India has a chance to shape this debate.

There is not yet a uniform understanding in Washington as to what military capabilities India might need assistance from the US in developing. This is the kind of discussion that the interagency coalescence encouraged by the Carter initiative is intended to bolster. India could table a discussion on areas it deems national priorities, and has a forum to raise specific export control cases.

From India's perspective, what it might want to request from the US in terms of co-development possibilities or technical assistance would depend on an in-depth assessment of the out-of-area contingency operations it anticipates conducting on its own or jointly with other countries over the long-term (20-25 years).

The immediate future of the defence relationship will be measured along two fronts: first - the health of the defence trade, which includes not just Indian procurements of US defence equipment, but also co-production and co-development as long-term goals.

Here, India has been looking to the US as a supplier to its defence modernisation, with $8 billion worth of contracts being signed since 2008, and the positive experience of the delivery of the C130J aircraft ahead of schedule and under budget. The US is in line to be awarded additional contracts for M-777 Howitzers, Apache helicopters and Chinook helicopters. Follow-on orders are in the offing for C-130Js, P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and C-17 heavy airlift aircraft.

With the security of the sea-lines of communication in the Asia-Pacific being of such mutual concern, future programmes could include the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and, if MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) issues are resolved, possibly Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS).

On the co-development side, many options appear to be open, and the direction taken will depend on where India wants to put its money, what system or platform branches of military service on either side will buy into, and what the export market for it would be.

The second front for measuring defence relations is the broad ambit of capacity building. This would include technical training and joint exercises. At the moment, the discussion gates appear to be open on technical training in many areas in which India expresses its interest. For instance, in the training of Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) for the Vikramaditya and subsequent aircraft carriers in the Indian Navy. Both countries conduct regular joint exercises, which is anticipated to continue apace.

Capacity building is a function of the quality of service-service interaction, for which regular exchanges of officers are vital. Services in both countries could also discuss regional contingencies in which they might be required to jointly operate, and without putting in place a priori arrangements that are politically charged, work on tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in case called on to do so.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently identified, one area that is a good candidate for discussion on capacity building is humanitarian assistance/ disaster relief, feeding off the successful instance of both navies working together during the tsunami relief effort in 2004-2005.

The ongoing challenge for both governments is to define what exactly this "strategic relationship"is in form and function, in which context a defence relationship will mature. A historically mercurial relationship has settled into a pattern, where both Washington and New Delhi now largely understand the in principle intersection of grand national interests across many fronts, but recognize that the de facto reality cannot always reflect this. What disagreements there are can mostly be managed as being those between friends.

For India, the point to be noted is that the new superstructure offers promise to deal in a regularised manner with the issues it has historically complained about the most in regards to technology denial. It must educate its own internal constituencies to this effect, failing which it runs the risk of slowing down real collaborative possibilities. There are still skeptics in both capitals - those bruised by past battles over non-proliferation, export control, nuclear issues, or just simple inertia - who think that nothing will ever change in either the US attitude towards India, or India's attitude towards the US.

To them, a US-India defence relationship is the Teumessian fox from Greek mythology, the animal that can never be caught. The god Cephalus used the hound who caught everything he hunted - Laelaps - to try and catch the fox. The optimists on US-India defence ties have bet on the hound. It might just take him a while.

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

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.