Special ReportsPublished on Jul 25, 2019 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

Strategic Convergence: The United States and India as Major Defence Partners




Two decades of sustained focus and growing ambition have powered historic gains in US-India relations and given rise to a strategic partnership that is strong, forward-looking, and ripe with potential. Shared democratic values anchor the US-India partnership and converging interests increasingly unite Washington and New Delhi in a “strategic handshake.”  Both cooperate on a range of critical defence issues, from maritime security and counterterrorism, to defence production and disaster relief. Acknowledging this reality, the United States declared India a Major Defence Partner (MDP) in 2016, putting New Delhi on par with Washington’s closest allies and opening the door to Indian procurement of sensitive defence technologies.

Framing the challenge

MDP is a unique designation that has cemented progress in US-India relations. But it has also heightened expectations around the direction and ambition of the bilateral relationship. Nearly three years on, Washington and New Delhi have yet to fully define and operationalise the MDP framework even as they continue to advance progress on strategic issues. Indeed, the lack of clarity around MDP is not without consequence. It generates lingering uncertainty, threatens to misalign expectations, and often leaves both sides disappointed. Amid rising geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a common understanding of MDP’s scope, aims, and focus is now more important than ever.

Convening stakeholders in Delhi

In line with this goal, The Asia Group (TAG) and Observer Research Foundation (ORF) convened a high-level, closed-door roundtable in New Delhi, to examine new ways to operationalise MDP and strengthen the bilateral security relationship. The roundtable featured over 30 high-level US and Indian stakeholders — including senior US and Indian government officials, military leaders, think tank scholars, and industry executives. Over the course of three sessions, participants sought to (1) establish a common vision for MDP, (2) identify ways to use MDP to strengthen US-India ties, (3) understand New Delhi’s assessment of MDP and US-India defence cooperation, and (4) develop practical steps to build a robust US-India defence ecosystem.


Building on the roundtable discussions, TAG and ORF have outlined 10 core recommendations to help policymakers in Washington and New Delhi refine MDP and elevate US-India defence ties. These recommendations are outlined in the chart below and covered in greater depth in the following report.

10 Ways to Strengthen and Operationalise MDP


Create a Dedicated India Cell within DoD


Conclude and Operationalise Foundational Agreements


Establish a Combined Disaster Relief Team


Create a New Visa Category to Improve Defence Exchanges


Redouble Focus on Exchanges and Education


Institutionalise Requirements and Mission-Driven Technology Cooperation


Focus on Co-Production Opportunities


Launch DTTI 2.0


Include Regional Strategy in the 2+2 Dialogue


Institutionalise MDP in Washington and New Delhi


Growing strategic convergence between the United States and India has transformed bilateral defence relations over the past two decades. Today, Washington and New Delhi are no longer estranged democracies of the Cold War era, but strategic partners that share common values and an array of core interests. Both increasingly cooperate on a range of complex security challenges — from terrorism and counter proliferation to maritime security and disaster relief. Critically, this progress has continued amid domestic political transitions in Washington and New Delhi, a testament to the strength and momentum of the US-India relationship and the uniting strategic interests that underpin it.

Looking ahead, the United States and India have an opportunity to deepen bilateral defence relations under the Major Defence Partner framework, which places India on par, for the purposes of transferring advanced technology, with Washington’s closest allies and partners. The MDP designation is unique to India. No other country has been designated a Major Defence Partner of the United States. The designation was meant to simultaneously elevate and distinguish the US-India defence relationship, while also crafting an ambitious new model for positive engagement between two major powers of the 21st century. The MDP tag, while being unique, is also a template for engagement between two geopolitical partners whose cooperation will be critical to the security and management of the global commons. It offers both countries the ability to design a new framework, basis and ethic for an intimate and expansive relationship unencumbered by past formats and existing arrangements.

However, after three years, Washington and New Delhi have yet to fully define and operationalise this concept, which engenders uncertainty and misaligns expectations. With political tensions on the rise in the Indo-Pacific, building a common understanding of MDP’s scope, aims, and focus is vital.

US-India relations: Past & present

Senior-level Engagement Drives Forward Progress: Maintaining the upward trend in US-India de-fence relations has required sustained focus and strategic vision to help the United States and India move beyond what Prime Minister Modi described as the “hesitations of history.” Successive US and Indian leaders have understood this imperative, starting first with President Bill Clinton and Prime Min-ister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Bush administration and Manmohan Singh government expanded these ties in 2005 through the New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship and the conclusion of the landmark Civil Nuclear Agreement. Throughout his two terms, President Obama carried this torch forward, hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House and becoming the first US president to visit India twice. Meanwhile, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have continued to support high-level engagement on defence issues, but there is considerable room for both leaders to deepen the relationship further — and leave their own imprint and legacy on it — by investing greater political capital and senior-level bandwidth.

Washington and New Delhi Build Habits of Cooperation: Steady high-level engagement has sparked the development of new programs, dialogues, and agreements that have bolstered US-India defence cooperation since 2005. Prominent among these are the US-India Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), the landmark bilateral agreements including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA), the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-I) designation for New Delhi. Coupled with the Modi government’s efforts to improve the foreign investment landscape, these frameworks have helped power a notable rise in defence cooperation and engagement, as well as an increase in US defence sales to India — from just USD 220 million in 2005 to USD 18 billion in 2019. While these gains are significant, the United States and India have far greater potential. Effectively leveraging existing policy frameworks — such as MDP — will be critical to transforming US-India defence relations and industry ties.

What is the major defence partnership?

Legislative History and Legal Underpinnings: At its core, MDP provides a strategic framework for US-India engagement in the defence sector and elevates New Delhi among Washington’s closest allies and partners. First announced during Prime Minister’s Modi visit to Washington in June 2016 through a joint statement, MDP began as an aspirational signal of intent. Since then, the US Congress has worked to flesh out the MDP framework, albeit slowly and in piecemeal steps. Section 1292 of the National Defence Authorization Act of 2017, for example, directs the Secretary of Defence and Secretary of State to take “such actions as may be necessary to — recognise India’s status as a major defence partner.”  Though brief, the provision made history by cementing India’s MDP status as the law of the United States.

Current vision: Congress reiterated its support for MDP through the Asia Reassurance Act of 2018, a critical piece of legislation that outlined the basic contours of the designation for the first time. Among its provisions, Congress articulated that the MDP designation would (1) be “unique to India,” (2) institutionalise progress in defence trade and technology sharing, (3) elevate defence trade and technology cooperation to a level “commensurate with the closest allies and partners of the United States,” (4) facilitate technology sharing between Washington and New Delhi, including license-free access to certain dual-use technologies, and (5) advance joint exercises, coordination on defence strategy and policy, military exchanges, and port calls supporting US-India defence cooperation. 

Why is it important?

MDP is notable for what it signifies. For the United States, the MDP designation signals to India and the region the vital importance Washington affords to its growing partnership with New Delhi, while acknowledging — for historic, political, and even pragmatic reasons — that a formal, treaty-bound relationship need not be essential to achieving a partnership with New Delhi that matches Washington’s ties with its closest allies. For India, the MDP designation offers a novel framework to recalibrate strategic engagement with Washington commensurate with the country’s growing geopolitical weight, and in deference to India’s legacy non-aligned approach to foreign policy. MDP offers a flexible strategic framework that can anticipate, evolve alongside, and enable strategic cooperation. Translating this vision into reality will require New Delhi and Washington to jointly craft and define the MDP in practical terms. Moreover, fleshing out the contours of MDP is not just an opportunity to lend clarity to the strategic dimensions of this important relationship, but also to create a norm-setting architecture that makes US-India ties the centerpiece of constructive East-West engagement.

Navigating challenges

Arriving at and implementing a common vision for the MDP will require both sides to deftly navigate a host of bureaucratic and bilateral challenges:

Lack of a high-level policy champion: Senior leaders in successive US and Indian administrations have devoted substantial time and effort toward advancing US-India bilateral ties. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Rex Tillerson, Secretaries of Defence Ashton Carter and James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were important champions of the relationship. However, with the exits of Tillerson and McMaster, and Mattis’ resignation, the US-India relationship lost important advocates inside the Trump administration at the cabinet level. While work continues diligently at lower levels, senior voices with a broad appreciation of the strategic dimensions driving the relationship are missing, which could make advancing cooperation and managing disputes challenging.

Bilateral disputes impacting the security partnership: The United States and India do not have decades of experience managing irritants in their relationship. There is a risk that bilateral disputes in the commercial or trade sector could bleed into and affect the defence relationship, or that short-sighted policy decisions could have long-term strategic ramifications. Indeed, a number of serious challenges — most immediately, bilateral trade disputes and the potential for the United States to levy sanctions over India’s planned purchases of significant Russian defence articles — threaten to precipitate a serious downturn in the relationship.

Export controls: Defence technology cooperation has rightly been a major area of focus for the US-India defence partnership. Extensive engagement has yielded important results, including supporting the emergence of India as a crucial element of the global defence manufacturing ecosystem, increasing partnership opportunities between US and Indian defence firms, and building cooperation between defence innovation centers, most notably between the US Defence Innovation Unit (DIU) and India’s Defence Innovation Organization (DIO). Despite this progress, both the United States and India continue to be frustrated by obstructive and cumbersome export controls, legal restrictions, and review procedures. Misaligned procurement processes further contribute to misunderstanding and speak to the need for improved efforts to build familiarity with acquisition, budgeting, and procurement processes. India’s expectations are for the best and most advanced technologies available — a reasonable expectation for a close partner. But often missing from the Indian calculation is that these technologies are reserved for partners that cooperate with the United States in key operational areas or who engage in some degree of burden sharing for security interests in other parts of the world. This level of convergence does not yet exist between the two, and therefore, there have been practical implications in the amount and levels of technology to be shared.

Misaligned bureaucracy and resourcing: If MDP is to result in more meaningful and tangible cooperation, then both Washington and New Delhi need to ensure that the prioritization of this relationship is reflected in resourcing, bureaucratic organization, and procedures. At present, the Pentagon has not devoted personnel and resources commensurate with the lofty aspirations articulated in the MDP designation. Meanwhile, India’s bureaucratic system creates bottlenecks due to insufficient manpower in critical offices and byzantine reporting structures that marginalise major stakeholders, contributing to an unwieldy and slow decision-making process.

DTTI frustration: DTTI has provided a useful forum for engagement in support of building a collaborative defence technology relationship, aligning and exploring defence requirements, and developing partnerships among US and Indian defence industry while also exploring ways to cut through policy and procedural red-tape. While DTTI has served as a “silent enabler” to support greater defence technology cooperation between the United States and India, it has also generated frustration as it has often been perceived, incorrectly, as a venue for fast-tracking sole-source contracts on major defence articles. Technologies identified for co-development and production were unviable and of questionable commercial potential and operational requirements.

Reciprocity: Finally, it is worth noting that although both Washington and New Delhi are in many ways aligned on the broad implications of their burgeoning defence relationship, the Major Defence Partner designation is currently one-sided United States designation, with New Delhi making no equivalent, reciprocal designation. For its part, India refers to the United States as a “strategic partner” though this nomenclature is used to characterise a number of India’s critical bilateral relationships. To add greater clarity to the relationship, India may wish to consider a unique, corollary designation for the United States.

Actionable recommendations

Washington and New Delhi have great opportunities to elevate the bilateral defence relationship, but they first need to address the range of challenges limiting forward progress under MDP. In line with this goal, TAG and ORF outline ten actionable recommendations for US and Indian policymakers’ consideration, which can help both countries operationalise MDP and realise the full potential of the US-India strategic partnership.

1. Create a dedicated India cell within DoD. To enhance operational cooperation and coordination, as well as address “seam issues” that arise along the geographic boundaries of each US combatant command and between ground and naval forces, the United States should develop a dedicated, cross-functional India planning cell (India Cell) involving elements from INDOPACOM, CENTCOM, AFRICOM, the Joint Staff, and OSDP. The India Cell should focus on a range of issues, including (1) developing and executing bilateral and multilateral exercises to enhance critical war-fighting capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare and counterterrorism, (2) enhancing jointness among India’s services and interoperability with key partners, (3) strengthening US-India Army-to-Army ties, and (4) exploring forward-leaning opportunities to operationalise foundational agreements like LEMOA and COMCASA. To help break down stove-pipes across the department, and add greater impetus behind advancing MDP initiatives, the Secretary of Defence should designate a senior official — the Undersecretary of Defence for Policy — to oversee the overall US-India defence relationship and drive the Department’s various efforts to further the relationship.

2. Conclude and operationalise foundational agreements. The United States and India should quickly conclude negotiations on the ISA and BECA. Meanwhile, the COMCASA and LEMOA, signed in 2018 and 2016 respectively, must be further operationalised. As India and the United States expand cooperation enabled by these important new agreements, the partners should begin discussions on intelligence sharing under the 2002 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with a particular focus on regional issues.

3. Establish a combined disaster relief team. The Pacific Rim and the Indian Ocean regions are prone to natural disasters — a threat expected to grow increasingly over the coming years. The United States and India each have considerable experience and are highly skilled at responding to humanitarian emergencies both at home and abroad, but could amplify their lifesaving effectiveness in the region by cooperating more closely. A Combined Disaster Relief Team would coordinate bilateral disaster response planning and training, which could enhance interoperability, help operationalise foundational agreements like LEMOA, and demonstrate to skeptics and adversaries alike of the good the US and Indian militaries can achieve together.

4. Create a new visa category to improve defence exchanges. The United States and India should take steps to promote and streamline exchanges and greater cooperation through the creation of a special visa category, through which senior officials would be able to travel on a regular basis without the entry visa being tied to a specific trip. India could offer a reciprocal program to support the ease of travel for senior US officials. Although this is a simple example, it is indicative of a relatively easy step that could have outsized effects in the relationship by demonstrating commitment to MDP and serving to enable greater cooperation.

5. Redouble focus on exchanges and professional military education. Defence exchanges and education should focus on a mixture of operations training, strategic planning and military doctrine, and military professionalisation, among other subjects. The number of defence educational exchanges between the United States and India has stagnated in recent years. This trend should be reversed. To better leverage and direct resources to support these and other cooperative education opportunities, the United States and India should each nominate a “senior defence official” or office to oversee and provide leadership on this issue, and set measurable and ambitious targets to ensure professional military education is prioritised.

6. Institutionalise requirements and mission-driven technology cooperation. As part of assisting the Indian defence establishment adopt a threat-based planning process, the United States and India should reorient their defence technology cooperation towards mission-driven and requirements-based collaboration. This will ensure that bilateral technology cooperation is designed to satisfy capability requirements to address specific and mutual challenges or threats. Such mission-driven, requirements-based technology cooperation will help satisfy US policy requirements that technology cooperation and transfers clearly advance US national security interests. Some immediate areas of focus should be on maritime domain awareness, undersea domain awareness, anti-submarine warfare, and integrated air and missile defence. This may require further export control reform on the US side to reflect India’s unique status as a Major Defence Partner. For example, Congress should also advance amendments to Title 22 — specifically to sections 2571 and 2767, the Arms Export and Control Act — as well as Title 10, section 2350, to specifically recognise India’s special status as a Major Defence Partner and facilitate greater cooperation, including on advanced defence technology.

7. Focus on co-production opportunities. India has made clear that it wants to move beyond a buyer-seller relationship with the United States. Therefore, both countries should be more aggressively exploring co-production opportunities, particularly in next-generation areas that would give a needed boost to the partnership. Additionally, India and the United States should consider how to leverage India’s access to markets in South and Southeast Asia, and in Africa to help India develop into a defence export hub to these regions. Such an initiative would support India’s goal of becoming a major defence exporter while also providing alternatives in countries traditionally reliant on Chinese and Russian defence equipment.

8. Launch DTTI 2.0. DTTI should be reinvigorated, with an explicit mandate to drive cooperative research, development, and production of defence technologies. Key to DTTI 2.0 will be in identifying platforms and systems most relevant operationally to the strategic objectives of Indo-US defence relationship. The DTTI must develop further ties with Indian industry, for example through establishing a council of industry representatives as part of the DTTI structure. In addition, governments on both sides must cultivate interest in Indian and American universities that can help incubate joint R&D projects, especially “blue sky” endeavors with little expectations of immediate return. As a word of caution, while there exists appetite for big ticket items, budgetary constraints and operational utility must be considered when identifying projects.

9. Include regional strategy in the 2+2 Dialogue. There remains in Delhi some distrust and misperceptions about US objectives in South Asia, as well as a lack of clarity in D.C. of Indian intentions. Much of this is historical in nature due to long periods of strategic divergence. Rebuilding trust, developing habits of cooperation, and fully understanding each other’s security and strategic objectives in the region is critical to advancing the MDP concept. Regional strategy should be an explicit area of focus for the US-India 2+2 Ministerial and working-level meetings. To ensure a comprehensive discussion, the 2+2 should include representatives from the Joint Staff, PACOM, CENTCOM and the corresponding Indian commands and Integrated Defence Staff, as well as from State, DoD, MEA, and MOD. These discussions could help with information sharing about emerging threats, and how to avoid duplication of effort or infringing upon critical national interests. It could also help develop new modes of cooperation such as in the Western Indian Ocean, and not just in East and Southeast Asia. Along these lines, it would be critical to ensure the key personnel are in place. Therefore, the Trump administration should advance the nomination and confirmation process for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs without further delay. Finally, the United States and India should resume holding regular meetings of the Trade Policy Forum, particularly given ongoing bilateral tensions in this area.

10. Institutionalise MDP in Washington and New Delhi. In recent years, the US Congress has taken steps to institutionalise the Major Defence Partnership designation for India, as well as flesh out the concept — both through the 2017 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. India’s Parliament should consider taking similar steps to first develop and enunciate an Indian corollary designation to MDP to better frame its relationship with the United States, and then similarly pursue legislative initiatives to build out this framework together in partnership with their counterparts in the US Congress. Working together, Members of Congress and India’s Parliamentarians can help to better define and drive the relationship forward while also updating laws to facilitate greater cooperation and ensuring that the future of this strategic partnership is not dependent on individual personalities.

The way ahead

As both countries seek to build, define and operationalise MDP, TAG and ORF hope these recommendations will aid in the bilateral discussions. Clearly, each nation will have to advocate for and advance its own national interests, which for India includes the need for strategic autonomy consistent with its traditions and regional interests. This should not, however, create obstacles to an uninterrupted and serious dialogue on critical bilateral issues such as MDP. Beyond the strategic benefits, both countries and their citizens will want to see the economic benefits of more advanced defence partnerships, which would include new opportunities for industry, academia and start-ups that yield a vibrant US-India defence ecosystem. And as this report outlines, continued complexity and further integration in joint training exercises will leave both sides better prepared to handle contingencies as they arise, focusing on those areas of key strategic relevance. Increased intelligence sharing will be a natural byproduct of this deeper cooperation, which will further secure preparedness in both nations. In sum, MDP can and should be the model of cooperation that: a)elevates India on par with America’s closest allies, including NATO partners, in order to achieve strategic and operational parity across services and domains and; b) recognises that the India and US partnership, one between the largest democratic economies in this century, will be unlike any other in which both partners will pursue their own geo-political objectives even as they deepen their bilateral engagement for the good of our people and to strengthen the global liberal order.

[1] Carter, Ashton. “A Firm Strategic Handshake: The India-US Partnership is Moving to Embrace Defence Tech Transfers and Maritime Collaboration”. The Times of India, April 11, 2016.

[2] “Joint Statement: The United States and India: Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century”. The White House, June 7, 2016.

[3] Modi, Narendra. “Address to a Joint Meeting of Congress.” Speech, Washington, D.C., June 8, 2016.

[4] National Defence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year for 2017, U.S.C. § 1292 (2017).

[5] Asia Reassurance Act of 2018, U.S.C. (2018).

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.