The US India defence relationship has been progressing steadily propelled further by unrelenting multi-directional push.
During his recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the newly minted US Secretary of Defense, Gen. Lloyd Austin, stated that the Biden Administration aims to “further operationalise” India’s Major Defense Partner status and continue to build upon existing strong defense cooperation … [including] … through the Quad security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements.”
This intent was amply demonstrated at the just-concluded Aero India 2021 which witnessed a strong US contingent at Air Force Station Yelahanka in Bengaluru, where the Indian defense major HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) for the first time showcased a scale model of its Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF), drawing upon the technology platform of its Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.
Clearly, US-India collaboration is continuing to grow in scale, scope and significance under the incoming Biden administration, in a nearly seamless transition from the outgoing Trump administration. On December 9th last year, India had responded to the US Navy’s official RFI (Request for Information) for the Undergraduate Jet Training System (UJTS), which marks the first major weapons sales pitch by New Delhi to Washington.
Regardless of whom the US Navy finally selects from this global tender – India has offered a Lead in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) version of its indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) – the strategic import of this development is transformational. And yet, this is only one of the several landmark developments recently in the fluid strategic environs of the Indo-Pacific, foreshadowing growing tension with China.
In November, the so-called QUAD members had conducted extensive naval exercises – in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea – involving the United States, Japan, India, and, for the first time in 13 years, Australia. These included complex air defense and gunnery exercises, anti-submarine warfare, cross-national team landings on aircraft carriers during night-time, search and rescue missions, and more.
All four states reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining an inclusive, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, a thinly veiled reference to China’s expanding circle of influence and operations in the Indian Ocean rim (IOR) and beyond.
All four member states of the QUAD are embroiled in skirmishes with Beijing on various fronts – 5G, tariffs, trade, intellectual protection – and an actual war of attrition on the Sino-Indian boundary. While the US and Australia have taken steps to “design-out” Chinese 5G technology, India and the UK signed a framework agreement on December 15 that envisages collaboration on 5G and telecom infrastructure minus Chinese components and technologies. And, as reported in The Diplomat, on December 16, India set up a National Security Committee on Telecom that will henceforth issue a “certification of equipment” regarding the country of origin of items, effectively creating a filter to block out Chinese equipment.
This larger strategic backdrop provides a valuable lens through which to examine the qualitative shift underway in US-India defense and security cooperation. Stretching across the past four US administrations, Washington and New Delhi have constructed a comprehensive legal-technical edifice designed to facilitate US military and dual-use exports.
More recently, National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 designated India as a “Major Defense Partner,” thereby removing the Cold War legacy strictures on arms and dual-use exports to India. In May 2018, Pentagon renamed the US Pacific Command as the “Indo-Pacific Command,” signaling India’s role as an anchor in regional affairs, and also reaffirming the China-containment approach.
Since 2017, Washington has undertaken an India-specific regulatory overhaul of its primary export control statutes, and helped India attain membership of three of the four multilateral regimes, except the Nuclear Suppliers Group where China’s objection remains the primary hurdle.
In 2018, the US Department of Commerce upgraded India’s standing to a treaty-ally level, by placing it in Country Group A:1. And the same year, India was included in an elite group of countries eligible for Strategic Trade Authorization (STA), which in effect allows US companies to utilise STA to export “600 series” military items to India without an explicit approval from BIS (Bureau of Industry & Security, Department of Commerce).
This dense edifice of legal and operational instruments has also facilitated cooperation in advanced conventional weapons arena. In 2018, India and the US signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), designed to “facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US -origin platforms.”
This follows the signing of the other 3 foundational defense agreements: LEMOA (US -India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, in 2016), GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement, in 2002), and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence, in October 2020).
COMCASA was particularly important in optimizing defense trade to date. For example, in previous sales of the C-130J, C-17, and P-8i aircraft, the Indian Air Force and Navy were unable to purchase the full associated electronic configurations. With COMCASA, New Delhi can now acquire SINCGARS radios for encrypted voice and data communications; the KV-119 transponder system; the ANDVT voice terminal; and the VINSON KY-58 secure voice module. Access to these technologies also means that US companies could engage with Indian companies more freely and over a wider range of technology sets, and thereby help India develop a modern defense manufacturing base, while enhancing interoperability options with US military forces. The net sum of these developments is that dual-use as well as advanced military trade and collaboration have now been greatly enabled, in turn adding strategic contours to the US -India entente.
A clear illustration of this is in the decision by Lockheed Martin (LM) to form a joint venture with Tata (in 2016), which exported $600 million worth of defense items from India in 2019. LM has completely shifted the manufacturing assembly of wings for the F-16 fighter jets to India. And, if they win the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) global tender, the India-specific F-21 will be largely manufactured through this JV, taking full advantage of offset obligations under the Make in India initiative.
Nevertheless, the relative disparity in the defense industrial base, technological absorptive capacity on the Indian side, and certain operational issues will still constrain US -India cooperation.
Other set of issues might also test the depth and resolve of their commitment. A noteworthy irritant is India’s decision to purchase five Russian Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) systems in a $5.5 billion deal, signed during Russian President Putin’s visit to India in October 2018.
A similar decision by Turkey – a NATO ally that decided in 2017 to purchase the S-400 system – greatly roiled bilateral ties. And finally, on December 14, the State Department announced the imposition of sanctions – that are mandatorily triggered under CAATSA – on Ankara’s principal military procurement agency, and notified that Turkish firms will no longer be eligible to participate in the F-35 co-production assembly.
Thus far, Washington has walked this tight rope delicately as regards India’s purchase of S-400. However, the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that this might become a major bone of contention.
As expected, Moscow has warned that sanctions by a third country will not disrupt its strategic partnership with New Delhi. And while the final disposition of this issue is as yet unknown, it has certainly forced New Delhi to carefully evaluate any future purchase of a major Russian system, or to expand joint production – as in the case of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles. This indicates as much the “growing heft” of US role in Indian defense calculus, as how far bilateral ties have grown in operational and technology-sharing domains.
On balance, growing convergence of Indo-US strategic interests will continue to institutionalise and prioritise defense cooperation – across sales, co-production, military exercises, and joint R&D – even as implementation challenges remain across some engagement types, at least in the near term. Beyond that, Beijing’s un-relenting multi-directional push will propel the United States and India to find a modus vivendi on thorny issues. And the two will unerringly seek practical ways to deepen and widen cooperation with Japan and Australia, aimed at circumscribing China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Dr Anupam Srivastava is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC and Vice President (International Strategy & Business Development) for Safe Zone Ltd.,
Dr Scott Jones is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington as well as serves as the President of Trade Secure LLC.