Will US-India Defense Cooperation Improve?

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By Melanie Campbell: 

Last month U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar signed the 2015 U.S.-India Defense Framework. The new agreement is a follow-on to the 2005 framework, and reflects the importance that the United States and India place on their defense relationship. The characterization of defense ties has been upgraded in the 2015 framework from “an element” to “a vital pillar” of the broader relationship. But caution is warranted on the extent to which India can actually deliver on this aspirational goal.

One notable passage from the agreement relates to the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, which seeks to deepen cooperation through cooperative research and development and defense sales. Mr. Carter worked hard on this initiative during his time as Deputy Secretary of Defense and it was signed in 2012 amid enthusiasm in both capitals. 

Implementation has been well below the Pentagon’s hopes due to India’s struggling defense industry, and will be now challenged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ push. Modi seeks to transition the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative from a buyer-seller operation to a true co-development and co-producer model – but this ambition could not be translated into a massive co-production agreement with France for example. Modi had to backtrack on plans to buy 126 Rafale fighters from France – 108 of which were to be manufactured in India – because Hindustan Aeronautics, a state-run aerospace company, was unable to meet France’s pricing, technical, and liability requirements. Instead, Modi will purchase 36 French-produced Rafale fighters to replenish India’s aging air force fleet.

The new Defense Trade and Technology Initiative aims to transition the defense transactions from a buyer-seller operation to a co-development and co-producer model. Given the difficulties experienced with France, U.S. and Indian officials announced they would begin very modestly, by co-developing chemical-biological protectant suits and portable field generators. The projects, projected to cost $1 million, were characterized by Secretary Carter as “intended to blaze a trail for things to come.” Pentagon officials have hinted at the possibility of future cooperation on aircraft carriers and jet engine technology, which would be a significant expansion of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative.  

Progress will depend on either the ability of Indian defense firms to increase their capacity to manufacture high tech defense systems quickly – or if Modi backtracks once again on his ‘Make in India’ campaign when it comes to defense procurement.   

Ballistic missile defense technologies do not appear to be a high priority in the new framework. While the United States and India committed to “expand” the program in 2005, the new language provides a vague commitment to “explore collaboration relating to missile defense.” U.S.-Indian BMD cooperationthat began during the Bush administration appears to have been sidelined under President Obama due to concerns over its effect on regional stability.

The most significant addition to the initiative is its focus on maritime security, which the 2005 agreement didn’t address. The new agreement aims to: 

Enhance cooperation towards maritime security and to increase each other’s capability to secure the free movement of lawful commerce and freedom of navigation across sea lines of communication, in accordance to international law.

The framework also adds that “supporting a rule-based order” is a new strategic priority for the U.S.- Indian defense relationship.

If there were any doubts that this is a response to China’s increasing maritime activity, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi released a joint statement in January affirming “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” This uncharacteristically strong statement was met withsharp criticism from Beijing.                                                                                          

Prior to the new agreement, both India, through its Act East policy, and the United States, through its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, recognized the growing economic and strategic importance of the region. The United States in particular has recognized the growing threat that China poses to maritime commerce and freedom of passage in the East and South China seas and has responded with an increased military presence. China’s recent maritime activities, including the construction of military airstrips on artificially created islands in the South China Sea, indicate that Beijing has not been dissuaded from flexing its maritime muscles.

Although a commitment to maritime security is symbolically significant, the renewed U.S.-India framework offers few details about how to turn rhetoric into concrete action. The United States and India will expand joint naval exercises to improve their ability to counter threats in the Indian Ocean. Recent trilateral dialogues suggest Japan and Australia may also participate, although participation could provoke ire from Beijing.  

However, India’s 2015-16 defense budget is unlikely to support the larger maritime security goals of the new framework. Although the Indian Navy received a 10 percent budget increase – less than a four percent increase after inflation – it only compromises 16 percent of India’s defense spending. By comparison, the army and air force compromise 53 percent and 23 percent of the Indian defense budget, respectively. China’s defense budget is three times larger than India’s.

There is little doubt that the new framework represents a significant symbolic milestone in the bilateral relationship between the United States and India. It is more important than ever that both sides pursue aggressive implementation of the framework and use this momentum to further cooperation. Security in the greater Asia-Pacific region depends, in part, on whether New Delhi and Washington can overcome long-standing differences and work together. 

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