What’s Next for US-India Defense Ties with Obama’s Trip?
Image Credit: Flickr/ narendramodiofficial

What’s Next for US-India Defense Ties with Obama’s Trip?


Symbolically, when U.S. President Barack Obama visits India next week to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he will become the first American president to visit India twice and the first to be a guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations. Substantively, ahead of the visit, defense officials from both sides have been rushing to finalize the components of what could amount to a much-needed boost in this dimension of the U.S.-India relationship.

As is often the case, much of the attention ahead of the visit has been focused on potential defense deals that make for good headlines. While there has been no shortage of such billion-dollar arrangements – including ones for Chinook and Apache helicopters – they may or may not be announced as part of Obama’s trip.

Irrespective of the outcome, that should not detract from the significant progress that both sides have made on this score over the last few years. By some estimates, India has ordered around $10 billion worth of U.S. weapons in the past decade, with at least about $7 billion more reportedly in the pipeline. With this recent surge in weapons sales, the United States emerged as India’s biggest arms supplier in 2013, displacing Russia which has traditionally been New Delhi’s preferred choice.

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Other issues loom larger beyond headline-making deals. In particular, the clock is ticking for both sides to renew their ten-year defense framework, which expires this year. The original New Framework Defense Agreement, inked in 2005 under George W. Bush, established the general architecture of the relationship: laying out four mutual interests, thirteen areas of cooperation and several potential bodies to guide defense ties going forward. The hope is that a new framework will be more in the weeds, with mechanisms to measure progress or at least fresh initiatives to deepen cooperation in some of these areas.

More specifically, Washington and New Delhi will also try to reinvigorate efforts to boost defense trade and technology through the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). DTTI, unveiled to great fanfare in 2012, was designed to help both sides advance projects for co-production and co-development. But U.S-India watchers know that the rather stodgy name itself is a compromise between Washington’s prioritization of trade issues and India’s focus on technology transfer to build an indigenous defense industry. That has led to a disagreement over which initiatives to advance. Not a single one of the 17 reported projects proposed by Washington has been approved in the last two years. New Delhi has floated several of its own.

The two sides will try to finally get past this disappointing record. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and his team have been in New Delhi finalizing details with their Indian counterparts ahead of Obama’s arrival. Some industry sources say that they may try to move forward on two pilot projects: one involving the RQ-11 “Raven” drone and the other involving the manufacturing of roll-on, roll-off modules that would facilitate C-130 military transport planes being used for several purposes including surveillance. Those who know their defense technologies will quickly realize that these are hardly groundbreaking projects. But the hope is that these baby steps will help breathe fresh momentum into a stagnating initiative.  While officials may not publicly admit it, 2015 is a “make or break year” for DTTI, Joshua White, deputy director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center and a former senior adviser at the Pentagon, told a forum in Washington, D.C. earlier this week.

The U.S. and India could also advance other new measures building on the joint statement released following Modi’s visit to Washington four months ago. Further progress on areas like military education and training and exchanges between civilian and military personnel would be boosts for the relationship. And given the continued obsession with events in the South China Sea into 2015, observers will also be looking for developments in the maritime domain, whether it is on bilateral technology cooperation or the expansion of the MALABAR exercises, which has previously proven to be controversial.

As is often the case in U.S.-India relations, expectations may eventually fall short. But even though this trip may not produce as much progress as some might like, the future may hold further promise. Positive changes appear to be afoot in New Delhi, even if familiar challenges continue to persist. Modi appears to understand that India cannot build an indigenous industrial base alone, and that boosting interest from others including the United States will require reshaping India’s defense sector. Meanwhile, his defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, is not only proving to be a far less of an obstructionist than his predecessor AK Antony, but  also an advocate of defense reform if the recent shakeup at the country’s Defense Research and Development Organization is anything to go by.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Ash Carter – the architect of the DTTI – is up for secretary of defense, while longtime India advocate John McCain – the first high-ranking U.S. government official to meet Modi following his election last year – is heading the Senate’s powerful Armed Services Committee. In a town where personnel are often an indicator of priority, having a few more advocates for U.S.-India relations can only be helpful.

More broadly, as renowned India expert Stephen Cohen recently noted, greater convergence between Washington and New Delhi is also visible on a number of critical issues – a shared suspicion of China, concern about Pakistan, and a joint commitment to fighting terrorism among them – in spite of lingering differences on some specifics and in other areas like climate change or global trade. While irritants will remain, U.S. and Indian strategic interests increasingly align, and will probably do so in the future if one takes the long view. “A common strategic vision between the U.S. and India is emerging,” Cohen concludes, and “defense ties will grow as this common vision solidifies.” That is worth noting for those who tend to expect too much out of a single visit, no matter how symbolic or substantive it might be.

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