During his visit to India last November, U.S. President Barack Obama characterized relations with India as “one of the defining and indispensable partnerships of the 21st century.” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in turn, stated that India had “decided to accelerate the deepening of our ties and to work as equal partners in a strategic relationship that will positively and decisively influence world peace, stability and progress.” Arguing that cooperation extended to India’s immediate neighborhood, Singh said the two countries “have a shared vision of security, stability and prosperity in Asia based on an open and inclusive regional architecture.”
But if the bilateral relationship really as is important as the two leaders suggest, then there’s undoubtedly a need for greater strategic synergy. In particular, the two countries’ militaries need to understand each other better if they are to work together for regional and global peace.
Until now, the flag-bearers of U.S.-Indian military cooperation have been the two countries’ navies, a point that was highlighted during the response to the 2005 tsunami and subsequent reconstruction operations. In contrast, while there have been some joint exercises between their two air forces, the rationale for air force-to-air force cooperation appears to be neither understood nor appreciated in either capital.
Indian strategic planners seem to be in broad agreement with their U.S. counterparts in identifying the big strategic challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, yet New Delhi has been reluctant to develop joint approaches in addressing many of these challenges.
The hope is, of course, that even if India is hesitant now, that it may change its mind over the next decade. After all, India’s interests, and its incapacity to address the challenges it faces on its own, seem bound to drive it towards the United States and Asian partners such as Japan and Australia.
Certainly, former U.S. President George W. Bush saw India as a significant pole in Asia, and close ties with India as being in U.S. interests – something that the Obama administration also seems to have recognized. Such views have prompted the United States to develop more formal defense cooperation and to talk about India in terms reserved for U.S. allies (something that causes some discomfort in New Delhi).
The most frequently cited reason for Washington’s interest in India is as a balancer to China, but this view is more complicated than many assume. For a start, the United States has a stake in the ongoing Sino-Indian border dispute. Although the U.S. is yet to take a position on the broader boundary and territorial dispute between the two countries, it certainly wouldn’t be in the interests of the United States to see a conflict break out – and especially to see India lose face in a military confrontation. China decided to teach India a lesson in their brief war in 1962. If this were repeated today, though, the U.S. would also be adversely affected as India’s perceived value as a regional ally would be diminished. A Chinese victory would also raise the question in the minds of smaller states over what hope they have in standing up to China if the United States stood by and watched as a major ally such as India was picked on. Such worries would undoubtedly undermine the United States’ position in Asia, and make China’s neighbors more susceptible to coercion.
But it’s not just about the negatives – India’s airpower can help underpin U.S. Pacific forces indirectly. For a start, a strong Indian Air Force would likely prompt China to focus at least part of its air power away from the Pacific and on the Tibet region. In addition, the Indian Air Force could also tip the scales in the Indo-Pacific by reducing the burden on the U.S. Air Force and providing security in the global commons. For instance, with a single air refueling, India’s SU-30MKI’s combat radius can include either the Straits of Malacca or the Persian Gulf.
Of course, it’s an open question whether India is willing to take such proactive steps. But co-operating more with the United States will help India feel more comfortable with future joint operations.
The reality is that both countries’ air forces face common threats, meaning it would benefit both to share data on a more regular basis and plan joint responses to any problems. The Indian Air Force, for instance, faces threats in its Northeastern sector similar to those facing the United States in the Western Pacific, namely ballistic missiles, advanced integrated air defense systems (IADS), 4th and 5th generation fighters, and increasingly sophisticated Chinese air-to-air missile and electronic warfare capabilities. All these developments increasingly impinge on both India and the United States, and it makes sense for the two to boost co-operation and learn lessons from each other’s experiences in the region.
Similarly, given the growing trend of India procuring U.S. weapons and equipment, greater engagement between their air forces would be particularly beneficial. Joint operations on democracy promotion, humanitarian missions, post disaster management and reconstruction are all ideal areas for joint operations.
But for any of this to occur, India must first recognize the potential for it to become a net provider of constructive airpower in the Indian Ocean Region. If India’s procurement plans go as planned, it could have a modern air force that will be highly capable of anything from disaster relief and humanitarian assistance to providing lethal combat air support.
At the end of the day, if India wants to sit at the high table of international diplomacy, it should be prepared to shoulder greater responsibilities and shed its risk averse foreign policy. Ramping up its air force co-operation seems a good place to start.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]