Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan


Mark Sharpis (LinkedIn):
There has been much written and debated regarding China’s new carrier, the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag. What do you make of the carrier and its current capabilities? Do you see China’s new carrier as a threat to India? Do you feel it could be used as a platform to build future vessels?

We don’t know very much about the carrier, but it seems in line with what the PLA Navy’s Academic Research Institute had been stating, that it will be a “conventionally powered medium-sized carrier that would be equipped with Chinese engines, aircraft, radar and other hardware.” While there was no doubt that China will have its own aircraft carrier someday, external assessments as far as the timeline was concerned have been wrong. Many of the western assessments had calculated that Beijing would have its first carrier by 2012 or so. However, today, the aircraft carrier is only undergoing initial sea trials, and still testing its engines, navigation equipment, electronics, fire control and maintenance systems, according to published reports. But they are a long way away from carrying combat planes. It will be years before they have a carrier battle group comprising a consolidated group of frigates, destroyers, submarines and other support vessels.

Having said that, what does an aircraft carrier mean for China? Having an aircraft carrier in its arsenal doesn’t mean much as yet, and China is years away from being capable of even effective sea denial strategy in the East Asian maritime region. However, as a rising power, China will possess such capabilities and more in the future. If there are no serious hitches, the PLAN is scheduled to induct the carrier into service by October 2012, though this sounds ambitious.

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China’s aircraft carrier plans are an element of its assertive naval posturing that it has been displaying vis-a-vis its neighbors in recent years – be it the East China Sea or the South China Sea. In fact, an aircraft carrier would provide Beijing with greater coercive means for enforcing its claims in these two seas. Reportedly, a Chinese defense ministry-run website suggested that the carrier should handle territorial disputes as well. A PLA Daily article, too, noted that in a theater like the South China Sea, a carrier would provide them the ability to apply significant air-to-ground firepower during military missions, while not being affected by geographical restrictions. They see the aircraft carrier as a “mobile maritime airport.”

What does the Chinese aircraft carrier mean for India and other neighbors? In the first place, it would induce caution in other maritime powers in the region, particularly India, the U.S. and Japan. China’s submarine force already has produced this effect to some extent on these powers; the aircraft carrier would compound it. As for the Southeast Asian countries, the Chinese aircraft carrier would be a display of power and prestige. In fact, a PLA Daily article said that the aircraft carrier has far greater political significance than military significance. This is particularly important given that until a few years back, the PLAN was the weakest wing of the Chinese military. But this has changed now with greater attention in favor of the naval and air wing of the military. Chinese strategists seem to believe that aircraft carriers are important if they want to have effective maritime power projection capabilities, as opposed to purely defensive tasks. Display of power and prestige is important both for internal and external audiences.

Manish Kumar (LinkedIn):
here has been speculation in the media that the United States and/or Europe may wish to work with India on missile defense technology. Do you feel such collaboration is possible? What benefits would it bring to India as well as its potential partners?

While India had traditionally opposed missile defense, it now acknowledges its utility and is developing it publicly given the short- and medium-range missile threats from both Pakistan and China. In essence, though Indian missile defense architecture isn’t yet settled, India appears to be planning to establish a multi-layered missile defense system. It has been reported that the system will include a huge network of advanced notification sensors, command centers and anti-missile land- and sea based missile batteries. However, we must remember that defense scientists have made many tall claims on a number of areas but have delivered very little. So though the interest in missile defense and in building domestic systems is clear, that doesn’t denote that this will be successful.

While India has been making efforts to develop a missile defense system indigenously, it has also sought foreign partners. In this regard, partnering with the U.S. may be particularly important. This was best evident in India’s reaction to President Bush’s NMD speech in May 2001. In contrast to the strident criticism to the United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, India had adopted a much more nuanced and considered position that was in recognition of the utility of these systems in the Indian context. The changed stance was also based on the assumption that it might facilitate high-tech missile defense cooperation in addition to currying favor with Washington.

The most serious problem that India seems to face is unclear political direction. There appears to be no clear direction about whether India really wants to build such a system (either indigenously or imported) and no apparent considerations of the financial and strategic consequences of such a move. In the absence of such political direction, India’s defense research agencies are on auto-pilot, making grandiose plans, but their feasibility is unclear yet.

Harry Kazianis:
ith your research agenda looking at U.S. missile defense, do you advocate for a specific missile defense that is better than others? Do you feel the SM-2 or SM-3 would offer the United States and its potential partners the best defense against today’s expanding anti-ship and cruise missile technologies? Do you see an exotic technology like rail guns or something on the horizon offering better protection?

I’m not even sure that missile defenses will be useful or necessary in the Indian context. And questions about specific systems have to wait until the purposes of BMDs are defined in the Indian context: are they for point defense or national defense? If for point defense (which is obviously more feasible) how many ‘points’ will be covered – just the National Command Authority (NCA) or other vital targets such as major population centers or strategic areas? Without even the most basic architectural questions resolved, it’s difficult to consider specific systems.

Stewart Walters (LinkedIn):
he United States has recently announced various budget cuts to its armed forces. Will America be able to “pivot” to the Pacific with such cuts being considered? If America is to truly pivot to the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, wouldn’t it need to increase the size of its Navy?

While the U.S. is undertaking major cuts in its defense expenditure, one thing has been made clear repeatedly in the last few months: the U.S. is back in Asia for good. Most recently, outlining the challenges, priorities and opportunities in the new U.S. defense strategy, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, President Obama said that while U.S. interests are global, its security and economic interests are intertwined with developments in the region, from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Therefore, the U.S. presence and influence in the Asia Pacific region is seen as necessary “rebalancing.” After being stretched too thin for a while, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is now attempting to rationalize its defense strategy. In fact, the changing geopolitical circumstances and fiscal compulsions dictate new dynamics to this strategy.

While budget pressures will make it difficult for the U.S., the “pivot” is more a political statement than one about the state of the U.S. military. I don’t think the U.S. lacks military capabilities in the region. While more might certainly be good for the U.S., it’s also a fine balance between the domestic economic requirements and military spending. In addition, as China strengthens, we are likely to see its neighbors step up their military efforts. I think they would realize now that they can’t entirely depend on American efforts alone. This additional regional capability should reduce slightly the burden on the U.S. also.

Jason Miks:
ere do you see U.S.-India relations going in the next ten years? Do you feel the U.S. and India will enter in some sort of Alliance structure? Will India stay away considering its past leadership in such ideas like the Non-Aligned Movement?

Since the conclusion of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, both Washington and New Delhi have been drifting. With the nuclear deal over, U.S. and India need another big idea to power the relationship over the next several years. Without such a political initiative at the highest levels, U.S.-India relations threaten once again to wallow in bureaucratic inertia. Space cooperation, cooperation in advanced technologies and managing the Indo-Pacific are potential areas that would bring the two sides closer.

In Washington, there’s significant disappointment on a number of issues including India’s nuclear liabilities bill, which for all practical purposes prevents the U.S. nuclear industry from participating in India’s civilian nuclear sector; and the Indian decision to reject two American competitors from the Indian Air Force’s lucrative Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal. In Delhi, on the other hand, there’s unhappiness at what is seen as American pressure for greater defense cooperation. These issues suggest that all is not well with U.S.-India relations.

However, there are several issues such as the global war on terrorism, the future of Pakistan-Afghanistan, managing the Asia-Pacific including maritime security and the protection of sea lines of communication that bind the two countries for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the more important aspect isn’t to lose sight of the importance of this bilateral relationship and hence invest time, effort and resources to nurture it.

While U.S.-India relations are likely to mature further and grow into a strong partnership, it’s unlikely that New Delhi will posture itself as an “ally” in the classical sense of the term. For that matter, the U.S. itself is moving away from the typical traditional alliance structure to more fluid strategic partners and coalitions of the willing.

While there are a few proponents of non-alignment in New Delhi, in reality, non-alignment was always more of a declaratory than a real policy. India has been trying hard to shed this policy and move into building partnerships with the west and the U.S. in particular, evident in the U.S.-India nuclear deal. But India also values its “strategic autonomy.” We should expect that India will cooperate with the United States and others on some areas, such as seeking a balance in Asia, but would not formally align with the U.S. But because the balance in the Asian region is also in a flux, India, like others, won’t make long-term bets. Paradoxically, it’s China’s rise that might dictate India’s strategy: if China should falter, there will be less pressure to cooperate with the U.S. and vice-versa.

Sandeep Sharma (Facebook):
Russia has just completed the transfer of an Akula II Nuclear Attack Submarine to India on a ten year lease. What knowledge and experience can India gain from such a move? How much of a benefit will it bring to India’s own nuclear submarine program?

INS Chakra is important for a variety of reasons. First of all, the Indian Navy will be operating a nuclear submarine after a gap of about twenty years; the last one, again Russian-leased, a Charlie II class vessel, was operated during 1988-1991. Operating this new Akula II class vessel will benefit the Indian Navy tremendously in training a new batch of submariners in nuclear operations.

While India can learn some of these lessons once its own nuclear-powered submarines come in, this lease offers India the option of getting a head start. In addition, nuclear submarine operations are a recently developed maritime skill, somewhat like carrier operations, and only a few countries have such capacity. The Indian Navy has an opportunity to learn these skills from those with experience rather than re-inventing the wheel very slowly. But most importantly, the Navy will be able to learn and apply lessons learnt to its own domestic submarine development program. And though there have been several controversies surrounding the Russian submarines, including the one that’s being leased to India, it’s important to bear in mind that there aren’t very many other countries that are willing to lease India a nuclear-powered submarine. So there are multiple benefits.

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