Behold! I, ⚓, the artist formerly known as the Naval Diplomat, have returned home from a year’s odyssey wandering the badlands of Washington, DC, publishing. Speaking of which: a couple of weeks back at Foreign Policy, I riffed on the negotiations toward a U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), projecting that progress toward a compact will remain fitful, its outcome uncertain. A closer military-to-military partnership will remain on hold until Washington and New Delhi seal the deal.
Even then, don’t count on a tight arrangement like the U.S.-Japan or U.S.-Australia alliance. Officialdom and India experts on this side of the Pacific have speculated hopefully that Washington and New Delhi would sign the agreement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to the United States, slated for early June. Bitter tears are being wept in such precincts. The Indian Express, a national daily published in Mumbai, reports that Modi won’t ink an agreement during his North American sojourn after all. Progress toward kindred pacts, meanwhile, remains “very slow.”
That will remain true barring a doomsday scenario—say, a major Chinese push into the Indian Ocean—but despair not. True, India is a difficult, at-times standoffish ally. The reasons why are rooted in history. But then America was a difficult, at-times standoffish ally for over a century after its founding. Indeed, the republic was no one’s ally until World War I. So give New Delhi time. Asian politics is a kaleidoscope. Countless factors—perceptions of China’s actions in South Asia, internal politics on the subcontinent, the vagaries of individual leadership among all the protagonists—must align to create conditions favoring a U.S.-India entente.
Patient diplomacy is a must vis-à-vis newcomers to great-power politics—newcomers like India today, or like America in the fin de siècle decades.
Still, it’s understandable that Americans are exasperated. The LEMOA negotiations have kindled controversy disproportionate to what the agreement actually envisions. It doesn’t grant U.S. forces automatic access to Indian soil. It’s a straightforward arrangement empowering U.S. and Indian forces to resupply each other while operating far from home. Both countries will benefit from a reciprocal arrangement that lets their armed forces operate all along the massive arc that sweeps from the Persian Gulf to the west through Japan to the east.
From an operational standpoint, then, LEMOA is a no-brainer. Assuring logistical support is Naval Operations 101. Fleets need a steady supply of fuel, stores, and armaments to sustain high-seas operations. Ships refuel every few days at sea. That’s true even of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The carrier itself can steam virtually forever, but its combat aircraft are gas hogs. Consequently, the heaviest-hitting fleet accomplishes little without regular resupply. Assumptions about logistics thread throughout American maritime culture.
That’s why sea-power sage Alfred Thayer Mahan likens ships denied access to naval stations in distant theaters to “land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores.” Well-located allies—Japan, Bahrain, India—can help the land birds fly far away. And the same logic will work in India’s favor once Modi’s government consents to LEMOA.
Now, naval logistics has progressed immensely over the past century. In the early decades of the age of steam, merchantmen and ships of war had to put into port to replenish their bunkers, storerooms, and magazines. This was bothersome, and the imperative to rotate ships into port attenuated the combat power a navy could keep on station at any given time. The U.S. Navy, accordingly, started pioneering “underway replenishment,” a.k.a. UNREP, techniques as early as Mahan’s day.
UNREP means building a contingent of “combat-logistics fleet” (CLF) vessels—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated-stores ships, and the like—to ferry supplies out to the fleet while it cruises the seas. Each “customer” ship maneuvers parallel to the CLF ship in turn, closing to the normally unthinkable distance of 150 feet, give or take. Once safely alongside, deck crews rig up wires between the two ships. That lets the CLF crew pass fuel hoses or pallets of stores to the customer. Today, furthermore, ships often deploy helicopters for “vertical replenishment,” or VERTREP, passing less bulky items from flight deck to flight deck.
The U.S. Navy perfected UNREP procedures during World War II, in the Pacific theater in particular. No longer did task forces need to put into port to resupply. Instead, CLF “service squadrons” brought supplies to them as they steamed across the Pacific. Freeing the fleet from intermittent stops made it possible to wage naval war constantly—applying unremitting pressure on the Imperial Japanese Navy. Indeed, wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo pronounced underway replenishment one of three prime determinants of U.S. victory in the Pacific War. That’s high praise coming from the foe.
It’s doubtful UNREP operations are what vex Indians. They take place out of public view, and they needn’t involve U.S. ships’ tarrying in Indian harbors. Indian Navy CLF ships could transfer stores to U.S. ships riding the waves, or Indian warships could resupply themselves from the U.S. logistics fleet. Out of sight, out of mind. Rather, Modi’s political opponents—chiefly the Congress Party, the party of Nehru and the Gandhis—fret that the compact will not just invite U.S. forces into Indian ports and bases but grant them automatic access—potentially entangling India in wars or tumults inimical to its national interests and purposes.
In other words, skeptics view furnishing logistical support for U.S. military operations as tantamount to taking an active hand in those operations. It’s doubtful in the extreme that LEMOA will commit New Delhi to anything that works against its interests as it perceives them. Host nations grant access to their soil. They can withdraw what they’ve granted for any reason—or no reason at all. No one expects a government to commit to warlike ventures in advance, foreclosing its say-so in contentious matters. Chances are Modi’s emissaries are trying to get the wording of LEMOA crystal clear—leaving no room for such misperceptions
Hence the delay. To grok Indians’ skittishness, Americans could do worse than reacquaint themselves with their own history. It’s been about 69 years since India won independence from the British Empire. Well, how easy was it to fashion an accord with the United States 69 years into the republic’s age of independence? That would be 1845 if you date things from 1776, when the founders published the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia. (The other logical starting date would be 1783, when the Treaty of Paris codified the Revolutionary War’s outcome.)
Great Britain and its Royal Navy ruled the waves in 1845, much as the U.S. Navy has ruled the waves since 1945. How would Americans have reacted had London sought to negotiate a LEMOA in 1845, proposing that Washington grant Royal Navy men-of-war the right to put into New York or Norfolk for supplies? With outsized suspicion, one imagines. After all, just 31 years had elapsed since British redcoats had landed in the Chesapeake Bay and burned the Executive Mansion, as the White House was known in those days.
The War of 1812 affront was well within living memory—and would have shaped attitudes against any Anglo-American covenant. It would have taken a herculean feat of presidential leadership to overcome lingering resentments.
In 1845, furthermore, it had only been 22 years since President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams issued the Monroe Doctrine. The two statesmen’s “hands-off” doctrine vis-à-vis European empires would remain an axiom of U.S. foreign policy for a century after they enunciated it. It’s tough to imagine 1840s Americans consenting to grant the Royal Navy access that might help Britain reinforce its grip on Western Hemisphere territories or even, conceivably, conquer new territories—and vitiate the Monroe Doctrine in the bargain.
Nor were such attitudes a passing fad. Late in the century, as a canal across Central America began to take shape, the likes of Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge agonized constantly about keeping European navies from seizing land in the Caribbean Sea basin and emplacing naval stations there. From Caribbean bases, the Royal Navy, the Imperial German High Seas Fleet, or some other antagonist could menace the sea lanes connecting Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic seaports with the canal, and thence with the Pacific Ocean. Americans would have found that intolerable.
Staving off great sea powers thus remained central to U.S. foreign policy and strategy for many decades. Not until World War I—with the European Allies under extreme duress on the Western Front—could Washington countenance something akin to a LEMOA. And even then, the United States joined the Allies not as a formal ally but as an “Associated Power.” Nor did it assent to help guarantee the peace hammered out at Versailles, or accede to the League of Nations the Woodrow Wilson administration had espoused with such vigor.
In short, an entrenched sense of separateness from Old World politics colored how the United States conducted itself for many decades. And there may be a general rule here. There’s something about rising regional hegemons that inhabit distinct regions and are forced to manage outside great powers that meddle in what they regard as offshore preserves. It’s scarcely surprising that Indians today have reflexes akin to those impelling Americans in their own early history. A measure of empathy—and sympathy—wouldn’t be misplaced for U.S. diplomats trying to close out LEMOA this summer.
To know India—and shape our outreach to Indians—let’s know ourselves.
Editor’s Note: The Diplomat welcomes the Naval Diplomat’s return at Flashpoints. The complete Naval Diplomat archive can be viewed here.