The Debate

Trump Must Act Now on US-India Defense Relations

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The Debate

Trump Must Act Now on US-India Defense Relations

Realizing the full potential of the new Major Defense Partner status means acting now.

Trump Must Act Now on US-India Defense Relations
Credit: Flickr/MEAPhotoGallery

In June 2016, at the conclusion of the third and last major bilateral summit between then U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a joint statement between the U.S. and India was signed and released by the White House. Though an official joint statement is standard protocol for such high-level engagements, this third and final joint statement announced the U.S. recognition of India as a Major Defense Partner for the first time in the history of both nations.

Though that was no doubt a historic move, why this was done remains an issue of debate, and the potential of such a designation remains unfinished work. Given the importance that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has accorded the U.S.-India relationship and the momentum in ties, Washington must begin moving forward on next steps now as should New Delhi.

The reason behind the joint statement was to cement the progress made within the U.S. Department of Defense, with interagency support, to advance policy decisions that ultimately redefined the bilateral defense relationship by placing India on par with most of the U.S. allies within NATO. The policy changes gave equal footing to India with these countries in respect to technology release and cooperation decisions enabling a closer political, military, and industrial partnership.

With the looming end of the Obama presidency and subsequent exit of supportive political appointees that enabled this rapid and historic shift, changes within key U.S. documents, statements and legislation reflecting this progress were needed to ensure a smooth and consistent transition to a new administration, regardless of which candidate won the election.

Reaching the full potential of this designation will require serious partnering by both nations in the coming months under the Trump administration. The joint statement of June 2016 recognized the defense relationship as an anchor of stability, and, to this day, the defense relationship remains an island of continuity for both nations.

By designating India as a major defense partner, the United States committed to continue its work toward facilitating technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners. Furthermore, the United States committed to continuing efforts to facilitate the export of goods and technologies for projects, programs, and joint ventures in support of official U.S.-India defense cooperation and India’s “Make in India” initiative.

Subsequently, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017, which included recognition of India as a major defense partner. This act legally recognizes a unique partnership designation by the United States to India and codifies in U.S. law the spirit of the June 2016 joint statement.

The immediate effect of both the June 2016 joint statement and the NDAA for fiscal year 2017 was twofold. As stated earlier, the June 2016 joint statement cemented policy gains that had been previously published. In addition, it immediately served as a tool for revisiting policy decisions made earlier that were not fully reflective of this designation. Therefore, that joint statement not only cemented previous gains, but served as a high-level document to challenge policy decisions deemed too restrictive and in need of liberalization to match such a designation.

The June 2016 joint statement and NDAA language technically facilitated changes in licensing policy. Furthermore, the Department of Commerce commenced with an effort to amend the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to reflect such a status while the United States committed to ensure licensing requests for defense products and technology would now be considered under this unique designation.

Over the past 12 months, the Trump administration has committed to further define the meaning of this designation in partnership with the Modi government. The objective is to reach agreement on what would be viewed as both transactional and aspirational by the opening of the planned 2+2 U.S.-India dialogue early this year. This dialogue, a merging of foreign affairs and defense topics at the ministerial level, was agreed to by the President and Prime Minister this past summer.

The good news is that, over the past year, the defense relationship trajectory remains on a positive path as before with a commitment by the Trump team “to raise the bar.” The current administration demonstrated its view of the importance of this designation with the historic decision to transfer Sea Guardian capability to the Indian government – historic in that this is a first time U.S. approval of such a capability for other than a NATO ally deployed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

And although a formal bilateral definition remains unpublished, actions speak volumes. The question being asked more and more around Washington, D.C. is: what is India doing to demonstrate how it embraces such a designation? After all, the June 2016 joint statement was a joint statement, and the statement should reflect what both nations agreed to at the highest levels.

Although this designation was a recommendation of the United States and was done so to cement the progress that Washington had made internally to reach this new high, there was an expectation that India too would work to define and transform its policies and practices in an attempt to match the progress the United States had made and continues to make. Looking forward to the 2+2 dialogue, what should both nations be doing to advance relations as major defense partners?

For the United States, consideration should be given to replicate the Defense Department’s NDAA 2017 language within the State Department. Why? As the final decision authority on the transfer of military capability and partnering with respect to military technology, the Secretary of State is not bound by the Pentagon’s NDAA. And although the NDAA does have weight, complementary language should be included within State’s policies to ensure a whole of government embrace of India as a major defense partner.

The United States should consider broadening ITAR changes to further embrace this designation and continue to modify policies to ensure India is on par with some of our closest allies and partners. The Pentagon also needs to designate a political appointee of sufficient rank to act as champion for this relationship and to be held accountable for devoting sufficient time to ensure continued progress. At the moment, it appears as though the relationship is of importance but not necessarily as nurtured as it was in recent past. There is no doubt that in the absence of sustained, high-level political attention, antibodies will reemerge and progress will stall.

For India, the government must also consider both transactional and aspirational stretch goals. India must help the United States understand where it views the defense relationship trajectory heading, and it cannot be exclusively measured by how much technology the United States is willing to transfer. With the rise of China, the challenges of securing the Indian Ocean, and a non-aligned constitutional position, what is India’s objective with respect to U.S.-India defense relations? Understanding those objectives greatly helps the U.S. system to coalesce to advance the relationship even further. The U.S. military technology release decision process remains one dominated by understanding how our friends and allies want to partner.

Other questions remain. For instance, does such partnering then lead to the need for interoperability? Working together military to military to advance issues such as maritime domain awareness, stabilizing Afghanistan, or pursuing quadrilateral military relations all serve to motivate the U.S. system to lean even further forward. What does India envision with respect to U.S.-India military relations?

By defining the vision with respect to U.S.-India military relations, the United States will then better understand whether we should be concerned with India’s other military partners; some of which present a potential national security risk. There is nothing more vital to national security than military capability, and it is therefore in U.S. national interest to remain conservative in its sharing of such capability and technology. India routinely expresses intent to partner with Russia on next generation military capability and the sharing of such technology with Russia remains a major issue of concern within the United States. The United States respects India’s sovereignty and need to manage a diverse list of international partners, but, in turn, India must then respect U.S. hesitation to go further especially with respect to sharing our most critical military technology—the same technology that U.S. policy greatly restricts across the globe.

To move forward as I believe both nations desire to do, India must commit to U.S. requirements for securing military technology and to ensuring that its emergent defense industrial complex agrees to the same. Furthermore, there must be assurance that both government officials and industry personnel are held accountable for such security, hence the need for concluding the remaining enabling agreements. For both nations, as in the past, progress will only be sustained with a mutual commitment to creative solutions for resolving unfinished yet critical business such as the remaining enabling agreements.

Ideally, the Indian government would soon announce a defense Make in India project with the United States and its industries to enable both governments and their industries to tangibly demonstrate the impact of U.S. policy changes. Both U.S. fighter offers, if agreed to, would represent a transformational demonstration of these gains and would provide both governments an opportunity to further refine their procedures and policies, thus enabling ever more ambitious joint military projects tomorrow.

Now is the time to act. The Trump administration is eager to raise the bar and willing to get past impediments, with an eye towards finding creative and historic approaches to make progress. The administration, with its recently published National Security Strategy, has clearly stated its intent to expand defense and security cooperation with India as a Major Defense Partner. India, for its part, is positioned well to continue the trajectory with the Modi government remaining on firm political footing with no significant change expected over the next few years.

For both governments, continuing to delay major cooperative decisions, holding out for a better deal, and allowing entrenched antibodies to delay further progress, will only ensure we both fall short of the possible. Meanwhile, the world and our adversaries are not resting nor delaying their investments and preparedness. Let us elevate the cooperation and decisionmaking while time is on our side.

Mr. Keith Webster is the Senior Vice President for Aerospace and Defense at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF).  Previously, Keith served as the Director, International Cooperation for the Under Secretary of Defense (USD) for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L).