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A New Chapter for India-US Defense Ties

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A New Chapter for India-US Defense Ties

Biden and Modi have a robust engagement calendar. The U.S. should leverage these opportunities to develop an ambitious roadmap for deepening defense ties with India. 

A New Chapter for India-US Defense Ties
Credit: Depositphotos

On a cold night in November 1962, Major David Sutherland of the United States Air Force flew his C-130 transport aircraft to new heights – literally – as he made a resupply mission to a remote airstrip outside the Indian city of Leh in the Himalayas. The People’s Liberation Army had invaded India a month prior, and the Kennedy administration responded by stepping up military assistance to India, sending vital supplies and evacuating wounded Indian troops.

Though often forgotten by both Indians and Americans today, U.S. assistance to India during the 1962 Sino-Indian War – amid the Cuban Missile Crisis at that – was an incredible moment of bonhomie between the two democracies during an otherwise frosty Cold War relationship. For Sutherland, the mission to India was an exciting sojourn during his military career. When I last spoke with him a few years ago, he fondly recalled memories of sipping chai with Indian troops, visiting the Taj Mahal, and enjoying savory meals at the Ashok Hotel in between missions.  

58 years later, the United States again stepped up to assist India in a moment of crisis. Following the June 2020 Galwan clash along the China-India Line of Actual Control (LAC) that left 20 Indian military personnel dead, the United States rushed to provide valuable support and supplies, including cold weather gear and munitions, in record time.

Over the past two years, China has continued its unpredictable and unsettling behavior along the LAC. Just last month, Chinese and Indian troops exchanged blows in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. (Coincidently, it was Kennedy’s ambassador to India – John Kenneth Galbraith – who recognized Arunachal as part of the Indian union.) And while U.S. support has continued, more needs to be done in both New Delhi and Washington to build a defense relationship that meets the demands of the moment.

Following Galwan, swift U.S. assistance was made possible by the investments both countries had made to deepen interoperability and logistics coordination, namely through defense enabling agreements like the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, which vastly expanded bilateral information sharing, and the Logistics Supply Agreement of 2016. This alphabet soup of enabling agreements was just one of several ingredients in a maturing partnership that included increased defense trade and investment, maritime cooperation, complex exercises, technological exchanges, and the Obama administration’s designation of India as a “Major Defense Partner.” Not only has India-U.S. defense cooperation directly contributed to enhancing India’s military preparedness along the LAC, it has also served as the “tip of the spear” driving the larger strategic convergence between the two countries over the past two decades.

Time is now ripe to resharpen the spear. In recent years, the India-U.S. relationship has been performing below its full potential. Bilateral differences over Ukraine and sanctions, a lackluster trade agenda, and the absence of a U.S. ambassador in New Delhi have contributed to this malaise. But 2023 presents an important opportunity to reverse this trend and restore momentum.

The Senate will hopefully move soon on confirming an envoy to New Delhi. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have multiple opportunities to meet this year, including at the G-20 Summit in September, and Secretaries Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin will travel together to New Delhi for the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. Putting defense on top of the agenda under an ambitious roadmap could provide the Biden administration an opportunity to make its own unique mark on the U.S.-India strategic partnership.  

Much akin to the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership (NSSP), which revamped export control and civil nuclear cooperation during the Bush administration, a defense roadmap would outline tangible, reciprocal steps for both sides to drive the defense partnership forward. Let’s call it “Major Defense Partner 2.0” or the “Defense Technology and Interoperability Roadmap.” Under such an umbrella framework, ad-hoc efforts or initiatives would be replaced with a systematic plan of action to make the defense relationship more predictable and resilient.

The United States, for example, could support India’s inclusion as a trusted partner under the Arms Export Control Act and loosen technology export controls in exchange for India agreeing to a major joint military industrial project (think jet engines or naval fighter aircraft). As the United States looks to refurbish its defense industrial base in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, India can play a central role in a network of trusted suppliers. But for India to realize this opportunity, it will require New Delhi to offer the right mix of incentives to build the business case for U.S. firms, such as Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to create economies of scale and guaranteed orders for Indo-U.S. private-sector joint ventures. 

A defense roadmap could also complement lines of effort already underway, including on artificial intelligence and the Pentagon’s dialogue on emerging technologies, and set new ambitious targets for undersea domain awareness (UDA) cooperation. India could take steps to increase interoperability with U.S. forces through the adoption of Link 16 and assigning additional liaison officers. Both sides could deepen habits of cooperation through additional exercises and rotational presence, with bureaucratic red-tape like visas and clearances waived beforehand. Congress could even play a supporting role by authorizing funds to pilot joint technology projects, much akin to the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation established in the 1970s. 

Above all, a high-level roadmap, blessed by the two leaders, would reduce the bureaucratic inertia that all too often becomes a drag on the India-U.S. relationship. Having time-bound tangible outcomes would help mitigate frustrations due to mismatched expectations and competing priorities (technology sharing, for example) and insulate defense ties from frictions in other parts of the relationship. Momentum toward achievable objectives would in turn create confidence to pursue more ambitious, long-term projects, such as cooperation on unmanned fighters.

The famous 4th century BCE Indian strategist Chanakya, whose name adorns the address of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, wrote extensively about the importance of fortifying the state when facing an adversary. Heeding his advice, the logic behind a India-U.S. defense roadmap could not be more compelling. Time is short and another crisis is brewing. China is closely watching the Ukraine war, eager to import lessons learned to improve its warfighting abilities along the LAC, particularly when it comes to countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and prosecuting counter-ISR operations. The recent clash in Arunachal Pradesh demonstrated that tensions along the LAC are not going to subside anytime soon.

Both sides can ill-afford waiting for the next crisis to act decisively. Meaningful defense cooperation requires political will and long-term planning. By pursuing an ambitious defense roadmap, New Delhi and Washington can do just that, while injecting momentum into the broader partnership and sending a strong signal to partners and adversaries alike in the Indo-Pacific.  

Before he passed, Major Sutherland expressed astonishment at how far ties between the two countries had progressed in the decades since his mission to Himalayas. The foundations are indeed robust, but much more remains to be done. The present geopolitical environment demands that both countries press down on the accelerator to deepen defense ties and put in place a robust and resilient architecture to help India defend its sovereignty and further U.S. security interests in the Indo-Pacific.