A Way Forward in U.S.-India Defense Cooperation

A Way Forward in U.S.-India Defense Cooperation

Interview with Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta
July 18, 2011

In an interview with NBR, Dr. Stephen P. Cohen and Professor Sunil Dasgupta argue that India rejected offers from U.S. companies for the recent fighter jet bid due to worries over supply reliability. They also maintain that to move defense cooperation forward, the United States and India should consider co-developing weapons technology in light of U.S. legislative restrictions on technology transfer.

Could you explain the nature of U.S.-India relations and the role of defense cooperation? How do you envision the future of the relationship?

The U.S.-India relationship is a composite of several important interests: (1) vast social and cultural ties, symbolized by the large Indian-American community, (2) a new economic interdependence, (3) the development of strategic commonality, with both hedging against a rising China and fearful of a declining, but nuclear-armed, Pakistan, and (4) finally, the growth in military and defense ties.

Not all four elements of the relationship have developed at the same pace. With the exceptions of post–nuclear test engagement and the civilian nuclear deal, the unofficial U.S.-India relationship, including people-to-people and economic ties, has outpaced official ties between the two countries. U.S.-India strategic convergence will likely come in the long term, as there are serious short-term differences on Pakistan, China, climate change, energy security, global governance, and economic policy.

Defense cooperation is important because it can bridge long- and short-term differences. Indeed, the nuclear deal bought greater freedom for Washington on its Pakistan policy and could serve this role again as the United States tries to extricate itself from the region. For this to happen, Washington must hold out the large carrot of technology and weapons transfers, which are politically problematic for many reasons, specifically the restrictive domestic legislation on defense hardware. One solution lies in the United States co-developing technology with India, as it does with Israel. Since new technology is not yet developed, it cannot be subjected to restrictive U.S. laws. On the Indian side, a number of things have to happen, including rationalizing the R&D establishment.

What do recent Indian military procurements tell us about the country’s defense outlook and strategic aims?

Most of India’s purchases are replacements for obsolete or broken equipment. However, a few acquisitions of American equipment are notable. The acquisition of a large troop carrier, the INS Jalashwa, formerly a U.S. Marine assault vessel, can provide rapid sealift capacity for Indian forces, presumably allowing for intervention elsewhere in South Asia or the Indian Ocean region. The large Boeing airlifters replace obsolete Soviet aircraft and have greater capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether India will use its new assets to develop a true power-projection capacity. Unless India can start building aircraft carriers on its own, its recent purchase of a carrier and carrier-borne jets from Russia will be largely symbolic. The planned acquisition of a nuclear submarine with nuclear-tipped missiles raises weighty questions about Asian nuclear stability, but this purchase will not come to fruition for many years.

India is hedging all around. From New Delhi’s perspective, in matters of defense Washington is the best possible partner, but Washington is perceived as being unwilling to fulfill the role. India continues to buy Russian equipment due to prices and a misplaced sense of autonomy. There could be a major Indo-Russian rupture very soon, however, since Indian ships were recently turned away from a planned joint exercise after showing up in Vladivostok. India will buy what it really needs, such as fighter jets, from both Europeans and Russians, who are less likely than the United States to attach conditions to such purchases. On the other hand, it will continue to buy from the United States items unrelated to immediate threats, such as power-projection equipment, though New Delhi has no immediate plans to conduct expeditionary warfare. Now that India has the money to buy and build, it must decide on its priorities and with whom to partner. In this, the United States remains a contender, but not the obvious or automatic first choice.

Recently India rejected offers from two U.S. firms to compete for a medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract worth over $10 billion. This was followed by the resignation of U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer, which some thought was related to the bidding. Is India’s down-select of American firms in the fighter jet competition and the reaction in U.S. political and diplomatic circles evidence of a potential distance in relations?

Ambassador Timothy Roemer’s departure from New Delhi was unrelated to the MMRCA decision. The MMRCA decision is said to have been made on technical grounds, though we also know that “technical” superiority can mask other motivations. The Indian defense establishment is uneasy about using an American airplane on missions potentially involving combat with Pakistan, a formal U.S. ally. There may also be U.S. laws limiting the planes from carrying nuclear weapons.

In the end, we believe, the decision was mostly political, as India intended to preserve supply reliability. The United States continues to have a poor reputation as a military supplier. The current problems India is having with the Nuclear Suppliers Group have been attributed to U.S. ambivalence about the civilian nuclear deal. The decision also signaled to Washington that New Delhi cannot be taken for granted, as the Obama administration has largely done. India would have given the order to a U.S. firm if it had been assured that the United States would back India politically thereafter. Since this guarantee was not available, and awarding a U.S. firm the contract would increase Washington’s ability to influence New Delhi, the United States was a not a good choice politically as a supplier.

What has been the role of India’s civilian leadership in the process of military procurement and modernization?

The Indian state has failed to develop a timely, transparent, and legitimate military procurement system. On the one hand, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress Party are very fearful of the specter of scandal, but on the other hand corruption continues to be rife as the Tehelka sting operations and other scandals have shown. The result is that the acquisition process has become highly bureaucratized, to the detriment of force capability and readiness. India’s political system obsesses over high profile items and neglects the increasing competency in the armed forces and defense production facilities. The introduction of private companies into the process may shake things up, although this is widely opposed for fear of corruption, the government’s inability to enforce contracts against private parties, and secrecy. We agree with the late K. Subrahmanyam, India’s most eminent defense specialist, about the archaic and cumbersome way in which India arms itself.

As you note above, India has recently purchased significant quantities of military equipment from the United States, with more deals potentially in the pipeline. What does the United States stand to gain from these sales?

The United States should see India as a long-term strategic investment and perhaps a partner. India could assume more responsibility for stabilizing chaotic areas of the world.

Unlike the MMRCA, recent sales do not represent dramatic new value. They are steps in the right direction, but New Delhi sees them primarily as business deals that are paid for and that the United States supplies, no strings attached. The MMRCA was much more dramatic because it would have put Washington at the core of India’s military power just as the Soviet supply of the MiG-21 opened the market for Moscow.

Recently, Senators John Cornyn and Joe Lieberman introduced committee amendments that require the Secretary of Defense to examine the possibility of selling India F-35 fighters. However, we think India is unlikely to buy another high-profile fighter jet unless the current strategic balance in the region or the current trajectory of the U.S.-India ties was to change dramatically.

We think U.S.-India relations will gain the most from co-developing advanced weapons systems and key subassemblies. Aircraft engines have been mentioned in this context and the two countries already have in place agreements to work together on space technologies. We need to think harder about what specific projects to pursue jointly with India and how to fund and sustain these projects. This is where the defense relationship will bring strategic value to both sides.

Can you describe the impact of U.S. technology-transfer restrictions on potential defense cooperation?

U.S. legislation traditionally sees India as a technology risk and a problem state. On the Indian side, there are bloated expectations. The Indian attitude tends to be, “We have been neglected, and we are important; therefore, we have a claim to your technology to make up for past neglect.” Americans see India as a risky state that overemphasizes technology as a route to military modernization. This is seen in the case of India’s nuclear weapons, which serve as a powerful deterrent but are no substitute for a modern conventional military. Somewhere between these attitudes there is an opportunity for a realistic, hardheaded exchange of technology. The relationship is short of an alliance, but more than a friendship.

India clearly sees the restrictions as a hurdle, and the restrictions play both a substantive and a symbolic role. Substantively, some items are denied to India, but symbolically this means that the United States still does not see India as a close partner. This symbolic element is even more important than the substantive one. The Indian argument is: “If they do not trust us, why should we trust them?” For the symbolic hurdle to disappear, a weapons technology “most-favored nation” agreement will be required, which is hugely problematic here in the U.S. Therefore, our suggestion has been technology co-development, which would allow the existing technology regime to remain but put in place new rules for the development of technology.

What effect does arming India have on U.S. relations with Pakistan or China? Conversely, to what extent are U.S. sales to India motivated by security concerns over China and Pakistan?

In the case of Pakistan, the effect has been to convince Islamabad that Washington has chosen New Delhi over it once and for all, making Pakistan even more nervous about its security. Arms sales to India have also greatly complicated U.S. policy in Afghanistan and fed anti-Americanism in Pakistan, which now exceeds Pakistani hostility toward India. The policy of strategic dehypenation—the pursuit of relations with India and Pakistan independent of one anotherMdash;prevented the United States from calculating the impact that improving relations with India would have on Pakistan.

Although China now recognizes India as a major emerging state, there is no evidence that this will reduce Beijing’s support for India’s major regional rival, Pakistan. At the same time, China does not wish to revive its border conflict with India. Both countries thus pursue a hedging strategy toward each other.

What else about the U.S.-India defense relationship would you like policymakers to understand?

Congress and U.S. policymakers need to look more seriously at the way in which the U.S. government is organized to deal with India. The United States does not view South Asia as an integrated region, which downplays the role that India might play in Afghanistan and fails to address India’s larger regional role, let alone its complicated relations with Pakistan. The U.S.-India relationship has been transformed, but the U.S. government, most notably the Department of Defense, the White House, and the Department of State, is not organized to deal appropriately with a rising India.

The United States has 31 agreements or dialogues with India but has no mechanism for tracking progress in these areas in any transparent fashion. The Cornyn “letter” asking the Secretary of Defense to report on the state and potential of U.S.-India military cooperation is an important step in the right direction. What the United States needs to do next is to identify, fund, and staff projects on one or two key technologies where actual cooperation can proceed at pace rather than engage in a wide array of mostly token and ineffective dialogues.

Dr. Cohen, a 2010–11 National Asia Research Associate and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Professor Dasgupta, Political Science Program Director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are co-authors of the book Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization.

This interview was conducted by Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director for Outreach.