A Small Step by the US

And India takes a giant leap (August-2005)

The 10-year (2005-2015) Defence Framework (DF) signed between India and the United States on 28 June 2005 is a quantum jump over the Agreed Minutes signed between the two sides in January 1995. By providing a comprehensive mechanism for ‘joint operability’ the DF has the potential to raise military cooperation to levels that the US has with its allies like Japan, Australia, and South Korea in Asia. From the US perspective, achieving ‘joint operability’ between two militaries implies that the engagement is closely linked to national security objectives have been listed in the DF as: ‘to maintain security and stability (in Asia): defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism: preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data and technologies; and protecting the free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes’.

To understand the import of the DF, it is important to review the Agreed Minutes, which were built upon the 1991 Kicklighter, proposals. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Lt Gen. Claude M.Kicklighter, the commanding general of US Army Pacific suggested the first proposal for services cooperation between India and the US. While these were low-level interactions, they firmed the US’ abiding interest in services-to-services cooperation, which remains so even today. The Agreed Minutes signed between India’s home minister, S.B. Chavan and US defence secretary William Perry had two limitations: One, the US was focused on more and intense services-to-services cooperation, while India expected more technology transfer under the agreement. India had earlier signed the 1984 Memorandum of Understanding on science and technology with the US and hoped that this would become the centre-piece of the Agreed Minutes. And two, there was simply too much of mutual distrust which resulted in each side looking for instant reciprocity of action.

The Agreed Minutes envisaged interaction at three levels: between the civilian defence leadership, the uniformed services and defence research and production. As a consequence, the Defence Policy Group (DPG to be co-chaired by India’s defence secretary and US under secretary for policy in the department of defence). The three services Executive Steering Group (ESG) and the Joint Technical Group (JTG) were formed. The ESG were separate for the three defence services at the level of three star general and equivalent rank in the navy and air force. The JTG comprised senior defence research and development organization personnel, while the DPG provided the overarching policy guidelines. The first DPG meeting was held in August 1995 in Washington. Of the three defence services, the naval cooperation got maximum attention because the US Pacific Command is a nay intensive command. For example, even before the first meeting of the Indo-US naval steering committee was held in New Delhi in March 1992, the US navy had proposed to conduct joint exercise between the two navies as early as September 1989.

Even as things were slowly moving on the Agreed Minutes, India’s 1998 nuclear tests put a stop on military engagements. The ESG and JTG were suspended. The US commerce department that prohibited US companies to deal with listed Indian companies passed an Entities List. So much so, that the United Kingdom denied spares parts for their Sea King helicopters and Sea Harrier aircraft with India as it has US end-user restrictions. While Indo-US relations started improving after the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan where the US was perceived to be on India’s side, it were the marathon rounds of talks in the same year between India’s and Pakistan where the US was perceived to be on Indian’s side, it were the marathon rounds of talks in the same year between India’s Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott that brought the real thaw in relations between the two countries. These talks addressed US’ non-proliferation concerns resulting in India accepting to exercise ‘strategic restraint’ on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. Once this was accomplished. It was time to resurrect the DPG, which was initiated during the visit of US Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Henry Shelton to India in July 2001.

However, three events in quick succession indicated the need for a quantum jump in Indo-US military cooperation as much warmth was infused in too little time into the relationship. First after 9/11 events India on 14 September 2001 became the first country to offer unqualified support for the US-led war on terror. Second, India was the first country to support President Bush’s ballistic missile defence plan much before US’ closest allies endorsed it. And third, India announced a new industrial policy for the defence sector; 100 per cent participation of Indian private sector and 26 per cent Foreign Direct Investments were allowed. This indicated a congenial environment for joint ventures between the Indian industry and high technology global players, which could entail outright technology transfers, or joint production of state-of-the-art weapon platforms, Therefore, on the one hand, co-production of defence systems in partnership with Indian industries looked a real possibility to foreign defence manufacturers. On the other hand, Indian defence services needed major modernization thrusts in key areas of battlefield transparency; information technology and information warfare; electronic warfare and C4 I2 infrastructure; and mobility.

Despite the upbeat Indo-US relations, what came in the way was the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The US said that unless India signs the GSOMIA, the US department of defence would do technology and equipment transfers to India on a case-to-case basis, with the burden of decision slanted towards withholding technology. Meanwhile, India saw the GSOMIA as redundant to the 1984 MoU on technology transfer. and also felt that it was an infringement on its national sovereignty. The US finally prevailed and India signed the GSOMIA in August 1992. Followed by the Military information Exchange Agreement (MIEA) that is research and development specific.

Given the climate of overall mutual trust and shared security concerns, it was time for the US military to engage Indian defence services to the fullest. It needs to be borne in mind that the US military uses engagement for both promoting transparency and enhancing the professionalism of regional armed forces. This is done by ‘joint operability’ including compatibility of equipment so that allies can under take military burden sharing under US-led coalitions. The US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programmes play a key role in supporting ‘joint operability’ engagements. While FMS ensures critical interoperability with allies and friends that facilitate coalition operations, FMF programmes enable key US friends and allies to improve their defence capabilities by financing acquisitions of US military articles, services and training.

From India’s viewpoint, the FMS and FMF were inadequate as the US could not be trusted as a reliable weapons provider.

It was argued that as the world leader, the US has global interests and obligations to fulfil international non-proliferation regimes. Moreover, US’ domestic laws are strict and confusing, which could result in inordinately delayed product support to US equipment with other countries. On these grounds, defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee ruled out purchase of US equipment. This was unacceptable to the US, For example, a former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, who is close to President Bush wrote in the Wall Street Journal of 21 March 2005 that, ‘We (the US) should sell advanced weaponry to India. Given the strategic challenges ahead. The US should want the Indian armed forces to be equipped with the best weapons systems and that often means American. To make this happen, the US has to become a reliable long-term supplier, including through co-production and licensed manufacture arrangements. For this reason, the Indo-US Security Cooperation Group (DPPG) in the DF. The SCG was formed in February 2002 to manage the defence supply relationship through the FMS between India and the US. Under this, the US had agreed to expeditiously review India’s acquisition priorities including sales of weapon locating radars, engines and systems for indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, radars, multi-mission maritime aircraft, and components for jet trainer and high-performance jet engines. But this is not what the US wanted. If India is to have ‘joint operability’ it must have US weapon platforms. To assuage India’s misgiving, the DPPG has been created to go beyond US defence supplies to ‘opportunities for technology transfer, collaboration, co-production and research and development.’

Despite the hype in the Indian media about co-production of US equipment, the fact is that it is not possible. The term co-production’ implies that partners make parts of the equipment separately such that without one partner’s participation, the said equipment would to be available to either. India simply lacks the R&D, production, and materials capability to qualify as a co-producer of equipment with the US. Worse, in most cases, India does not have the capability to absorb US’ high technology. At best, what is being looked at is going a little beyond assemblage of complete and semi-knocked down kits in India. It could be outsourcing of a few low-level technology items of US weapon platforms. In other words, not much should be read into the co-production issue in the DF. This, however, is indicative of the US’ resolve to sell its weapon platforms to India. It appears that India will relent on the issue.

Similarly, not much should be read in the expanded collaboration relating to missile defence’ mentioned in the DF. Considering that the US missile defence technologies are itself far from satisfactory, collaboration is more symbolic that real.

The US has given presentations on its advanced Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems to Indian scientists, and has also shared its conceptual operational thinking. The Indian Air Force, however, is not enamoured by the thought of spending huge amounts of finances to procure these systems.

Probably, the two collaborations in the DF that should be watched closely are: ‘exchanges on defence strategy, and collaboration in multinational operations. The first issue relates to transparency, which has a different connotation for the US and India. Under the DF, a military Co-operation Group has been set up for formalized interaction between the Indian integrated Defence Headquarters and the US Joint Staff. The US has shared its war-fighting and structural military reforms with the Indian counterparts. The question is will the Indian do the same? There is scepticism to do so within the three defence services, but defence ministry officials appear amenable to this collaboration. Much has been made in the Indian media about conducting multinational operations with the US, which is at the heart of the US military interaction with India. Except for disaster relief operations, these should be discouraged for, at least, two reasons: Unlike US’ allies in Asia, India does not have a military alliance, treaty or a pact with the US. Hence, military operations must be under the United Nations aegis alone. And importantly, the primary task of the Indian armed forces is against defined military threats to nation’s territorial integrity. Considering that India has limited military resources, there is a need to ensure that out of area tasks are not undertaken at the cost of nation’s defence. This is the key imponderable to look out for in the Indo-US military relationship under the DF.


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