Respect for each other’s strategic choices is much needed in the Indo-US bilateral relationship
Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)
In the last week of June, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a brief visit to New Delhi en route to Osaka for the G20 Summit and held meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the newly-appointed external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, a former foreign secretary and erstwhile Indian Ambassador to the US. Unsurprisingly, there were no definite outcomes on any of the flagged issues during the visit which was aptly summed up by Pompeo in benign diplomatese about being able to work through differences on trade and defence.
This was followed by the discussions between Prime Minister Modi and the US President Donald Trump on bilateral issues and a trilateral between India, Japan and the US where the main topic of discussion was the Indo-Pacific. Both these meetings did not deliver on the core concerns and the standard reassurances were reiterated. President Trump, true to form had earlier tweeted that “I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the tariffs must be withdrawn!” which had caused some consternation soon after Pompeo’s visit. Fortunately, at his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, President Trump made all the right noises.
The Indo-US relationship, which has had more than its share of ups and downs with more of the latter, has been on an upward trajectory over the last 15 years or so ever since the US-India civilian nuclear deal was signed. This has been most evident in the military-security dimension with India having purchased more than USD20 billion worth of military equipment from the US through the unique ‘Foreign Military Sales’ programme of the US government. Despite India’s much vaunted and transparent Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) which focuses on a procedural process that is anchored in a competitive bidding process with the focus on indigenisation and self-reliance, the FMS arrangement with India bypasses all this. India’s ministry of defence concludes contracts with private defence companies in the US under the aegis of the two governments with neither competition nor indigenisation being considered.
The Indian armed forces have undoubtedly benefited greatly from these big-ticket acquisitions. The Indian Navy has greatly enhanced its maritime surveillance capability with the induction of 12 Boeing P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force now have a much improved strategic lift and expeditionary capability with the induction of the C-130, the C-17 and the Chinook helicopters and the army more offensive firepower with the new Apache attack helicopters and the M777 Howitzers.
It is understood that discussions are at an advanced stage for the purchase of 10 more P8I aircraft and 22 Guardian drones for the navy for further improving the Indian Navy’s maritime surveillance capability. Efforts are in progress to include weaponised drones in this package and initial steps towards this have already been initiated with the amendment to the US Arms Export Policy and by seeking an amendment to the MTCR Agreement. This has been extensively reported in the media and also stated by the United States India Strategic Partnership Forum’s Senior Adviser for Defence and Aerospace, Vikram J Singh, who said, “I think weaponised drones are on the table. I think the original purchase was for surveillance but those are platforms known as the Predator. The Sea Guardian is basically an unarmed Predator that is kitted out for maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and things like that… I think the idea of armed drones has been basically approved in principle on the US side so it’s certainly something which is on the table.”
From a maritime perspective, the induction of the P8I has been transformational for India’s maritime surveillance and patrol capability. It has replaced the ageing Russian TU-142M aircraft which had served the navy ably for many years but lacked the surveillance and detection capability demanded of the contemporary maritime security paradigm where the nature of the threat has become increasingly transnational and poses an omni-present threat to global trade and energy lifelines and maritime boundaries. As the pre-eminent naval power in the Indian Ocean and having mandated itself as a net security provider in the region, effective surveillance and a comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is an imperative for India that demands state-of-the-art capability.
The P8I has a Boeing 737 airframe which is not only very reliable and trusted but also has the benefit of speed to evade a counter-attack in combat. It has a state-of-the-art weapon and sensor package which includes an advanced multimode radar as well as a modern surveillance radar. It has an indigenously developed Data Link system which is satellite communication compatible, thus making it an integral element of India’s networked MDA. Its long endurance with a range of over 2,000 km and a time on task of four to six hours at that range makes it an extremely effective Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform. Adequate numbers will provide a comprehensive coverage of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It also has modern sonobuoys and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) for undersea detection which would keep a lurking submarine constantly on edge. Its potent weapon package includes the Harpoon Block-2 state of the art missile and the Mk 54 Lightweight torpedo which can inflict debilitating damage on surface targets and submarines respectively.
With the addition of 10 more aircraft to the current force level of 12, the Indian Navy will be in a very comfortable position to deploy these aircraft in different theatres of interest. For example, the recent landing of P8I at Car Nicobar will enable the Indian Navy to keep a close watch on all access points to the Indian Ocean from eastwards. This is of particular significance with the increasing numbers of PLA (Navy) ships and submarines transiting from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and the movement of global trade through the narrow waterways connecting these two oceanic spaces. Once the Indian Navy also gets the Guardian drones, whether armed or unarmed, their ability to carry out surveillance and gather intelligence will provide a high degree of situational awareness and act as a force multiplier in developing the MDA picture.
The US decision to sell the P8I to India a decade ago (in 2009) was probably the most significant manifestation of the growing Indo-US strategic relationship at that time and which is still focussed largely on defence cooperation. In a first for the US, the P8I was inducted into the Indian Navy almost simultaneously with the induction of the similar P8 Poseidon in the US Navy. Since then the relationship has further deepened and India is now categorised as a ‘major defence partner’ which places India almost at par with the US’s NATO partners and closest allies in terms of sharing the latest defence technologies. The importance of this relationship is also seen in the high-profile presence of important lobby groups and industry associations like the USISPF and USIBC who actively engage with the political leadership and the ministry of defence (MoD) bureaucracy to further develop the commercial aspects of this relationship. The presence in India of leading American think tanks like Brookings and Carnegie who wield considerable influence in the corridors of power in Washington and can shape opinion and policy formulation with their inputs and assessments also strive to further this relationship.
At an operational level, India, after much deliberation and discussion over many years, finally signed the two contentious Foundational Agreements after these had been suitably modified to address India’s concerns. The first of these, the original Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) which the US has signed with all its NATO partners and close allies including Pakistan and duly modified for India as the ‘Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement’ (LEMOA) was signed in 2016 and has been fully operationalised. LEMOA allows access to both countries to designated military facilities on either side. During the 2+2 Dialogue, India and the US also signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement) which is an India-specific version of the original CISMOA (Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement). The first of the four Foundational Agreements, GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) had been signed in 2002. Of the four Foundational Agreements, the only one now left is BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation).
Both LEMOA and COMCASA, though applicable to all three services, are of maximum benefit to the navy. The Indian Navy’s present operational tempo of multi mission deployment with over a dozen ships on patrol in various parts of the Indo-Pacific at any given time benefits greatly from the availability of replenishment and refuelling facilities, port calls, mutual assistance in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations etc. Similarly, COMCASA allows for greater interoperability through shared communication channels, protocols and SOPs, which in a networked environment help navies to work closer together.
The Indo-Pacific today is defined by China’s remarkable rise and aggressive pursuance of its aspiration to regional and ultimately global dominance through its coercive economic initiatives and rapid militarisation of the Indo-Pacific and its increasing presence in the Indian Ocean. It is operating in total disregard for the existing rules-based international order and is cocking a snook at any established multilateral mechanism which it perceives as detrimental to its national interest including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) despite being a signatory to it. This is of great concern to the other maritime nations in the region and the larger amongst these — USA, Japan, Australia and India, all of whom have their own national interests in the region but operate within defined rules and convention-based framework, are keen on maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is, therefore, imperative that these four nations, loosely termed the Quad, work closely together with the smaller maritime nations in the region to retain the sanctity of the global commons. In the Indian Ocean a great responsibility therefore devolves upon India, as the pre-eminent naval power in the region to maintain the security and stability of the region and the trade that passes through it. India’s equation with China is very different from that of any of the other three Quad members. Hence, India’s approach would have to be calibrated accordingly which may not always be fully in consonance with the others.
In the midst of this healthy understanding between the US and India of the importance of working closely together with each other, there are irritants which need to be addressed in a spirit of mutual respect and accommodation. The US has recently raised the issue of an unfair trade and tariff structure between the two nations; it has threatened to impose CAATSA sanctions on countries buying oil from Iran or buying military hardware from Russia which includes India. India’s purchase of the S-400 system has become a particularly thorny issue. India has clearly articulated its commitment to its own national interest and is going ahead with the S-400 system. The US Administration has taken India’s concerns on board as was stated by Pompeo during his visit. India’s military ties with Russia also run deep — the Indian armed forces operate a lot of Russian equipment and the government has recently signed a contract for four Type 1135.6 stealth frigates (two to be built in Russian and two in India) and has also signed a 10 year lease for an Akula-2 class nuclear attack submarine from 2025 onwards to continue the existing arrangement.
Strategic autonomy has been the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy since independence and countries wishing to do business with India must respect that. These recent irritants in the relationship should not therefore convey the impression that India should feel obliged for having been accorded this exalted status or convey the impression that this ‘strategic’ relationship is becoming increasingly transactional. India is a big market for the US military hardware and the influence of the US military-industrial complex is no secret. It must not be forgotten that no other country has benefited from this huge market in such a short span of time as the US. The lack of any meaningful transfer of technology, the absence of a competitive bidding process and the lack of lifecycle costing for the maintenance, overhaul and upgrade of these expensive systems, the Defence Trade and Technology initiative (DTTI) notwithstanding, is a vulnerability India must address. At an operational level too, the impression should not be that India is being used by the US to take up the slack in the Indian Ocean caused by its engagement in the western Pacific.
The Indo-US relationship, though on a firm footing, is largely defence oriented. India has benefited greatly with the induction of some very advanced military hardware from the US; the P8I, in adequate numbers in the maritime domain is one such. However, this relationship needs to be further consolidated with a mutual acceptance of each other’s concerns and respect for each other’s independent strategic choices for it to be truly strategic.
(The writer is vice president and head, Delhi branch of Indian Maritime Foundation)