July 9, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: National Resilience: U.S.-India Security Cooperation: How Far Will It Go?

As of early July 2012, following the June visit to India by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Strategic Dialogue session held in Washington days later, top leaders from both governments issued emphatic statements about the value of building upon existing security cooperation. Such collaboration is broad, but not necessarily deep and, beyond weapons sales, it remains unclear what the engagement can produce. Meanwhile, many Indians continue to have doubts about the potential for Washington to help them attain favorable outcomes in South Asia, and are made nervous by implications of the U.S.-China relationship turning adversarial.

India's huge material advantages over its neighbors, its geostrategic location, and its growing capabilities make it a potentially useful security partner for the U.S. Damage done to the relationship by India's 1998 nuclear tests and ensuing sanctions quickly dissipated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Bush Administration's subsequent policy shift allowing for nuclear trade with India went far in generating New Delhi's goodwill, and the two countries have since realized unprecedented levels of military and intelligence engagement.


What Is Sought?

Too many Americans observe a rising China and welcome — even assume — near-future security ties with a friendly India that will serve to hedge against a potentially aggressive Beijing. Yet such assumptions are misguided; to be sure, the two may be friends, but there's no alliance on the horizon. Those who know India understand its officials are fundamentally averse to even the appearance of any formalized security embrace of the United States, not least because of domestic political pressures that can sting them at the ballot box. Moreover, New Delhi's lack of appetite for intervention was manifest in its fence-straddling on both Libya and Syria. Even on Iran, despite the fact that India made a clear shift by joining with the West in votes against Tehran on the nuclear issue and by cutting back on Iranian oil purchases in 2012, New Delhi seeks to strike a balance that preserves important ties with Tehran.

The emergence of a "nonalignment 2.0" foreign policy in New Delhi — a proposed and, in many circles, scorned concept — is unlikely, but the phrase "strategic autonomy" now slips effortlessly from the lips of every Indian diplomat, and pops from the pages of many an official document. The bulk of India's relatively small strategic community foresees limited and guarded Indian participation with foreign powers and multilateral security institutions.

As with any developing state, access to advanced weapons technology is a central Indian aspiration. The country's indigenous defense procurement and production processes can be interminably slow and inefficient. New Delhi's leaders thus covet co-production and technology transfer deals that might provide a robust indigenous defense base in the longer-term. Yet they seek to win such benefits while maintaining freedom of action or, perhaps more significantly, inaction in the case of international conflict in Asia. India's aversion to merely discussing outstanding defense pacts with the United States — some of them required by U.S. law for sharing certain technologies — is one result.


Key Areas of Cooperation at Present

Given an imbalance in goals and expectations, how, then, are the two counties' defense establishments engaging one another? The U.S.-India Defense Policy Group was revived in 2001 and met for the 12th time in early 2012. To this forum and its four subgroups was added a ten-year defense pact inked in 2005 and a Maritime Security Cooperation Agreement in 2006. These fora allow for regular, intimate consultations and planning, and exist as stark symbols of a new era in bilateral security relations.

Government-to-government defense trade is a leading story, with officials in both capitals lauding India's purchase of more than US$8 billion worth of top-shelf American military hardware over the past decade, including C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Hercules transport aircraft, P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, and a refurbished American amphibious transport dock, which now carries surplus UH-3H Sea King helicopters as the INS (Indian Naval Ship) Jalashwa. Negotiations are underway for sales of Apache attack helicopters, towed howitzers, and advanced anti-ship missiles. Talks may even lead to close joint work on anti-missile systems. India's defense market is the world's fastest growing and New Delhi could spend up to US$50 billion over the next five years upgrading its military. Americans vendors realize profits, and American production jobs are preserved. In turn, the Indian military gets some of the best platforms available.

Washington, along with potential vendors Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, were sorely disappointed by the April 2011 news that New Delhi — after seven years of comparing models — would not be purchasing F-16s or F/A-18s in a deal for 126 multirole combat aircraft that could be worth up to US$20 billion. India's defense procurers, sensitive to any scent of corruption given past scandals, ostensibly selected the French-built Rafale platform on strictly technical grounds.

Still, the choice had obvious strategic and political implications, and many in the United States had more-or-less expected India to choose an American jet as a implicit reciprocal gesture for the civil nuclear deal finalized in 2008. In 2012, however, U.S. officials expressed satisfaction with the current volume of defense sales, even as they and American weapons manufacturers complain in private about what they call India's woefully inefficient and opaque processes, as well as its onerous offset requirements and limits on foreign investment in the defense sector.

As with defense trade, the Pentagon has eagerly pursued joint exercises with India involving all military services: annual "Malabar"" naval maneuvers, at times including Australian, Singaporean, and Japanese vessels, "Cope India," air exercises that leave American pilots impressed with Indian skills, and company-level special forces engagements (Americans can learn from India's extensive experience with domestic counterinsurgency warfare). Despite the multi-service involvement in these bilateral (and multilateral) exercises, naval cooperation may be the most fruitful military-related area. Still, as can be expected given Indian (and Chinese) sensitivities, Malabar and other sea-borne exercises emphasize non-warfare operations such as anti-piracy and humanitarian/disaster relief.


Potential and Problems With Counterterrorism and Intelligence Cooperation

For many observers, working together on counterterrorism (CT) is the richest emergent realm of the U.S.-India partnership. A CT Joint Working Group was established in 2000 and meets regularly; a CT Cooperation Initiative was launched in 2011 to facilitate all manner of law enforcement and transportation security training; and 2011 also saw inauguration of a Homeland Security Dialogue that encompasses maritime security, infrastructure protection, and intelligence sharing.

While all of this demonstrates the potential of joint efforts, obstacles remain significant. First among these is the misalignment of U.S. and Indian bureaucracies (much of the Indian system is built around state governments that enjoy constitutionally-sanctioned autonomy), the limited capacity of India's relatively small agencies, and their highly centralized decision-making processes. What's more, the two governments' conceptions of the terrorism threat are not entirely convergent — India considers U.S. ally Pakistan to be the epicenter of jihadist terrorism and has doubts about Washington's transparency in this regard. However, by allowing Indian interrogators access to American Mumbai attack co-conspirator David Headley in 2010, Washington won greater confidence among Indian counterterrorism experts that might pay dividends in terms of improved relations going forward.

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