June 27, 2014

How U.S. can reinvigorate India defense ties

Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in last month’s Indian general election has raised hopes that the country will break through the policy stagnation of the last decade and advance reforms that can jump-start India’s economy and bolster its standing on the world stage.
Modi’s declared priorities focus heavily on the economy, and the U.S. government should make economic statecraft a central pillar of engagement with India. But Washington should not lose sight of the most successful area of U.S.-India cooperation to date: the thriving defense relationship. Actions taken in New Delhi and Washington now will determine if the two nations can break through a successful but largely transactional relationship toward strategic partnership that delivers for both nations on shared security interests.
On the U.S. side, four priority areas matter most to reinvigorate U.S.-India defense ties:
First, the Obama administration should continue to put forward innovative defense trade proposals, regardless of how responsive Modi’s government appears to be in the near-term. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that he would take “an active and very personal role” in what has come to be known as the U.S.-India Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), and designated the Department’s Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Frank Kendall, as the initiative’s American lead.
This is welcome news. The original champion of the DTTI, former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, worked closely with former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to raise the profile of U.S.-India defense trade and overcome bureaucratic hurdles in both countries. Within the U.S. government, this informal initiative resulted in a sustained effort to clarify and ease Cold War-era restrictions on technology transfers to India, and to identify dozens of high-tech co-production and co-development opportunities for consideration by U.S. and Indian industry and policymakers.
This effort must continue and expand. Like his predecessors, Modi has advocated building an indigenous defense base. But he may better understand that India cannot succeed in doing so on its own. He has signaled that his government may finally raise limits on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the defense sector, which are currently stuck at 26 percent in most cases and make major international defense companies reluctant to partner with Indian industry. Modi might also be prepared to modify India’s onerous “offsets” policy that makes many good defense deals almost impossible to close, and to reform India’s sclerotic acquisitions process. If he receives strong and sustained backing from Hagel and the White House, Kendall is well positioned to quietly press for – and capitalize on – Indian reforms, and continue the hard work of bringing to fruition promising joint defense trade opportunities.
Second, instead of merely reauthorizing the landmark 2005 New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship that expires in 2015, Washington and New Delhi should jointly draft an updated vision for the coming decade of defense partnership. The end of the New Framework’s ten-year term can be used to take stock of the systems and institutions that were created for defense cooperation, to enhance those that have borne fruit and to jettison those that have not. The U.S. should propose ways to incorporate uniformed military officials from both sides into the high-level Defense Policy Group and the annual Strategic Dialogue; to formalize information sharing; to bring leaders from the U.S. Pacific Command and Indian regional commands into bilateral defense discussions; and to develop a capabilities-based framework for prioritizing bilateral and multilateral exercise engagements. This is the moment to revisit issues from the truly strategic down to the nuts-and-bolts of the defense relationship – and lay the foundation for a transformative decade of defense ties.
Third, the United States must focus on deepening defense cooperation and exercises, even in the present climate of budget retrenchment. Sequester forced the termination of the marquee Red Flag Air Force exercises and other engagements last year, and it is these kinds of disruptions that call into question the commitment of the United States and weaken our partnerships.
It is time to double down on military to military engagements, not retreat. The U.S. should propose greater interaction at the level of the service chiefs and the regional commanders. This could have long-term value in the naval domain, as both India and the United States want to see India emerge as the lead provider of security in the Indian Ocean Region. Personal ties between U.S. and Indian general and flag officers would also prove valuable if and when India faces another serious crisis – for example, a terrorist attack like the one that took place in Mumbai in 2008, or an unexpected naval confrontation in the Indian Ocean – by providing important channels for consultation and de-escalation.
Finally, with President Obama’s announcement of the next phase of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, the United States would be wise to build deep outreach on regional security with the new Indian leadership. (The same, incidentally, must be done with Pakistan.) Just as Pakistanis are often convinced that Washington has chosen New Delhi as its preferred partner in the region, so many Indians are convinced that the United States has signed over Afghanistan’s future to Islamabad. The Obama administration launched regular joint consultations with the previous government in India, sending leaders from the White House, State, and Defense to have frank discussions on developments in Afghanistan and beyond.
But with so much change at hand, anxiety in New Delhi continues to grow and will be acute for a new and untested government. Attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, such as the recent assault on the Indian consulate in Herat, have heightened Indian fears about the pace of the U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. government should ensure that frank consultations on Afghanistan with both Indian and Pakistani leaders become more regular and more substantive. Moreover, these talks should expand to cover developments across the region, not just Afghanistan.
As the world’s most populous democracy, the leading importer of defense equipment, and an emerging provider of security in Asia, India is integral to long-term American efforts to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. And with defense trade having grown from virtually nothing to some $9 billion since 2005, many aspects of the defense relationship are clearly on the right track. With his overwhelming electoral mandate, Narendra Modi is positioned to shake up Indian defense. His reforms can only bear fruit for the U.S.-India relationship, however, if Washington steps up its own game on defense trade, security cooperation – and the serious consultations with Indian leaders on the regional challenges that lie ahead.

- Vikram J. Singh and Joshua T. White/ CNN

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