On June 2, Ashton Carter became the first visiting American defence secretary to be hosted in an operational Indian military command, when he visited the Eastern Naval Command headquarters at Visakhapatnam. Mr Carter was taken aboard a front-line Indian Navy warship and briefed by the admiral in charge. What is remarkable is not that this happened, but that it has taken so long.
When Chinese troops were racing through Arunachal Pradesh towards the Brahmaputra valley in 1962 and Jawaharlal Nehru feared for the future of Assam, Washington was the first number he dialled. The United States responded in hours, flying in weapons and equipment in an overt expression of support that was one reason why Beijing vacated captured Indian territory before winter closed the Himalayan passes.
Several US thinkers who believe India would turn to it again in any serious conflict with China find New Delhi’s stand-offishness inexplicable. They can understand why India remained aloof through its long embrace of the Soviet Union; through America’s opportunistic patronage of Pakistan; even through the years of technology sanctions after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. But now after the US-India civil nuclear agreement; Washington’s readiness to share with India defence high-technology that countries like Pakistan would never be given; and America’s “rebalance to Asia” that aligns both countries’ maritime interests, US policymakers and diplomats remain perplexed at New Delhi’s willingness to proceed so cautiously in forging ties of military cooperation.
There was nothing lacking in protocol during Mr Carter’s visit to Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval all met Mr Carter. He held discussions with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and they signed a 10-year defence framework agreement that was falsely hyped as a breakthrough. “This is just one more of many signs of what a positive trajectory we continue to be on with the defence community here in India,” said Mr Carter after his meetings.
Yet there was apparently little substantial outcome from the visit. The defence framework agreement remains undisclosed, unlike the 1995 and the 2005 agreements that were public. Defence ministry officials, speaking off-the-record, indicate it is – like the preceding two framework agreements – more an expression of common intent than a document that lists out actual cooperative measures.
The Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), too, seems to be losing steam. Mr Carter, in his earlier avatar as the Pentagon’s number two to Leon Panetta and Bill Gates, had personally promoted the DTTI as a high-level political body that would break down entrenched bureaucratic resistance in both capitals to increased cooperation. The DTTI was also intended to throw up “out-of-the-box” proposals for the US and the Indian laboratories and companies to collaborate in developing high-technology products. This was intended to “transition from a buyer-seller relationship to one based on co-production and co-development”.
Unfortunately, both sides view the DTTI differently. The Pentagon regards it as a strategic forum, above and beyond regular bureaucratic channels, for discussing transformative ideas that cannot be processed in regular bureaucratic channels. India’s defence ministry, in contrast, regards the DTTI with suspicion, convincing itself that Washington is using this mechanism to bypass regular procurement channels, pushing in products by the back door. Defence ministry bureaucrats I have spoken to express bewilderment at the notion that there is a strategic dimension to choosing defence equipment. They believe equipment should be evaluated based on its performance in trial evaluations, rather than on the strategic relationship that comes with the equipment, or even on aspects that become clear only later, such as operational availability percentages or maintenance costs.
Given this worldview, the DTTI is becoming an arena for competition, not cooperation. Proposals mooted by the Pentagon are pooh-poohed in South Block as less than high-tech (and, truth be told, many of them are). Simultaneously, the Pentagon views New Delhi’s proposals as overly demanding. An example is India’s desire for hot engine technology, which US engine makers say is hardly realistic given that this involves the fruit of billions of dollars and decades worth of fundamental research, design and development. Consequently, the DTTI is ending up validating both sides’ worst fears of each other. Furthermore, with the downgrading of the DTTI co-chairpersons – from number two in the defence hierarchy to number three or four – a body that was supposed to oversee and invigorate the defence bureaucracy has become bureaucratised itself.
The US-India defence relationship remains a sideshow and – even as political, diplomatic, commercial and intelligence cooperation proceed with fewer hiccups – the sporadic nature of defence cooperation hinders the natural development of a true strategic relationship. India’s political leadership must grasp that when the sole military superpower (and, despite China’s aspirations, the United States will remain so for the foreseeable future) proposes cooperation in the Indo-Pacific theatre, it is not just Indian-style political and diplomatic rhetoric. There is also an implicit offer to cooperate in creating Indian hard-power capabilities, which New Delhi must evaluate quickly and carefully. With the Indian Navy’s maritime doctrine placing central reliance on aircraft carrier-borne air power and introducing two near carriers in the immediate future, there should be no hesitation in drawing on the expertise of the world’s preeminent aircraft carrier power.
While China has no carriers to speak of (the Liaoning is not a serious vessel), the US Navy operates 10 nuclear-powered carriers of the Nimitz class. The first supercarrier of a sophisticated, follow-on class, USS Gerald R Ford, is nearing completion and Washington has completed contracting for its next carrier, USS John F Kennedy, which should join service by 2020. Following that will come USS Enterprise, incidentally the third American aircraft carrier bearing that name. All three incorporate the new “electromagnetic aircraft launch system” (EMALS), which replaces the older steam catapult with an electric motor. The EMALS launches fighters and larger airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft without the wear and tear caused by steam catapults, greatly enhancing a carrier’s domination over a wide area. The large electric power requirement of the EMALS logically dictates a nuclear-propelled vessel. The navy must choose between a conventionally powered carrier with less endurance and air power and a nuclear-powered vessel, featuring the EMALS, which could exercise sea control for decades to come.
The latter presents significant technology challenges, but Washington can be pressed to assist India in developing a nuclear reactor for aircraft carriers. This would mean a reactor more powerful and effective than what India has built for its nuclear submarine, INS Arihant. While the DTTI already has a US-India “working group” exploring cooperation in aircraft carrier technology, assistance in developing nuclear propulsion would require an Indian political-military request at the highest level, that is, from the Indian prime minister to the US president. That request must be made, in consultation with the navy. Second, Washington must be convinced that New Delhi will abandon its pathological fence sitting and assert itself as an aircraft carrier navy in the Indian Ocean and, if push comes to shove, in the Western Pacific. During Barack Obama’s visit to India in January, a “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” committed India to partnering the United States in “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. But there is still little conviction in Washington that New Delhi is willing to lock eyes with Beijing.