The South Asia Channel

U.S.-India Defense Ties: A Delicate Dance

Defense ties between the United States and India have seen a marked improvement, but both nations need to address some hurdles to maintain the momentum.

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - JUNE 3: US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter lays wreath in the honour of the soldiers at Amar Jawan Jyoti war memorial at India Gate on June 3, 2015 in New Delhi, India. India and US is expected to sign a new 10-year defence framework, which was decided during the visit of US President Barack Obama in Delhi in January. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Supporters of the U.S.-India defense relationship have had a lot to celebrate in recent weeks. After a three-year wait, last week the Indian government finally inked an agreement to procure 37 helicopters from Boeing worth about $3 billion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also permitted the U.S. military to recommence their search for remains of World War II servicemen in Arunachal Pradesh. Even the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI)—a key mechanism to deepen defense cooperation which had been languishing since its inception in 2012—has finally moved forward in the last few months. However, both nations need to address some operational and strategic hurdles that remain to ensure the success of the initiative. At an operational level, more input from the Indian armed services needs to be incorporated when selecting and developing projects, as they will be the main customers of these technologies. Further, both nations would benefit from adjusting expectations on the pace and depth of their collaboration. These measures are crucial, given that defense cooperation is a cornerstone of U.S.-India relations.

The Defense Technology Trade Initiative was the brainchild of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter while he served as deputy under the previous secretary, Leon Panetta. The program was developed with the intention of maneuvering bureaucratic roadblocks in order to enable increased defense trade and cooperation between the two countries. Over time, it has added co-production and co-development of defense equipment and weapon systems to its core objectives. For about three years, there was virtually no progress. The United States proposed 17 projects for collaboration, but India was unresponsive, mainly due to dithering by former Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony.

The pace of the trade initiative has picked up under the Modi government with India offering projects of its own, and both sides identified four “pathfinder projects” during President Obama’s New Delhi visit in January. Agreements for two of these projects were officially announced during Secretary of Defense Carter’s June visit to India. Apart from the four near-term projects, the United States and India also agreed to discuss two long-term projects, setting up working groups on aircraft carrier and jet engine technology cooperation. The first meeting of the aircraft carrier working group took place in August, while the other group is in the offing.

However, trouble with at least one of the pathfinder projects exposes a larger problem. A few months ago, media reports suggested that one of the projects, the Raven mini-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) did not satisfy the Indian Army’s technical parameters, especially the altitude at which it operates. Soon after, reports emerged that as part of the DTTI program, U.S.-based AeroVironment and India-based Dynamatic Technologies are working on Cheel, an upgraded version of the Raven with capabilities that appear to meet the Indian army’s requirements, including the altitude requirement. This change in strategy could have been needed because the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO)—the primary agency that vets defense technologies for India—is not always in alignment with the armed services. Therefore, it seems plausible that DRDO screened the Raven without adequate consultation with the Indian army, which explains why the drone does not meet army requirements.

Disconnect between DRDO and the Indian armed forces is nothing new. The military has been quite scathing of the organization in the past, and has even rejected a large number of their projects for not meeting requirements. A 2011 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India revealed that only 19 percent of DRDO projects actually went into production. Interviews with insiders indicate that slow information flow between the armed forces and DRDO is indeed seen as a hurdle to the India-U.S. initiative. In addition, there have been instances of Indian bureaucrats and top government officials declining DTTI projects, being unacquainted with the military’s needs. As the end-user of many of these technologies, the military needs to have more direct input in selecting them and be engaged throughout the development process. The U.S. government should push the Indian defense ministry to facilitate direct, high-level interaction between American defense companies and the Indian armed services.

At a strategic level, what is holding DTTI back may be something historically emblematic of U.S.-India relations: mismatched expectations. Some Indian analysts have criticized the initiative, dismissing the technologies on offer as unremarkable, while a defense ministry official called it “a channel to help American companies to bypass competitive procurement and multi-vendor tenders.” The technologies may be relatively unambitious, but that is partly because both sides have deliberately chosen simpler projects to sort out any teething problems. However, the larger picture is that the United States’ main intention behind DTTI is strategic closeness, but India’s may not be. The U.S. position has been amply clear in U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall’s comments, linking capability acquired through the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative to a broader Indian role as a security provider regionally and globally. The Modi government seems eager to embrace a bigger international role and a stronger partnership with the United States, but India has traditionally preferred flexibility in its strategic options. This includes maintaining thick defense relationships with Russia, Israel, and France.

At a recent press conference on the first U.S.-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said: “A main take away from our discussions includes our shared view that we need to keep the big picture, the strategic framework of the relationship in mind.” That is what both countries would do well to remember, but they need to understand that it may mean different things to the other. Before it offers more sophisticated, high-end technology, the United States may expect India to demonstrate evidence of being a close partner. However, India may still not be ready.

New Delhi should decide to what extent it wants to be strategically bound to the United States, and define the scope of the international role it wants to play as part of that partnership. Meanwhile, Washington should exercise patience in the near to medium term, and realize that India’s decisions on DTTI projects may be equally driven by its need for defense modernization. Thus, projects may be rejected if they do not have clear technological benefits. Until then, both nations should temper their expectations on the initiative.

Resolving these issues is pivotal, because when all is said and done, the United States and India do have a similar strategic worldview. Both have natural long-term interests in balancing power in Asia, and their shared objectives should drive cooperation, considering that the China-Pakistan defense relationship is gaining prominence. The Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, the main instrument of defense cooperation between the two countries, is the means to that end.

Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Akriti Vasudeva is a former journalist and a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, with a master’s degree in Asian Studies. She is currently a researcher at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C.

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