Super Hercules in the Himalayas

How the United States is strengthening defense ties with India.

Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images
Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

Last year, on an official trip to India, I had the opportunity to visit a manufacturing plant in Hyderabad that is assembling the newest variant of America’s long-standing tactical airlifter, the C-130J Super Hercules, as part of a joint venture between the American firm Lockheed Martin and the Indian firm Tata. When I returned to India this fall, I had the chance to meet with an Indian Air Force pilot who had successfully landed an Indian C-130J — and, just as importantly, taken off again — in the Himalayas at an altitude well above 16,000 feet. He briefed me on the aircraft’s crucial role in bringing relief to flood victims earlier in the year in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

On the same trip, I discussed with senior Indian defense officials a recently concluded bilateral military exercise undertaken by members of the Indian Army and soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. While training at Fort Bragg, representatives of our two armies jointly conducted scenarios related to a UN peacekeeping mission and practiced skills ranging from humanitarian assistance to air assault operations.

While none of these events garnered much outside attention, they are the product of years of work between the United States and India to overcome a historical legacy of differing approaches to defense, and are a sign of how far our relationship has come. They also typify the kind of below-the-radar, long-term relationship-building that is critical to the Obama administration’s strategic shift in focus toward the Asia-Pacific region.

To be sure, the rebalance to Asia is mostly a political and economic concept, not a military one. And in the military domain, most outside attention has focused on the Department of Defense’s recent presence and posture decisions, and our investments in the new technologies and capabilities that will enable us to continue to underwrite regional peace, stability, and prosperity — just as we have done for the past 60 years. But while the deepening of U.S.-India defense cooperation may not be as visible as some of our other efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, it is a key example of how the Department of Defense under Secretary Chuck Hagel is executing our role in the rebalance.

President Obama, who recently held his third summit in as many years with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has rightly described Washington’s relationship with New Delhi as "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century." From the conception of our new strategy, the United States has seen India as integral to a rebalance we’re undertaking not just to the Asia-Pacific region, but also within the region, as we complement existing partnerships in Northeast Asia with new bilateral and multilateral collaboration in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.  

As someone who has watched our bilateral relationship mature over a number of years, I’ve come to believe that the United States and India are increasingly natural partners on the world stage. Though we may not always share identical policy prescriptions, we do share a common set of values and objectives. These include a commitment to democratic governance and human rights; to free and open commerce; to a just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities of nations and fidelity to the rule of law; to open access by all to the shared domains of sea, air, space, and now cyberspace; and to the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.

Likewise, our interests overlap. From trade and investment to education, global health, energy, the environment, and defense, India and the United States share common goals on many of the world’s most pressing challenges and opportunities.

In the realm of defense cooperation, we’ve come a remarkably long way in a relatively short period of time. Today, the United States and India regularly hold senior-level bilateral consultations on regional security issues. Multilaterally, we’re each increasing our engagement with key bodies critical to the region’s security future, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and holding productive trilateral talks with partners like Japan. Our militaries train together on land, at sea, and in the air. And perhaps most impressively, our bilateral defense trade has grown from next to nothing at the turn of the century to billions of dollars today.

Ironically, and to the frustration of officials in both countries, this growing trade initially exposed the limits of what the United States and India could accomplish together, due to different approaches to defense trade and military technology during the Cold War that left us with two very different post-Cold War defense procurement systems. The Indian approach placed a heavy emphasis on indigenous development and production of defense goods, and privileged the import of technology that came without strings attached. Conversely, we in the United States had designed a defense trade architecture that prioritized stringent safeguards to protect our systems and technology from all but our most steadfast Cold War allies.

In order to overcome these differences, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced during his June 2012 visit to India that the Department of Defense would work with the Indian government on a new effort focused on strengthening and expanding our bilateral defense cooperation. This effort has evolved into the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTI), a joint campaign focused on streamlining and aligning our respective bureaucratic processes to make our defense trade simpler, more responsive, and more effective.

Through DTI, the United States and India agreed to a common goal of eliminating systemic obstacles, so that in the future our defense cooperation would be limited only by our respective strategic, independent decisions, and not by our respective bureaucracies and procedures. Though much work remains to be done, I’m encouraged by what we have accomplished thus far.

First, we’re adapting the U.S. export control system in order to more easily release sensitive technology to India. Export controls may be one of the more esoteric areas of defense policy, but because they enable U.S. partners’ access to technology that we must otherwise protect, they are also one of the most important. That’s why DoD’s decision to change its mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of "presumptive no" to one of "presumptive yes" is so significant.

Second, we’re taking aggressive action to speed responses by U.S. bidders when the Indian government issues requests for proposals. Within DoD, we’re streamlining our technology-licensing processes so that U.S. industry can generate faster responses and thereby be more competitive within the Indian system. Often, this means we complete anticipatory reviews of projects before they are even officially released. These changes not only lay the groundwork for more sophisticated cooperation, but make us more competitive for every sale.

Third, we’re growing our joint science and technology collaboration. American researchers who seek and find Indian partners in key research areas will receive priority funding for their projects, an incentive we’ve previously only ever offered to the United Kingdom and Australia.

Finally, in addition to maintaining a robust pipeline of defense sales, we’re taking unprecedented steps to identify innovative proposals for defense items that the United States and India can co-produce and, in the true measure of our common goal, co-develop. We’ve already proposed to our Indian counterparts several promising ideas from U.S. industry, including an unprecedented offer, exclusive to India, to co-develop a next-generation anti-tank weapon that would address a key requirement for both of our armies. And we’re committed to increasing our engagement with industry partners in both countries so that we can identify the best ideas to meet our
overlapping security needs.

As I come to the end of two years of service as deputy secretary, and nearly five years of service in the Obama administration, there are few accomplishments of which I am more proud than what the Department of Defense has achieved with India. Actions like those we’ve embarked upon don’t attract headlines, but they do increase collaboration, generate jobs both at home and abroad, and grow ties between two dynamic peoples. The systems, protocols, and, perhaps most importantly, trust we have established ensure that this progress will endure beyond my tenure and that of my Indian counterparts. In the long run, the United States benefits from an Indian military with all the capabilities it needs to meet its growing regional security responsibilities. Even as we face budget turmoil and political gridlock at home, working toward this goal — quietly, patiently, but ultimately effectively — is what the rebalance is all about. 

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