How the United States Can Maintain Its Dominance in the Pacific Ocean

Washington wants India’s help with naval logistics. But is New Delhi scared enough of China to sign the unpopular agreement?


Negotiations on sharing logistics and military bases in the Pacific Ocean have exposed the sturm und drang plaguing recent U.S.-India relations. In mid-April, during U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s trip to South Asia, he and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that the two countries had plans to sign an agreement known as a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) “within weeks.” Though details on the agreement remain scant, Carter declared that the Indian and U.S. armed services are now “operating together by air, land, and sea, collaborating on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and maritime security.” And by agreeing “in principle to share and exchange logistics,” the two countries would have the capacity to “do even more” in such missions.

This agreement would, presumably, grant each country’s navy access to the other’s naval bases and allow for expedited refueling and reprovisioning. But more than a few weeks have now elapsed since Carter’s trip — and there have been few signs of movement toward consummating a deal between the two administrations. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has come under fire from political opponents who object to any pact that might grant U.S. forces access to Indian soil. And thus it appears that New Delhi may have backpedaled on LEMOA in an effort to placate them. 

From a practical standpoint, the deal makes good sense for both the United States and India. Both have interests spanning maritime Asia. Both find it sensible to work together to contend with an increasingly brawny and bellicose China. And over the past few years, the United States and India have been collaborating on aircraft-carrier design, debating manufacturing fighter aircraft on the subcontinent, and generally expanding the scope of their high-seas cooperation. Pooling logistical support — thus extending both armed forces’ reach and staying power in distant seas — is part of that new spirit of partnership. Good things are happening. Why not then sign LEMOA?

But what makes strategic sense may flout political reality. Each action to tighten diplomatic or military ties between India and the United States summons an equal and opposite pushback from the Indian body politic. Call it Newton’s Third Law of South Asian diplomacy. India is a standoffish great power, mindful of its dominant place in the Indian Ocean region and reluctant to appear to defer to any other power. It also has a turbulent past vis-à-vis the United States dating to the Cold War, when New Delhi professed nonalignment but inclined toward the Soviet bloc. It takes time to get over past animosities, no matter how pressing the reasons for doing so. It may also take a push from a domineering China — a country that entertains grand ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea signals that a bellicose turn may be in the offing west of Malacca.

New Delhi and Washington must defy this law of diplomatic physics to allow bilateral ties to make the great leap forward strategic logic would dictate — rather than inching along, as they have in the past. This will remain true unless China poses a clear and present danger in the Indian Ocean — like it does now in disputed territory in the South China Sea — overcoming resistance to closer working relations.

What’s the big deal about naval logistics?

Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have wanted to conclude a logistics pact with New Delhi. Such an agreement would represent an important token of closer partnership between the world’s two largest democracies and a platform for bigger undertakings to come.

For the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, known collectively as the sea services, the case for pooling logistics is self-evident. Warships need fuel and stores every few days to remain at sea. Yet the U.S. fleet of combat logistics ships — oilers, ammunition ships, cargo ships of all varieties — is woefully small: Just 30 of these workhorse vessels support U.S. naval operations throughout the seven seas.

And even that figure exaggerates. Factor in the rhythm of training, routine upkeep, and major overhauls, and U.S. Navy task forces can count on, at most, about 17 logistics ships. Indeed, so thin is the sea services’ logistical margin that, if I were a hostile maritime power, I would put sinking U.S. logistics ships first on my wartime to-do list. Why bother assailing well-defended aircraft carriers or destroyers? Do away with the logistics fleet, and the combat fleet’s striking power wilts.

Navies cruising far from home, even if they have robust combat logistics fleets, also need bases. Oilers, for instance, have to refill their tanks at a base after dispensing fuel to the fleet. Nearly a century ago, Rear Adm. Bradley Fiske likened bases’ purpose to “supplying and replenishing the stored-up energy required for naval operations.”

To stay with Fiske’s physics simile, the fleet swiftly discharges its potential energy at sea. Smaller warships, such as cruisers and destroyers, defend aircraft carriers and other high-value units against air, surface, and undersea attacks. These vessels, with lesser storage capacity, quickly expend fuel, stores, spares, and ammunition. They must refuel every three to four days lest they exhaust their bunkers. A virtually inexhaustible fuel source drives nuclear-powered aircraft carriers through the water, but even flattops aren’t exempt from the law of logistics: Thirsty air wings demand jet fuel to stay aloft for aerial combat or routine patrols. By no means does nuclear power liberate carriers from their bases. The ship may be able to go anywhere, but it can accomplish little without regular resupply.

A fleet’s at-sea endurance, then, is far from infinite. It’s exceedingly difficult for the fleet to sustain resources over intercontinental distances. Replenishment vessels must themselves be replenished, and often. And if no combat logistics ship is nearby, the fleet itself must put into port to refuel and reprovision. In other words, it has to leave the fight — subtracting combat power and potentially placing the mission in jeopardy.

There’s also machinery upkeep. The capacity to refuel underway eases the fleet’s dependence on shore support, but major machinery repairs often outstrip its repair capability. Combatants feature modest welding, pipefitting, and machine shops, but only a shore depot can perform extensive repairs and maintenance. And indeed, every few years, U.S. vessels undergo protracted refits as part of their operating cycle.

Think of it this way: The relationship between the base, the logistics ship, and the fleet is like the relationship between the power outlet, your portable battery, and your portable electronic gizmos while on extended travel. You can recharge your devices for a while without searching for a power outlet, but the portable battery itself needs to be recharged once exhausted. At which point finding an outlet or USB port becomes your top priority. The combat fleet is the iPad or iPhone, the logistics ship the rechargeable battery, and a well-equipped harbor the power outlet. The more outlets — and the more strategically located near important operating zones — the better.

Without permanent bases, naval forces can improvise, however. During World War II, for example, the U.S. Navy built a massive fleet of logistics vessels, including not just replenishment ships, but also destroyer and submarine tenders: floating repair shops capable of conducting all but the farthest-reaching repairs to damaged hulls. Thus equipped, the Navy could create mobile fleet anchorages such as Ulithi, an atoll along U.S. naval forces’ route to the Philippines and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. Planting new logistics hubs along the U.S. lines of advance helped the U.S. military surge across the Pacific Ocean toward the Japanese mainland. This approach is viable during total war. In peacetime, however, naval forces cannot simply seize territory and convert them to refueling bases. Washington must court friendly host nations — like India — to gain access.

The Indian Navy likewise needs access to shore installations to voyage beyond the subcontinent’s immediate environs. Look at a map of Eurasia. The U.S. sea services operate mainly from logistics hubs such as Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. In other words, they’re positioned at the extreme east and west of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean theater. India is a peninsula of colossal proportions jutting into the Indian Ocean, occupying a central position along the sea lanes connecting Japan with the Persian Gulf.

While China’s naval buildup garners most of the headlines, the Indian Navy is a force on the move as well (albeit trailing its Chinese counterpart in numbers and quality of ships, aircraft, and armaments). Indian Navy spokesmen have projected a fleet of 200 vessels by 2027, compared to the 137 they have as of mid-2015. That fleet will include aircraft carriers (ships the Indian Navy has operated for decades); nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines; and a growing contingent of high-tech surface combat ships to defend carriers from aerial, missile, and undersea attacks.

Yet the infrastructure to support naval operations far from Indian coasts remains minimal. If India wants to operate at the eastern or western reaches of maritime Eurasia, it needs logistical support. If the United States wants to operate between those extremes, its sea services can benefit immensely from port access in that South Asian midsection. Reciprocal benefits beckon.

In other words, LEMOA will complete an arc of logistics facilities sweeping all the way from Tokyo Bay to Bahrain — helping the partners stage operations throughout the Indo-Pacific. (By similar logic, China has bankrolled seaport development at sites like Gwadar in western Pakistan and has commenced construction of a naval facility at Djibouti, in the Gulf of Aden.) The pact will give New Delhi the option to dispatch expeditionary forces beyond the Indian Ocean — say, to uphold freedom of navigation in the contested South China Sea. And it will help the U.S. sea services execute the nautical component of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, keeping naval forces on station where and when it matters.

And they do need to be on station more or less constantly. The sea services pivoted to East and South Asia under the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, which enjoined them to stage “credible combat power” in these waters for the foreseeable future. Forward-deploying U.S. sea power helps protect the system of liberal trade and commerce from nonstate adversaries — think Somali pirates, or gunrunners — and also from predatory states that, say, claim ownership of parts of the maritime commons. Hence Washington’s quest for logistical support.

Why the Indian pushback?

Clearly, India and the United States both benefit from LEMOA. Yet Indians remain palpably skittish about the accord. The document has been in the works for more than a decade, yet New Delhi can’t quite bring itself to close the deal. Indeed, during Carter’s mid-April trip, his Indian counterpart, Parrikar, announced only that “Secretary Carter and I agreed in principle to conclude a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in the coming months.” “In principle” is diplomatic shorthand for: This ain’t a done deal yet. Indian defense officials, furthermore, were quick to add that the covenant, if signed, would not grant automatic U.S. access to Indian bases. Still less does LEMOA amount to a military alliance.

New Delhi telegraphed that it would not sign away its freedom to say no to U.S.-led military enterprises that could ensnare India in regional conflict. And why would it? No one likes to issue blank checks, even to friends or allies. Political blowback follows failure as surely as night follows day: see War, Iraq, 2003. India would not be spared the blowback from a similar U.S.-led debacle. Nor could New Delhi escape the political splatter even if it merely acted as a silent partner, holding back any direct force contribution while supplying U.S. forces with fuel, stores, or spare machinery parts. It will take clear, painstaking diplomacy to explain U.S. purposes and strategy, overcoming likely Indian misgivings about martial ventures.

Indian leaders, in short, fear they could implicate their nation by joining the fray in any capacity. And Indian leaders also probably fret about pressure from China — which would never let them forget it if some operation went awry, hurting Chinese interests in South Asia. An errant venture could hurt New Delhi’s good name, damaging its standing with fellow Indian Ocean states. Worse, it might even embroil India in conflict with its neighbors. That’s why even the appearance of abridging India’s nonaligned posture makes officialdom queasy.

This understandable wariness reinforces Newton’s Third Law of U.S.-India relations. Just consider the partners’ past. India won independence from Great Britain in 1947, only to help found the “Non-Aligned Movement” in the 1950s. While ostensibly neutral, India tilted toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War — often bridling at U.S. naval actions in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi still tries to remain on good terms with Moscow — including by purchasing military hardware from Russian manufacturers. If tightening up ties with the United States makes strategic sense, Indian leaders’ desire to keep up relations with Russia helps generate an equal and opposite reaction slowing forward progress on initiatives such as LEMOA.

And there’s a long history of mutual suspicion and occasional animosity between Washington and New Delhi. To this day, for example, Indians will regale you with tales about the USS Enterprise’s Bay of Bengal cruise during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Indians interpreted the voyage as Washington’s ham-handed effort to intimidate New Delhi during a time of national crisis. Such memories linger, molding attitudes and reflexes toward bilateral martial endeavors.

For India, then, LEMOA is more than a workmanlike arrangement for two navies’ common benefit. It’s a symbol. Now, as always since winning its independence from Great Britain, India remains leery of entangling alliances, much as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson counseled the early United States to shun them. Nonalignment remains strong — especially among the opposition Indian National Congress, the party of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Gandhis. Modi cannot stampede such entrenched traditions with impunity.

India, moreover, is mindful of its stature as the Indian Ocean’s natural hegemon. The United States may be a friendly, English-speaking, democratic seafaring state. It’s also a non-Asian great power whose navy dominates India’s backyard. That rankles, even as New Delhi welcomes its help in policing regional waters and fending off the rival great power that is China. Neither the partners’ common English language, nor common heritage as scions of the British Empire, nor common form of government, nor common purpose of keeping order at sea will beget a formal alliance soon — if ever.

Only a truly overbearing China might overcome this rocky past. Indian leaders have voiced misgivings, for instance, about the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, a presence that is becoming more and more routine. They also worry that Beijing will transform its limited presence at places like Gwadar and Djibouti into a full-blown network of naval facilities — a precursor to a standing naval presence that encircles the subcontinent from the sea. Until China’s ambitions come into sharper focus, however, the push-and-pull dynamic between Washington and New Delhi will portend fitful progress and an uncertain outcome. This U.S. administration and the next must keep working toward an entente — but it must work at India’s pace, framing the rationale for naval cooperation in terms of India’s interests as India construes them. There’s no substitute for patient diplomacy toward this reluctant friend.

Image Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.