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Indo-US ties are still evolving
General (Retd) V P Malik
30 April 2007

Indo-US Defence Relations have seldom been as good as they are today. It’s a remarkable progress from the ground zero of May 11, 1998. Only once before I saw this kind of proximity: in the post Sino-Indian conflict period of 1962-64.

Defence and military relations are always sensitive to political and strategic shifts. And given the turbulent history of the last six decades in our political relations, and persisting differences over several important interests and policies, I would not like to take it for granted that these relations will remain sanguine.

So, how do I look at the current strategic partnership? It is clearly not a strategic alliance. ‘Evolving entente’ as defined by Devin Hagerty is a better word for it. The partnership will remain fluid. I do not see this turning into a strategic alliance because I doubt if India would let this strategic partnership dilute its strategic partnership with other nations and be perceived as a hedge against China, or accept the US policy of ensuring peace between India and Pakistan through a “military balance”. India will not let go of its strategic autonomy. As Ashley Tellis has put it: “Given its size, history and ambitions, India will always march to the beat of its own drummer.”

In my talk today, I will first point out some issues of political sensitivity, which influences the scope and pace of this cooperation, and then go on to make some suggestions on defence, military and defence-industrial relations.

India’s political class is strategically weak

Historically, India’s vast diversity has given us strong soft power. But the ability to generate hard power, and the will and ability to make use of that is not India’s strong point. We tend to remain internalised, fixing each other rather than fixing outsiders. There is too much of political infighting and too less political consensus. Most of our political leaders grew up conjuring the idea of a morally superior India; professing peace and harmony in a world where nations indulge in cut-throat competition. Value-based politics is morally superior. But that does not reflect the international realism.

But one cannot blame the political class altogether. The British never permitted Indian political leaders, or civil servants, to deal with defence matters. Even today defence and military experience is lacking in our political class. They are happy to keep such issues ‘under consideration’ or ‘Secret’. It’s one trait inherited from our colonial past.

‘Defence’ is a low priority area in the Indian mindset

India’s political priority has been, and shall continue to be, the socio-economic development of its people.  Defence is a low priority area. It gains importance and support only when there is a crisis. And its priority goes down as soon as the crisis blows over.

When dealing with a potential conflict situation, the Indian political and civil leadership tends to follow a restrained, consensual approach -- both at domestic as well as international levels. India’s primary effort invariably is to shape the security environment through cooperative peace rather than plan on the basis of inevitable armed conflict. I suppose, being a true democracy, such an approach is desirable. But since foreign policy is the primary instrument of strategy, the Indian military is often left out from the decision-making loop. It perforce has to work on reactive military strategies. This situation, however, is improving slowly.

Decision making in ‘Defence’ issues in India is tardy

In security and defence decision-making, consensus is necessary. But political polarisation, coalition governments, and Centre-state relations are making this more and more difficult in India; even chaotic sometimes. Indian political system and defence decision making is diffused -- influenced by many essential and sometimes non-essential factors. Defence also remains a sensitive issue. It, therefore, comes under very close scrutiny of the media, the opposition, and other watchdogs.

Colonial background has made Indians sensitive to foreign powers

Having suffered colonialism for centuries, there is a great deal of sensitivity and abhorrence for any possible foreign intervention in our national affairs. Most Indians are, therefore, very sensitive to seeing foreign troops, particularly of foreign powers, on or near Indian soil. Many political leaders have asked me why we need Indo-US joint military exercises. But they do not mind sending troops abroad for peace-keeping, or peace enforcement. We tend to follow double standards sometimes. However, I suspect that even a few body bags coming back to India would quickly make them change this attitude too. It happened during Operation Pawan. When we launched Operation Khukri in Sierra Leone, the prime minister wanted to know if there would be any casualties. That is a sensitive issue in all democracies.

American popularity

In American politics, there is a fair, though not complete, consensus on major US policies towards India. But that is not so in India. There are Left-wing and Right-wing Members of Parliament who are highly suspicious of US intentions and economic globalisation. For many of them, America may be a necessary partner. But it is not a likeable partner.

I recall that there was great enthusiasm in Washington DC when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Union Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji signed the ‘New Framework for the Indo US Defence Relationship’ on June 28, 2005. I was in Washington DC that day. But when Pranab Mukherji returned to India, due to opposition from coalition partners, he was politically compelled to underplay the Agreement.

Many of us are still apprehensive of the US tendency to apply its extensive and complex congressional laws and international obligations regimes to deny or stop defence cooperation. I experienced that during my service. Also, there are many who believe that American strategies tend to be shortsighted. The Americans tend to follow ‘hug and shrug’ policies.

Strategic divergences

Both India and USA have their respective strategic interests. There are divergent views on the world order, on Pakistan, terrorism, China, Iran and West Asia (Middle East). In many areas like China and Iran, India does not want to be regarded as an element in US strategy.

Defence and Military Relations

All my previous points notwithstanding, it is obvious that policy makers in both countries agree that a robust Indo-US defence relationship can play an important role in contributing to peace and stability in the region. Common interests listed in the ‘New Framework for Indo-US Defence Relationship’ of June 28, 2005 are:

  • Maintaining regional security and stability;
  • Defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism
  • Preventing spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials and technologies; and
  • Protecting free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes.

As guided by the ‘New Framework’, rapid developments in the Indo-US military-to-military relations have been the most visible aspect of the transformed Indo-US defence relationship. This is evident from the growing frequency and scope of bilateral exercises, seminars, personnel exchanges, high level and unit visits, officer and unit exchanges, as well as discussions on military technology sales and cooperation. With the recent US-Japan-India naval exercise, we have now entered the multinational level stage also. At present, the scale of such exercises is politically insignificant. I believe there is scope to increase such joint exercises up to a brigade equivalent level in the next five years or so.

The numerous joint exercises are indicative of the willingness to learn from each other and work for interoperability. To achieve this, the training events should now be focusing on aspects such as (a) Communications (b) Concepts and doctrine including peace-enforcement and peacekeeping, (c) Command and control structure, (d) Logistics/transportation capability including integration of airlift capability, and (e) Intelligence sharing.

Compared to the US military, the Indian military has less experience in warfare with high technology equipment and weapon systems. Therefore, Indian officers’ exposure to combined arms training in the US National Training Centre in California would be useful. The Indian military requires more knowledge in Information warfare and advance surveillance and stealth technology. That will contribute to refinement of Indian military war fighting doctrine, rapid force development, jointmanship, and even higher Defence management.

Indian military has invaluable operational experience in all types of terrain, dealing with sub conventional wars, conflict in ethnically diverse societies, and in international peacekeeping. They can benefit from the US experience of IED defeating mechanism in Afghanistan and Iraq and cyber terrorism.

Indians have vast experience in non-combat operations; like aid to civil authorities for maintenance of law and order, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and maintenance of essential services. These are essential aspects in the current nature of conflicts and come handy in the conflict resolution. The US military could benefit from this experience.
Now that Indian Navy is acquiring USS Trenton, Indian forces could do with more training and learning in amphibious warfare. Indian Navy could also learn how to carry out rescue operations for submerged vessels from the US Navy.

Recently, there has been some perception sharing by Defence Intelligence Agency officers from both sides. There was also a simulation exercise on the ballistic missiles Defence. I think there is greater scope for such cooperation. For better understanding of each other’s military doctrines, concepts, Rules of Engagement in different contingencies and general inter-operability, we can exchange instructors in some more military institutions.

With recognition of India’s strategic interests in Southern Asia, in addition to PACOM and CENTCOM, greater interaction between the Indian Integrated Defence Staff and the Pentagon needs to be institutionalized. We need to reach a stage where the military heads can occasionally talk to each other on telephone in times of crisis. The Indian Ocean Tsunami experience in this regard must be institutionalized.

Cooperation in Defence Industry

Recent reforms processes in India’s defence research, development, planning, procurements, defence finance and foreign direct investments and off-setting is a clear indicator of what Indian defence policy makers want in the field of defence modernisation and industrialisation. India is looking for modernisation as well as capacity building in its defence industry. It is a great opportunity for long-term cooperation and strategic partnership between the US and Indian research, development, and manufacturing establishments. I hope the US companies will make use of this to establish a long-term foothold in India, and not succumb to making one-time sale of finished products only. Off the shelf sale/purchases do not build long term partnerships.

My feeling is that collaborations between public sector establishments of India and private companies of the US are less likely to progress at the desired pace or levels. The US companies will be able to work more efficiently and profitably with Indian private sector partners. India’s new policies are encouraging the private sector now to invest and establish manufacturing units by itself or with foreign collaboration.

In the field of research and development, technology, particularly dual use technology issue, will remain the litmus test by which healthy relations will be measured. It would be in the national interest of both countries to waive regulations that stand in the way of greater high-tech cooperation.

Indo-US defence cooperation is still evolving -- evolving in response to the changing role of India as a regional power, growth of Indian economy and technology, and its attendant impact on the US regional and global interests. Both nations seek regional stability and want to keep away fundamentalist forces. Defence cooperation will thrive only if this is embedded in the larger context of bilateral relations and cooperation encompassing political, economic and military to military ties. The scope for defence cooperation will open up further, if the nuclear deal, currently under discussion, comes through.

* Former Chief of Army Staff, President, ORF Institute of Security Studies, New Delhi.