The Indian-US Defense Partnership: New Steps Forward


By Richard Weitz

The inaugural meeting of the U.S.-India ‘two-plus-two’format that met on September 6, 2018 in New Delhi made substantial progress in deepening and broadening the bilateral defense relationship.

Now the challenge is to seize the opportunities generated by the new format.

The September 6 meeting brought together Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Indian Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Prime Minister Modi and President Trump launched this new two-plus-two dialogue format during their summit in Washington last June.

As Sitharaman noted, the recent progress in defense collaboration confirms Modi’s observation that “India’s relations with the United States has overcome the hesitations of history.” These were quite evident in India’s de facto alignment during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and U.S. sanctions against India for its nuclear weapons program.

It has taken two decades to overcome these obstacles, beginning with the lifting of U.S. sanctions in 2001, the 2004 Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative launched in 2012, and the 10-year framework agreement on bilateral defense cooperation that was adopted in 2005 and renewed in 2015.

Furthermore, Indian and U.S. officials have signed several major defense cooperation agreements designed to build an enabling foundation to broaden and deepen the security partnership.

The first major bilateral military accord was the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) adopted two years ago.

At the “two-to-two” meeting, the ministers finalized the bilateral Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which has been under discussion for more than a decade. The COMCASA will allow the Indian military to employ the most secure links on U.S.-provided defense equipment when they communicate with the U.S. armed forces.

Unlike the earlier LEMOA, a type of accord that Washington has negotiated with some 80 countries, the U.S. has such secure military communications agreements with fewer than 30 other countries.

Sovereignty concerns made New Delhi reluctant to sign these admittedly intrusive agreements.

However, the Indian armed forces’ interest in employing more advanced U.S.-origin weaponry, sharing intelligence with the Pentagon on mutual threats, and achieving greater interoperability with Western countries as well as between the Indian services apparently overrode these objections.

Though the additional hotlines established at the meeting between the defense and foreign ministers are primarily symbolic given the many other ways the two governments can communicate, the newly enhanced Indian military engagement with the Central Command will strengthen shared Maritime Domain Awareness between the two navies in the vital Persian Gulf region.

The United States is already India’s most important defense training and exercise partner—Indian holds more military exercise with the U.S. than with any other country—but last week’s decision to go beyond single-service exercises to include, the first time, a tri-service joint exercise in 2019 off the eastern coast of India represents a more realistic “joint” format of how modern militaries normally now fight modern conflicts.

Since India is not a formal U.S. military ally, the Obama administration created a new category, equivalent to that of a non-NATO ally without using that sensitive language, of “Major Defense Partner of the United States” to facilitate arms sales and bilateral defense collaboration.

Building on this, the Trump administration recently promoted India to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Tier 1 Strategic Trade Authorization level, which allows Indians to purchase many hi-tech “dual-use” U.S. products without applying for specific licenses or using a streamlined process.

Given this progress and the broad purpose of the inaugural two-plus-two session, it is unsurprisingly that no specific arms deals were announced at the September 6 meeting.

Still, the COMCASA’s entry into force will allow Indian armed forces to acquire U.S. armed drones to strengthen their Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities over the Indian Ocean.

The Trump administration agreed to supply the UAVs in principle last year despite Pakistani objections.

Since there is a limit to the number of turn-key major U.S. weapons systems that India will buy, the future clearly lies in deepening defense industrial cooperation at an earlier stage in the process, with greater integration of India’s increasingly important private military sector into joint research, development, and production.

As a timely example, shortly before the “two-plus-two” meeting, Lockheed Martin announced that its Indian partner, Tata Advanced Systems Limited, would build the wings for all its future F-16s.

For this reason, “the Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to continue to encourage and prioritize co-production and co-development projects through the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and to pursue other avenues of defense innovation cooperation such as the Memorandum of Intent to promote cooperation between their two defense innovation agencies.”

It is also important to make progress on the newly launched negotiations on a bilateral Industrial Security Annex, which will complement the existing Indian-U.S. General Security Of Military Information Agreements by encompassing the Indian private sector.

According to Minister Sitharaman, the U.S. side agreed to New Delhi’s request to designate a DOD point of contact “to help address procedural complexities and facilitate Indian companies to join the manufacturing supply chains of the U.S. defense companies.” India, meanwhile, should raise its defense FDI ceiling to international standards and relax some of its onerous offset requirements.

The parties still need to implement the last of the foundational enabling accords, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), for cooperative geospatial intelligence collection and the sharing of satellite navigation data.

Other future steps should include expanding the Malabar, Quad (including Australia and Japan as well as India and the U.S.), and other multilateral military exercises to engage more participants, including European navies that have been sending warships on some prominent recent freedom of navigation operations in the contested international waters off China.

Besides stationing more personnel at major defense headquarters, the Indian and U.S. governments could exchange civilian professionals through mutual defense education and training in order to enhance the conceptual readiness of the two militaries to cooperate on joint missions.

It is noteworthy and welcome how the bilateral defense relationship has become institutionalized.

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter both prioritized improving U.S.- Indian military ties. There has been as well the double postponement of the first “two-plus-two” dialogue.

Yet the two defense bureaucracies, previously an impediment to progress, have now under the surface worked successfully to sustain it.

The featured photo shows U.S. Navy, Indian Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidons staged at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise 2018. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kevin A. Flinn/Released)

In our recent interview with Air Commodore Craig Heap, the cooperation among the Aussies, the Indians and the Americans was highlighted with regard to the P-8.

Question: Your P-8s were clearly at the Exercise, even though they were not under your command in your cAir Component Commander role.

How did they operate with the other P-8s, namely the USN and Indian Navy P-8s?

Air Commodore Heap: Seamlessly.

“We demonstrated  the  clear capability for the US and Australian Mobile Tactical Operations Centres to work closely together, optimizing synergies.

“The Indian Navy P-8’s were operated from the same tarmac at Hickham, with their operations element collocated next to the USN and RAAF Mobile tactical Operations centre.

“All P-8 teams ended up working very well with each other in the tactical operations space.

“The Indian Navy aircrew and maintenance personnel were highly professional and clearly comfortable with advanced airborne ASW concepts as well.

“RIMPAC also provided a rare opportunity to exercise significant multi-national airborne MPRA assets, P-8s and P-3 from the US, Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, in the conduct of Theatre ASW, (TASW).

“The P-8s in particular  are a force multiplier in this piece, the overall objective of which is to deny or deter an adversary submarine force from affecting our friendly forces.”