Strengthening the Indian-U.S. Defense Partnership


By Richard Weitz

The next U.S. presidential administration should build on the positive legacy of the Trump administration in strengthening the Indo-U.S. security ties.

The two countries recently held the third round of their yearly “2+2” defense and foreign ministers’ dialogue in New Delhi, continuing a process launched in 2018.

From October 26-27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met their Indian counterparts, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, in New Delhi.

That the meeting occurred immediately before a U.S. presidential election, and in person rather than by video link, testifies to the importance of what the two countries designated a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership this February.

Another sign of the improving partnership has been how both countries’ national security establishments have embraced the “Indo-Pacific” term that has defined the administration’s key Asian-focused strategy documents as well as the rechristened U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Similarly, the administration succeeded in de-hyphenating U.S. policies towards Pakistan and India—addressing both countries beyond their mutual antagonism

The main achievement of the meeting was the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA). It represented the last of the so-called foundational defense agreements, which the United States often signs with important U.S. military partners.

The BECA allows the two countries to share real-time geospatial, geodetic, geophysical, geomagnetic, topographic, nautical and aeronautical data consisting of images, maps, charts, intercepts, and other data. These are invaluable for informational awareness, navigation, precision targeting for long-range strikes, and other important military tasks.

The BECA further permits the United States to equip U.S.-supplied aircraft sold India with sophisticated avionics and navigational aides as well as sell platforms like drones that already incorporate such systems. These also will better enable the Indian armed forces to strike terrorists better as well as track Chinese naval forces and remote land border regions, which in turn also boosts U.S. interests.

The BECA builds on three earlier Indo-U.S. foundational defense agreements. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed in 2002, permits the exchange of classified information.

India and the United States needed another decade to reach the next three accords due to concerns in India about aligning too closely with the United States—however growing Chinese assertiveness helped overcome these qualms.

In 2016, India and the United States signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which permits the U.S. and Indian military to access each other’s supplies, services, and facilities. In September, a U.S. Navy P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) refueled at India’s Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, marking the first operationalization of the LEMOA.

Two years later, they signed a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). It allows the two militaries to engage in protected data exchanges (upgraded to include secure video teleconference capabilities) and gives India access to state-of-the-art U.S. communications technologies and equipment.

These agreements have promoted mutual interoperability based on U.S. standards, enhancing the attractiveness of U.S. arms sales to Indian policy makers. They have also enabled the Indian armed forces to strike terrorists better as well as track Chinese naval forces and remote land border regions, which in turn will also boost U.S.’s interests.

These agreements have promoted mutual interoperability based on U.S. standards, enhancing the attractiveness of U.S. arms sales to Indian policy makers. Since the beginning of this century, the U.S. government has authorized more than $20 billion in weapons sales to the Indian armed forces. Some of the most important systems include MH-60R Seahawk and Apache helicopters as well as the C-17 Globemaster, C-130J Super Hercules, and P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft.

Indians still complain about undue constraints on U.S. defense technology transfers, despite the launching of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) in 2012. The Initiative aims to enhance India’s access to advanced U.S. defense technology as well as further joint R&D by removing legal and bureaucratic obstacles to defense industrial collaboration. Yet, even these projects have predominately remained in the pilot stage.

India and the United States plan to convene a meeting later this year to overcome some of the bottlenecks inhibiting progress of the DTTI fast-tracked projects supported by the Industrial Security Annex. This augmentation, signed last December, protects classified U.S. military technology information transferred to India. (India received the U.S. Strategic Trade Authorization-1 designation in August 2018.)

The bilateral exercise program has continued to expand beyond single-service binational Army, Navy, Air Force, and Special Forces’ drills. Last year, the Indian and U.S. armed services held Tiger Triumph, which was their first tri-service drill. Their navy drills have included Japan and Australia. Earlier this month, the four countries (all members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) participated in the Exercise Malabar drills in the Bay of Bengal, which will move to the Arabian Sea later this year.

Cooperation against terrorism remains an important feature of the Indo-U.S. partnership. The United States has provided India with important intelligence about terrorist threats from Pakistan and, more recently regarding its territorial clashes with China in 2017 and 2020.

This September, the India-U.S. Counter Terrorism Joint Working Group held its 17th session. Their focus has been on Pakistani-based terrorists such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

At these sessions, the Indian and U.S. representatives have exchanged information about terrorist designations and sanctions as well as means to impede terrorist financing, recruitment, and cross-border movements. They have also called on Pakistani authorities to punish those responsible for previous attacks on Indians and for the adoption of a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

India and the United States have extended the geographic coverage of their defense partnership by expanding the number of liaison officers deployed in each other’s major commands. For example, a U.S. liaison officer has been working in the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR).

Meanwhile, India has assigned an officer at the U.S. Navy Central Command and may soon post liaison officers at the USINDOPACOM and USSOCOM. Minister Singh said that the liaison officers, empowered by the foundational agreements and other measures, would aim “to enhance our information sharing architecture.”

The new U.S. administration should continue these initiatives and extend them to additional areas such as:

  • coordinated vetting of their defense supply chains;
  • developing secure 5G technologies (building on the first India-U.S. Defence Cyber Dialogue on September 17);
  • expanding their dialogue to the cyber and space security domains;
  • consider ways in which they can attract other militaries to their drills; and
  • support capacity building in nearby regions such as Africa.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy, Indian Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidons are staged at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise 2018.