Since President Bill Clinton’s groundbreaking visit to India in 2000, enthusiasm about the prospect and potential for Indian-American defence cooperation has been tempered by the reality of a slow search for purpose and a path forward. Over the last two years, the Narendra Modi and Barack Obama administrations have managed to determine some purpose and reach some basic agreements, which now provide the basis for a real beginning.

While small steps are envisioned, it is also time for India and the United States to think big about their future military relationship. The world’s two largest democracies are now challenged by a China dictatorship seeking global strategic dominance, and by the spread of virulent jihadism. Delhi and Washington can work to contain both well into the future by uniting behind core principles and by accelerating project oriented cooperation to increase each other’s military strength.

Both have a core interest in defending democracy, a key mission for America for over two centuries, and a mission that Delhi must be encouraged to join and to help lead. India’s and America’s security would be affected profoundly if China were successfully to surround and neutralise India and destroy the US-led military network in Asia. The interests of both would be threatened were China to destroy the democracy in Taiwan, achieve its objective of controlling both the earth-moon system and the South China Sea lanes; or if ISIS were allowed to secure its Caliphate, which specifically includes the Indian subcontinent, from which to export its evil globally.

Defeating or deterring mutual threats does not require an alliance, but increasing cooperation can be grounded on shared principles and managed on a practical project-oriented basis. When implemented, three foundational India-US agreements, the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), and the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) provide a framework to go forward.

Perhaps most important for the near term would be to cooperate in the termination of ISIS. India’s willingness to contribute troops to fight ISIS under the auspices of a United Nation’s operation is most laudable. Delhi and Washington should work quickly to seek such UN sanction to facilitate an Indian military contribution. But in addition, both should redouble their intelligence sharing to counter radical Islamist forces in the greater South Asian region, from which radiate tentacles that reach into across Europe, Africa, and to North America.

Ideally, from the Mediterranean Sea to Northeast Asia, both India and the United States should be able to provide direct military or logistic support to each other to achieve discreet security objectives, as part of bilateral or multilateral military or humanitarian endeavours. India’s growing network of military interactions with the US armed services, Japan, Australia, and Southeast Asia provide a template from which to build. India should be a regular participant in the large US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, as India should consider leading a regular series of Rim of the Indian Ocean Exercises (RIOEX).

In terms of specific endeavours, it is necessary that the US help India to deter and contain Pakistan’s China-enabled nuclear threat. This threat is compounded by the spectre of Pakistan’s internal instability, which will only grow as increasing Chinese economic power in Pakistan sustains a status quo, which fuels internal conflict. It would be far better to devise a long term strategy for promoting economic and political freedoms in Pakistan, but deterring or responding to the horrors of a nuclear conflict must also become a cooperation project.

Similarly, it is necessary for India and the US to expand cooperation to contain nuclear and missile proliferation by North Korea and Iran. Again, China plays a key role in enabling both to become nuclear missile powers. China’s role must be exposed and its actors sanctioned, while there must be a far greater effort to prevent both from proliferating their increasingly sophisticated missiles.

As both India and the US share an interest in preserving maritime freedoms in the South China Sea, there is plenty of scope for coordinating the pursuit of mutually reinforcing objectives, to include outright direct cooperation. Delhi and Washington should join to convince ASEAN that China must dismantle its new island military bases in the South China Sea. Sale of maritime safety and military systems can strengthen weaker states in Southeast Asia and strengthen deterrence of China. India should be urged to conduct its own or join multilateral Freedom of Navigation exercises.

Such instances of cooperation should be strengthened by an ambitious programme of technology transfers leading to co-development projects, which early on enables India, and then both the US and India, to obtain future capabilities required to deter China.

Early projects that have been identified by Delhi and Washington include helping India with its indigenous jet engine technology, or helping India with aircraft carrier technology. As China’s 25-year intensive investment in military and commercial aircraft engines is now beginning to yield several engine programmes, it behoves Washington to help India obtain better mastery of this difficult technology.

It is also in Washington’s interest to help India with its next-generation aircraft carrier as well as designs for large amphibious projection ships like Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships. China plans a substantial fleet of carriers and LHDs for the 2020s and India should have a corresponding capability to both deter and to project force in defence of its near and distant interests.

Carriers and LHDs also require combat aircraft. Washington reportedly has considered selling India the ability to co-produce the fourth generation F/A-18 carrier fighter. But depending on Indian requirements, the US should also consider selling India its fifth generation F-35. Should a version of the F-35 be determined to meet future Indian requirements, Delhi should be offered “partner” status so that India will benefit from participation in the global F-35 concern.

One element of future carrier cooperation could be a US decision to share electromagnetic catapult launch technology.

This is advisable because it not only can simplify India’s carrier design, but it also points toward larger cooperation in the area of energy weapons. Some Chinese experts envision the longstanding military paradigm dominated by chemical explosives changing to one dominated by laser weapons by about 2030. Indian research toward energy weapons should be aided by access to US technology.

Technical cooperation could be multilateral as well. An early project to consider could be the creation of an information, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) network that initially might include South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam, with India and the US. As they are able, member states could pool long range radar, space surveillance, and electronic/signals intelligence, to create a common and intimate China-wide picture of its military activities. This would help deny China the option of concealing war preparations at opposite end of its territory from its intended target—one result of its most recent set of military reforms.

Eventually, military-technical cooperation should evolve into full partnership co-development of next-generation military technologies and systems.

India, Japan and the US eventually will require a C-130-size transport aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing, to more rapidly move decisive forces. In the last decade, the US started and then cancelled such a programme, but it should be revived as a US-Japan-India co-development programme.

Finally, both Delhi and Washington should cooperate to ensure that China does not dominate the earth-moon system, from which it hopes to then control and dominate conflict on earth. Early US-Indian military space cooperation could include helping India to greatly increase the resilience of its satellite networks from Chinese attack. As China deploys offensive military capabilities in space, both the US and India should be ready to join with other concerned states to build appropriate deterrent space combat capabilities.

Though it may seem very distant from Indian national development priorities in 2016, there should be planning now with Washington and other concerned states to counter expected Chinese military base building on the moon.

China’s military moon base building could start as early as 2030. In sharing the expense of building a Western deterrent moon presence, India’s national space programme could benefit, such as by the development of new heavy space launch vehicles. Such a vision for Indian-American military cooperation will not be without controversy in Delhi and Washington. Getting to the stage of preliminary military cooperation has already required the moving of political mountains.

But this early stage in cooperation has been encouraged by real threats of today, which in most cases will only worsen quickly. Considering a larger vision for cooperation today can only help make it a reality tomorrow.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, and author of China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach, Stanford University Press, 2010.


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