The visit paves the way for taking forward steps being taken after India’s designation as a Major Defence Partner of the US, and the Strategic Trade Authorisation tier I status, clearing the way for India’s access to a number of military and dual use technologies.
The visit of United States’ Defence Secretary to India has reflected a continuity in their approach towards strengthening the existing India-US defence cooperation. There is no denying the fact that the most constant and unstinted growth in the entire gamut of India-US strategic partnership has been seen in the realm of India-US defence cooperation. The way the bilateral cooperation got unfolded is becoming more visible and is evident in both nature and scale of cooperation. India-US military-to-military exercises across all domains and the burgeoning defence sales and purchase, which in due course will probably lead towards co-development and co-production, seem to be a testimony to their bilateral commitments.
The India-US Defence Framework Agreement has provided a strong base for both nurturing and intensifying the bilateral relationship. The evolving partnership is getting augmented because of the changing dynamics of geopolitics and also the shared threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific region. While the final days of the Trump administration saw the last of the foundational agreements, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) being inked, the new Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin paid an official visit to India within the first 100 days of the Joe Biden administration. This, more than anything else, signals the intent of the new US administration to take defence cooperation with India to the next level.
Austin’s visit paves the way for taking forward the steps being taken after India’s designation as a Major Defence Partner of the United States, and the Strategic Trade Authorisation tier I status, clearing the way for India’s access to a number of military and dual use technologies, coming under the US Department of Commerce’s regulations. The Obama era Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) is another milestone mechanism, designed to create synergy between India’s focus on access to American defence technology and America’s focus on opening new vistas of defence trade with India. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the 10th DTTI Group Meeting was held virtually. Among other things, the four joint working groups under DTTI focusing on the land, naval, air and aircraft carrier technologies, reflects the serious intent on both sides to promote joint projects in the respective domains. The meeting also led to a Statement of Intent (SOI) that highlighted the India-US dialogue towards outcome-oriented projects on defence technology cooperation.
Initiatives like the DTTI Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and the DTTI Industry Collaboration Forum (DICF) are very concrete steps not only in terms of identifying mutually beneficial cooperative projects but also in terms of realizing them through defined parameters. How the two governments can facilitate and promote industry-to-industry collaboration on defence materials, including in new technologies have been a major focus of deliberations. Efforts towards creating a more synergetic ecosystem between the defence industrial bases of the two countries will form the bedrock of the future of defence cooperation. India and the United States having signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) puts in place the kind of mechanism that is required for the private sectors on both sides to collaborate for several projects, spanning across the different domains of defence equipment. Moreover, the implementation of the India-US foundational agreements does pave the way for further discussions of the extent to which secure transfer of information and technology can push the bilateral cooperation ahead in this aspect.
There has been a quantum jump in the quantity and quality of defence sales and purchase between the two countries and efforts are being put through concerned agencies to take it further, precisely, to facilitate through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) processes in the United States. In a number of cases, India has been offered access to a number of defence equipment, which are otherwise under high-end regulatory mechanisms, and are offered only to America’s allies.
The militaries of the two countries, in service-to-service as well as tri-service formats have been carrying out a number of interoperability military exercises, aimed primarily at humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions. The joint Malabar exercise among the Quad members, India, the US, Japan and Australia as well as bilateral India-US Army exercises like the “Yudh Abhyas”, focusing on a number of areas of shared interest such as counter terrorism, show a cross-agency collaboration unlike anything seen before.
Moreover, India and the United States have been involved in training African partners under the United Nations Peacekeeping framework. Austin’s meeting with his Indian counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reemphasised the primacy accorded to the defence cooperation in the political leadership of both the countries, and its imperative in the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. In the joint remarks, Defence Minister Singh reaffirmed the strategic significance of India-US defence cooperation for a stable security architecture in the Indo-Pacific; and reiterated the wide ranging and comprehensive defence cooperation, that among other things, aims at enhanced cooperation with the US military commands and greater synergy in new domains like space and cyber.
How the United States will pave the way for culminating intangibles to tangibles especially in sharing knowledge as well as technological know-how in defence areas is forming a major part of discourse among the members of the scientific and strategic communities. The United States has now very much understood the emerging significance of India in the international system as well as the fact that the robustness in India-US defence cooperation will be in global interest. India will never become an ally of the United States, but will remain a committed friend and will keep enhancing mutual trust and confidence.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor of United States Studies and Chairperson of the Centre for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies at School of International Studies, JNU. Dr Monish Tourangbam teaches geopolitics and specialises in the US affairs at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal.