Six years on, a mixed record of implementation, but military sales hold the key

Most observers of the Indo-U.S. relationship remember 2005 for the civil nuclear initiative that was launched during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington in July. But the ‘New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship,' which was signed at the end of June 2005, was just as path breaking — at least for the U.S. government, which saw expanding military cooperation as central to the growing ties between the two countries.

Leaked U.S. Embassy cables, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, provide an unparalleled insight into the military and strategic considerations that drove – and continue to drive – U.S. administrations towards seeking closer ties with India. There is the sheer size of the Indian market for weapons imports, estimated by U.S. diplomats to be worth more than $27 billion in the ‘near term' alone. There is also the promise of a closer working relationship with the Indian armed forces in the Asian region.

Towards ‘interoperability'

In 2005, the United States felt it was on the cusp of a big breakthrough. It eagerly looked forward to the sale of a major military platform like the multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) and an Indian willingness to sign up to “foundational agreements” that would allow U.S. forces to access Indian facilities and build “interoperability” with the Indian armed forces. But if the cables reflect Washington's sense of elation at the fact that “for the first time, India can afford (politically and financially) to purchase front line US equipment,” they also capture its anxiety, impatience, and frustration when the Indian side pushed back on various fronts or failed to respond enthusiastically to insistent American demands.

Mixed results

Whatever the promises held out by the 2005 defence agreement, the actual balance sheet today is a mixed one. The U.S. has made considerable headway on military sales; it hopes still to achieve that “breakthrough sale,” especially after striking an understanding in 2009 on end-use monitoring (EUM). But its pursuit of interoperability and access has not yielded the desired results.

The cables reveal that the Indian method is never to say ‘No' when asked by the Americans about the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) or the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). Indeed, when pressed by U.S. diplomats, senior officials and Ministers blithely assert that the internal review process has “nearly” been completed and that the Cabinet will “soon” consider the texts. But these agreements remain unsigned despite five years of assurances. A senior member of the Cabinet described for The Hindu, Defence Minister A.K. Antony's jocular response when a ministerial colleague asked how he dealt with the American pressure to sign. “We have not said no,” he recalled Mr. Antony saying. “But I tell them, there are soooooo many procedures. We have to follow alllllll the procedures!”

This resistance cannot be traced to any firmness shown by the Indian government as a whole or the bureaucracy as an institution. It cannot, in fact, be attributed to any single factor. But the primary reason for the mixed balance sheet has been democratic opposition in the polity and public life of the country, to which influential sections of the media have also contributed.

Backstory to Pranab's 2005 visit

At the start of 2005, the U.S. believed the time had come to make a big push. The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) that the Bush administration had launched the previous year in tandem with the National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had already established a framework of mutual undertakings in which India and the U.S. would move the bilateral relationship forward. In the initial phases, India undertook to bring its export control and end use verification procedures for dual use items in sync with U.S. requirements, while the U.S. side would lift some export restrictions, provide a classified briefing on missile defence and allow India to buy the Patriot system.

Post-tsunami

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 provided an opportunity to open other doors. Impressed by the speed and nature of the Indian military response to the humanitarian disaster, India was included in the “core group” of the U.S.-led Combined Support Force (CSF-536) operating out of Utapao, Thailand. It asked for, and got Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to agree to send, a liaison officer to the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) in Camp Smith, Hawaii, for the first time (cable 25338: confidential, dated January 13, 2005).

From arms sales to interoperability, a glimpse into the politics, economics and military aspects of a work in progress.

In a secret cable on “Challenges and Opportunities in 2005” sent shortly after, Ambassador David C. Mulford noted how the largest-ever naval exercises held in 2004 had laid the groundwork for the unprecedented post-tsunami cooperation between the two militaries (cable 26463 dated February 4, 2005: secret). He told Washington that the Indian Air Force had extended the deadline for the U.S. to submit a bid for the 126 MRCAs and advised the Pentagon to leverage the engagement that had gone on so far in to commercial gain: “This represents the best opportunity we have had in years to cap three years of successful exercises and other military engagement with a decision to seriously compete in India's annual $14 billion defense market....”

Strategic allies

A month later, a New Delhi Embassy cable sent under the name of Mr. Mulford provided Washington with the crucial insight that its military sales pitch would only work if it were connected to the wider economic and technology benefits the Indian side hoped to harvest. “At this juncture, it is critical that we devise a strategy to strengthen appreciation in the Indian bureaucracy of the economic benefits derived from a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S. Our strongest advocates will be the economists who are running the government, not the traditional military establishment” (cable 29616 dated March 28, 2005: confidential).

The U.S. message had to be simple, he suggested: “That [it] is a reliable strategic partner for defense co-production, technology sharing, and joint research. Using military sales as the platform for cooperation will catalyze development of India's defense sector, spin off new industries, catalyze economic growth, and create jobs.” In addition to breaking bureaucratic mindsets on both sides and involving the private sector, Mr. Mulford proposed the establishment of a ‘Defense Production Cooperation Group' that would “lay the foundation for direct interaction among Indian and U.S. business leaders aimed at creating corporate structures as the basis for defense cooperation, beginning with a few discreet projects.”

In stressing the need to emphasise co-production and technology sharing, Ambassador Mulford showed he understood India well. Three days later, Pranab Mukherjee, who was Defence Minister at the time, told him that “defense equipment sales while important, do not carry the same strategic significance as co-production/technology transfer and that this type of arrangement will establish a long-term sturdy relationship” (cable 29834 dated March 31, 2005; confidential). The Ambassador agreed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had just been to Delhi and announced the American desire to help India realise its goal of becoming a world power in the coming years. “Energy, military cooperation, space and defense sales were the key areas where the US seeks to assist India in assuming its place as a world power in the 21st century,” Mr. Mulford told the second-ranking Minister in the Cabinet.

A U.S. Embassy cable sent a few days later as a “scenesetter” for PACOM commander William Fallon's visit to India tried to tie the various strands that had emerged so far on the Indo-U.S. defence front. Dr. Rice had told the Indians the U.S. government would authorise American aircraft like the F-16 and F-18 to take part in the MRCA bid. Her visit, the secret cable said, “has produced the most substantial agenda for US-India cooperation ever” (cable 30136 dated April 5, 2005: secret). Noting that “military ties have developed into one of the most important and robust aspects of the US-India bilateral relationship and have often led the dramatic improvements in relations that we have witnessed since the end of the Cold War,” the cable flags the need for the two countries to establish a new framework for defence engagement that could transcend the limitations of the 1995 Agreed Minute on defence cooperation and take the security relationship to a new level.

Apart from flagging the usual thrust areas — arms sales, exercises, cooperation in the Indian Ocean – the cable says “one key administrative goal we need to complete to further advance our defense cooperation programs is completing the ACSA which [U.S. Pacific Command] PACOM has been trying to get signed for close to three years... Recommend you stress with Mukherjee and other officials the importance of getting this signed.”

Wary of ‘political dynamite'

That the Pentagon had been pushing for an Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with India is well known but the Fallon cable also reveals that the Pentagon had, at some point, toyed with the idea of going a step further and seeking ‘Cooperative Security Locations,” or CSLs, in India. A CSL is a military facility located in a “host nation” with prepositioned U.S. equipment and little or no permanent U.S. presence that can be used at short notice for counter-terrorism, interdiction, and other American security tasks.

As far as the New Delhi Embassy was concerned, however, India was simply not ready to embrace such a proposal: “DoD is looking to extend its air transportation fleet reach to world regions that to a great extent were previously unconsidered. Indian airfields and ports hold tremendous potential for CSLs. However, we have not broached this idea with the GOI, nor do we think it can soon be deployed during this divided political climate in Delhi. We believe the ACSA with India has remained hung up within the Indian system because of concern that ACSA implies granting basing rights. We spend a great deal of energy disabusing them of this misconception. We are close to resolution on ACSA, but the idea of CSLs would be political dynamite here as the opposition parties and Left would exploit this against the ruling party. We still have a difficult time gaining approvals for PACAF TERPS to access airbases because of Indian security sensitivities” (cable 30136 dated April 5, 2005: secret).

What was feasible, the Embassy believed, was Indian membership of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the U.S.-led counter-proliferation campaign to interdict ships on the high seas suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction or their components. India had already expressed interest in joining the PSI, provided it was made a part of the “core group” and the coalition's activities were consistent with international law. Getting India into the PSI would help bring it “into the global counter-proliferation community and [change] India's historic role as a regime outsider,” the revealing cable noted, adding that Indian membership was a priority as far as military cooperation is concerned “since it has unique assets it can bring to bear in this region.”

Countering the sceptics

In the run-up to Mr. Mukherjee's crucial visit to Washington in June 2005, American diplomats eager to assess the extent to which India might be willing to enter into a closer military embrace were unnerved by the generally sceptical tenor of Indian media coverage.

In a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, MEA Joint Secretary S. Jaishankar, who is currently India's Ambassador to China, commented that since Dr. Rice's meetings in New Delhi on March 16, “the actual changes (in the bilateral relationship) are more profound than the optics of change” (cable 31045 dated April 19, 2005: confidential). “He urged a greater focus on changing the ‘Indian optics,' which he described as being ‘ more entrenched in skepticism' than in the US”. In particular, Mr. Jaishankar described “defense correspondents as the most dubious of change in the Indo-US relationship” and suggested a top U.S. general speak to them during his forthcoming visit in order to “make in-roads into this constituency.”

Shifting the burden

The American diplomats saw this as a ploy to shift the burden on to them, and suggested instead that the problem was scepticism within the Indian establishment. They expressed concern about “public comments from some GOI sources that reinforce doubts about US reliability that may negatively impact the IAF decision,” recalling a recent meeting between the head of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta “where the HAL chief made harsh comments about US unreliability.”

There was “scepticism in the system,” Mr. Jaishankar acknowledged, but said doubts about the U.S. were aired only by an “articulate minority.” The “silent majority” in government “is neutral or positive,” he asserted. “He also pointed to ‘conversions' such as Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash who had been doubtful about the US as a partner only a few months ago, but had ‘ turned around' as a result of his visit to the US in March.”

‘Once in a decade opportunity'

On the eve of the Defence Minister's visit to Washington, the U.S. Embassy sent a “scenesetter” cable to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. It wrote up Mr. Mukherjee, who was “in effect, the Deputy Prime Minister, and we believe he aspires to the top job. By demonstrating our understanding of his influence beyond the military realm, it may be easier to advance our defense-related objectives.” Signing the “Framework for US-India Strategic Defense Relationship” was one deliverable it identified upfront.

The Minister's visit was taking place “at a time when the goal of establishing a key strategic relationship...with one of Asia's rising giants...is becoming reality,” the cable noted, laying out specific objectives “we can advance during his visit...in light of Mr. Mukherjee's position as de facto deputy PM” (cable 35111 dated June 21, 2005: secret). These included the “strategic” objective of getting India into the PSI as a full member and emphasising “the importance of a deeper defense relationship in the context of our broader strategic relationship with India, highlighting the opportunities presented by a larger FMS [military sales] relationship while addressing concerns about US reliability as an arms supplier [and] pressing for negotiation of an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA)....”

Crucial, too, was the pursuit of a “breakthrough arms sale.” The “pending obsolescence of much of India's Soviet-origin equipment,” the New Delhi Embassy asserted, “will create once-in-a-decade opportunities for foreign suppliers” and if the U.S. could address Indian concerns about its reliability as a supplier, this would “lay the foundation for a breakthrough arms sale.”

Such a sale was “key to deepening our mil-mil relationship and to developing the military interoperability that will help our strategic partnership realize its potential.” But “despite the US lifting of sanctions in 2001,” the cable lamented, “we have not yet achieved a breakthrough sale of a major platform.”

Defence Framework

The new Defence Framework by the U.S. was signed on June 28, 2005, though in its final avatar, the word ‘strategic' was removed from the title along with language from the draft text that the Indian side felt was too sweeping. As Ambassador Mulford had recommended, a Defence Production and Procurement Group (DPPG) was set up to address Indian concerns about the need for a link between arms sales and technology transfer. The two sides undertook to “work to conclude defence transactions, not solely as ends in and of themselves, but as a means to...reinforce our strategic partnership.” Ambitious language was also used to envisage collaboration in “multinational operations,” a concept elastic enough to include humanitarian operations like tsunami relief as well as more muscular actions like PSI-style interdictions.

‘Don't even talk to us about SOFA'

Independent of the high expectations the agreement aroused within the U.S. defence and political establishment, the Indian side returned to Delhi with what they considered to be a singular achievement: “ US acceptance of India's desire for co-production and technology transfer.” The American priorities, of course, lay elsewhere – on effecting actual big-ticket sales and pushing the mil-mil agenda of interoperability. The U.S. Embassy took heart from the robust defence both Mr. Mukherjee and Prime Minister Singh mounted of the new framework agreement in Parliament in the face of criticism from their Left coalition partners. “PM and DEFMIN scoff at Leftist criticism of U.S. defense ties; we should, too,” was the title of a triumphalist post-mortem cable (36415 dated July 12, 2005: confidential). Again, it was left to Indian officials to sound a word of caution. Mr. Jaishankar of the MEA warned the Charge D'Affaires that “the Left attack on Mukherjee had been more furious than expected, and cautioned us not to underestimate the challenge the UPA will face in accelerating defense ties.”

The point was driven home less than a month later when U.S. officials tried to raise the possibility of India signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) granting protection and immunity to U.S. military personnel present in India for exercises and other mutually agreed activities. The MEA strongly discouraged them from doing so (cable 38759 dated August 18, 2005: confidential).

Since 2005, the proposal to sign ACSA has been dropped in favour of the LSA. But India is not yet ready to commit to that agreement or the CISMOA or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), which the U.S. says are essential for any transfer of sensitive electronics and avionics. On all of these agreements, a senior Indian official told The Hindu, New Delhi has told Washington “Don't call us, we'll call you.” Moreover, despite demonstrating a willingness to take part in “PSI-like actions,” India refuses to join the Initiative, citing legal difficulties.

The MRCA tender is still being evaluated but what has moved ahead is arms sales. Through standalone FMS purchases of a landing dock ship and maritime reconnaissance heavy lift aircraft, India has already spent (or committed to spend) more than $10 billion on American hardware.

The End Use Monitoring (EUM) obstacle was also overcome in July 2009 with the initialing of agreed language on inspections and permissible use of U.S.-supplied equipment. Nevertheless, a secret “scenesetter” cable sent by the U.S. Embassy to Under Secretary for Defence Michelle Flournoy at the end of October 2009 — the most recent cable in the WikiLeaks archive to deal with defence matters in detail – paints a cautious picture of the state of play with India on the defence front.

Even if the U.S. was dissatisfied with the current level of interaction with India, it should take comfort from the fact that this was making a difference and that “our relationship with India is more robust than that of any other country India partners with,” the scenesetter cable notes (232002: secret, October 29, 2009). The way forward lies in “nudging India to expand their commitments by signing the foundational agreements and by moving forward with military sales [which] will provide opportunities for a sustained relationship far more robust than exercises and exchanges. If we can continue our trend of major military sales, we will cement a relationship for the next several decades with the most stable country in South Asia.”

Khaki good, khadi bad?

In an interesting twist, the Flournoy scenesetter and another 2009 Embassy cable addressed to Hillary Clinton blamed India's civilian leadership and bureaucracy for slowing down a relationship that the military brass was keen to accelerate: “India's bureaucracy remains stove piped and slow-moving, and in many instances populated by senior officials who came of age during the Cold War, steeped in the ‘ non-aligned' rhetoric of the 60s and 70s, and perhaps afraid to take forward leaning stances…While the Indian uniformed leadership of all three Services, and in particular the Indian Navy, appreciate their improving ties with the United States military, bureaucratic inertia and recalcitrant officials in the Ministries of External Affairs and Defense continue to complicate attempts to improve the partnership” (216716 dated July 15, 2009: secret/noforn).

As for politicians, the Flournoy cable was blunt: “All of the PACOM theater security cooperation objectives can be implemented only with the acquiescence of the civilian leadership which, at times, appears to be at odds with the services' mil-to-mil desires. Specific examples include Minister of Defense Antony's rejection of the multilateral Malabar exercises despite the Indian Navy's preference for them.” It also complained about the 2008 decision by India to cancel the ‘Morning Dew' military intelligence exchange agreement and the MEA's delay in authorizing the Indian military to take part in a joint US-Indian response to the 2008 disaster in Myanmar “until it became moot.”

This secret cable sent under the name of Ambassador Timothy Roemer, noted that the “civilian leadership continues to defer on key foundational documents necessary to move the US-India mil-to-mil relationship closer.” This, the ambassador noted, was “for fear that the political opposition would seize on it to further their often repeated claims that India is sub-serving its foreign policy to that of the US.”

‘Unreliable supplier'

Even if it chose to see a civilian versus military split in attitudes with the former painted as the bad guys, the New Delhi Embassy acknowledged that Washington's ability to seize opportunities in the military field was limited by the belief that the U.S. would not prove to be a reliable supplier. This was because, as rival suppliers had put out, it imposed sanctions in the past and had a close defence relationship with Pakistan. “Although, as our overall relationship improves, the GOI seems increasingly less concerned on this point, one source told us the Indian Army will never put US equipment in Divisions facing Pakistan because they expect the US will stop military supplies in the event of Indo-Pak hostilities.”

This observation, which suggests residual suspicions even within the military, underlines the obstacles the U.S. knows it needs to surmount in order to realize its goal of a close defence relationship with India. As Washington looks to harvest major gains, Mr. Mulford's insight conveyed in his confidential cable (29616:confidential) of March 28, 2005 may well prove prophetic: “Our strongest advocates will be the economists who are running the government, not the traditional military establishment.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via WikiLeaks.)