Moving forward after the recent decision on which combat aircraft to acquire, Washington and New Delhi need to develop a pragmatic approach to defence and security relations.
The Indian government's decision to choose two non-U.S. finalists for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition was, as one U.S. official put it, “a source of puzzlement and disappointment” for the government and defence industry. After putting forward two of the most formidable fighters ever deployed — and investing millions of dollars in the competition — neither Boeing nor Lockheed Martin was able to secure a place among the finalists in the selection process. Had they been chosen, the U.S. aircraft would have also provided a ladder to ever higher levels of U.S. technology transfer.
That said, while U.S. government and industry officials are dismayed over the decision, it should not inhibit the continued deepening of defence ties between the U.S. and India. The U.S. and India have made substantial progress over the past half-decade in this regard and it should be noted that fitful transitions to new partnerships are not new for India.
Ronen Sen, India's former Ambassador to the U.S., captured the dynamic well in his April 1 speech to the Institute of Defence and Security Analysis (IDSA) when he outlined the historical phases of India's defence relations with various countries, to include the recent ties with the U.S. Sen observed: “During virtually all these transitional phases there were initial reservations and resistance to changes in significant sections of our political, bureaucratic and, to a lesser extent, military establishments. The debate on the current transitional phase in our defence cooperation is thus not unprecedented.”
Level of uneasiness
However, while the debate goes on within the Indian government, there is a similar discussion going on within U.S. government and industry circles about what the future holds for the U.S.-India relationship. Most Americans fully understand that it will take persistence and patience to build this relationship. They also understand India's desire to protect its strategic autonomy and diversify its arms supply from a variety of sources. However, what is causing a measure of uneasiness within the U.S. is a sense that India may be viewing the relationship as transactional rather than a long term strategic partnership.
After concluding the civilian nuclear agreement, removing the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) from the U.S. Commerce Department's Entity List, and publicly supporting India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, there has been a sense of disappointment at the rate of progress. While defence deals for cargo and surveillance aircraft are welcome and important, there is an American desire to take the partnership to the next level where both sides can work more seamlessly on areas of common interests such as maritime security in the Indian Ocean, counter-piracy, and humanitarian disasters. Instead, Americans perceive their Indian interlocutors as largely focused on technology transfer, co-production, and building its indigenous defence production capabilities, with much less enthusiasm shown for how both sides might work together on issues of common strategic concern.
Moving forward after the MMRCA decision, both sides need to develop a pragmatic approach to defence and security relations that is rooted in practical cooperation rather than the next giant step, like the civilian nuclear agreement or the multi-billion dollar fighter competition. In the words of Under Secretary of Defence Michelle Flournoy, the U.S. and India need to move towards a relationship that is “normal, expected, and routine.” In this regard, the two countries should focus on initiatives that develop closer cooperation between the military services and foster a better understanding of how each government bureaucracy works.
Past instances of cooperation
While past instances of practical cooperation such as joint humanitarian efforts during the 2004 tsunami were notable, they are episodic and inconsistent. Both sides could start by developing procedures for cooperating on areas of mutual concern. For example, the Indian and U.S. navies, perhaps working through the U.S.-India Navy Executive Steering Group, could develop standard operating procedures for cooperating on humanitarian disasters, incidents of maritime proliferation, or counter-piracy. Developing such procedures is not dependent on signing defence agreements and would provide a practical way for both sides to deepen defence relations. Such practical cooperation would not impinge upon India's freedom of action; to the contrary, it would enhance India's ability to act as a provider of security and stability in the region and beyond.
It is also very important to remove bureaucratic bottlenecks that are impeding closer U.S.-India defence ties. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake recently said, the two countries need “to increase understanding of each other's processes, practices, and procedures to enable better cooperation in the future.” For U.S. government and industry, South Block can be a mystery with paperwork or actions held up for months without any indication of when decisions might be taken. Indian officials sometimes perceive the U.S. bureaucracy as a source of confusion and frustration with unclear and inconsistent rationale on why particular technologies are granted or denied. While both sides conduct a range of bilateral defence dialogues, there is still a significant lack of understanding of how the bureaucracies in New Delhi and Washington work (or don't work as the case might be!).
Finally, both sides need to refrain from trumpeting any particular defence initiative or defence deal as a litmus test or indicator for the relationship. This does not mean that there should be no ‘big ideas' of taking defence relations to the next level. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that in the case of U.S. and India, close defence relations need to emerge through routine interaction, rather than be punctuated solely by major defence deals or large exercises. Such an approach should be acceptable for India's domestic politics, mollify American demands for more practical cooperation, and keep Asia reassured about deepening defence ties between these two great democracies.
(Karl F. Inderfurth is Senior Advisor and Wadhwani Chair for U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Affairs from 1997-2001. S. Amer Latif is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as the Director for South Asian Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2007-2011. The views reflect only those of the authors.)