By Richard Rossow —
This week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made his second visit to India since becoming secretary of defense in February 2015. The strategic community had fairly high expectations for the visit, particularly as it became apparent that three “Foundation Agreements” that will widen the aperture for defense cooperation are under serious consideration. These expectations were largely met, with new or expanded work streams related to joint exercises, technology sharing, and research. The agreements signed during Carter’s visit will provide critical momentum as we head into the final months of the Obama administration.
In 2015, the United States and India made a great deal of progress in elevating the ideological baseline for their security partnership. These shared goals were clearly articulated in the historic “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.” Simultaneously the two countries found a path forward in the “Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI),” launching four pathfinder projects and two long-term working groups (aircraft carrier and jet engine technologies). A few months later the two governments renewed and slightly revised the “Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship” and signed project agreements for two of the DTTI pathfinder projects.
Secretary Carter’s recent visit to India featured a series of key announcements that build on the stronger ideological framework from last year, including “in principle approval” of the long-debated Logistics Sharing Agreement (renamed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, or LEMOA), new “pathfinder” projects under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, a new Navy-to-Navy discussion on submarine safety and antisubmarine warfare, and a new maritime security dialogue including senior officials from both the Department of Defense and the Department of State, together with their Indian counterparts. The Joint Statement also noted that the United States offered proposals to build two fighter platforms, the F-16 and F-18, in India under the “Make in India” campaign.
The proposal that India sign the “Foundation Agreements” was first raised nearly a decade ago. The agreements include LEMOA (previously called the Logistics Supply Agreement, or LSA), Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA). But negotiations were quickly put on the shelf after India’s leftist parties managed to mischaracterize the agreements as impinging on India’s sovereignty. Surprisingly, the echoes of the leftists’ campaign live on in the writings of many pundits. Luckily, their voices are less prominent now. This is due to a decline in fortune of the leftist parties in India, in addition to a bit more appreciation of the form and function of the foundation agreements.
While DTTI projects are meant to offer an avenue for the United States to jointly modernize existing equipment, Secretary Carter’s visit resulted in four new agreements to bring India in on the development process for future defense programs. These projects are Atmospheric Sciences for High Energy Lasers, Cognitive Tools for Target Detection, Small Intelligent Unmanned Aerial Systems, and Blast and Blunt Traumatic Brain Injury.
India’s promise as a significant security partner will not be realized immediately. We will likely see continued cooperation and coordination in humanitarian assistance, counterpiracy activities, and intelligence sharing. But any form of deeper operational cooperation is unlikely until some point further into the future, fueled by a mixture of shared strategic interests and robust capabilities.
Today the United States and India’s interests are more closely aligned—or, more correctly, they have been more clearly articulated—than ever before. But the two countries are at very different capability levels. The United States has taken a forward-leaning posture, helping to strengthen India’s technological capabilities without demanding some type of reciprocity. Such patience and restraint are not usually considered dominant American characteristics.
A year from now, the United States will have an entirely new set of leaders. Contrary to an oft-repeated mantra, support for the U.S.-India strategic partnership can, at times, be quite thin on the U.S. side. This is not because there is a divergence of interests on Asian security issues, but rather because global crises constantly pull U.S. interests in other directions. India is not yet a critical player in these global crises, and the U.S.-India relationship can quickly suffer from neglect. Having substantive, recent progress in cementing the long-term strategic relationship will provide much-needed wind at our backs as the United States goes through a leadership transition. Secretary Carter’s visit was certainly successful in this regard.
Richard M. Rossow is a senior fellow and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.