External Affairs

The India-US Defence Partnership is Not Out of the Political Woods Yet

Without India clearly articulating its own blueprint to enhance indigenous capacity, agreements like the LSA and CISMOA will be susceptible to political undulation.

Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter address a joint Press Conference at South Block in New Delhi on April 12. Credit: PTI

Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter address a joint Press Conference at South Block in New Delhi on April 12. Credit: PTI

The India-United States Joint Statement on the visit of Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter reflects the Indian government’s continued reluctance to sign the “foundational” defence agreements on the table. Virtually no sticking points remain on the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) or the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA) – even the most contentious clauses that could draw India into major US-led combat operations are conditioned on sovereign consent – suggesting that India is yet to muster the political appetite to sign them. Indeed, this task could now be left to the Prime Minister himself during his visit to the US later this summer.

The LSA and CISMOA are barebones agreements and hardly a negotiator’s nightmare. Both these agreements offer sufficient room for India to protect its strategic autonomy, argue Indian officials, but their political masters appear to have developed cold feet, shelving the LSA for now. Given that the National Democratic Alliance took these agreements out of deep freeze and placed it at the centre of the India-US strategic partnership, it cannot be exculpated of its responsibility to sell them to the Indian public. The LSA and CISMOA have not been debated on their merit, and if closer strategic engagement animated these agreements, the Indian establishment has not offered a convincing defence to sign them.

The Indian negotiating line on the Logistics Support Agreement is simple: in the coming years, New Delhi expects to step up its engagement with “low intensity” scenarios such as maritime piracy, WMD proliferation and humanitarian emergencies in the Indian Ocean region. This expectation stems from an understanding that the US will gradually recede from its “smaller” commitments, as it turns its undivided attention towards the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. India sees the LSA as a backbone to support its imminent and expanded role as the “net security provider” in the region, hoping to access not just US military bases in the Indian Ocean Rim and Horn of Africa but also in the South China (Philippines) and East China (Japan) seas.

If this is an ambitious and forward looking objective, it must be clearly articulated. From a transactional perspective, the United States arguably is not dependent on the LSA, just as India’s current operations limit the need for American bases in the Asia-Pacific. As others have noted, India has in the past offered overflight rights to the United States during Operation Enduring Freedom, and refuelled US aircraft during the 1991 Gulf War, all in the absence of the LSA. Joint military exercises, where both parties may use the other’s military bases for refuelling or servicing, are possible without a framework agreement.

Indian negotiators also see the LSA as a small but significant step in the evolution of the 2015 India-US Defence Framework. Its predecessor, the 2005 Framework, may have been foreshadowed by the India-US nuclear deal but its trigger was the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The Indian Navy’s relief and assistance efforts – which were faster and more effective in reaching US assets – “changed the US mindset” about Delhi’s regional role. India’s decision to negotiate the LSA is therefore based on an overtly strategic premise.

The CISMOA requires careful treatment on its own merits, given that it may have the unintended consequence of locking India into the US defence technology market. India would have three main concerns with an interoperability agreement for advanced communications equipment with the United States:

  1. Who can install, and more importantly, “patch” communications systems in platforms sold to India? Will this be done exclusively by US officials, and if so, what will be their level of clearance to enter Indian installations?
  2. Will India be able to jointly develop “keying materials” – or algorithms to encrypt sensitive communication – with the US for platforms sold to New Delhi? Where will these be stored?
  3. Can the CISMOA, by setting the terms for interoperability, lead to US-India cooperation in the sale and development of more advanced technologies in electronic warfare?

The first two questions are important but they raise concerns that can be addressed (if not already) in the negotiating text of the Memorandum. For instance, the Indian Army is well-positioned to conform to or absorb platforms that use advanced encryption standards set by the US National Institute of Science and Technology or the National Security Agency. It is really the promise of future cooperation in advanced technologies that appeals to Indian negotiators. By itself, CISMOA cannot lead to the transfer or development of electronic warfare equipment but India hopes that the agreement will set the stage for India’s entry into export control regimes. The growing capabilities of both Pakistan and China in asymmetric, electronic warfare motivates this objective. Much has been made of the sale of P-8is (maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft) to India without secure communications equipment in the absence of a CISMOA, but it’s really the co-development of technologies that India hopes will be the eventual outcome of this agreement. Like the LSA, then, the CISMOA serves a strategic purpose.

The third agreement, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial information), adds another layer of concerns regarding the mapping and collection of data by private companies that provide support to US forces. But as similar agreements — the US-Norway BECA is one example — illustrate, adequate safeguards can be built into the text to address any misgivings. Geospatial intelligence offers US forces unparalleled advantages in Afghanistan and Iraq, but for India it can play a crucial role in assessing and responding to humanitarian emergencies in South Asia. More importantly, the expectation is that the Indian public and private sectors are finally able to co-develop their capacities in this field.

All three agreements clearly serve long-term goals for India, making it incumbent on the government to explain why it wants to hedge its faith in the United States. This is where the National Democratic Alliance has come a cropper, because it has not convincingly explained how the agreements facilitate India’s interests, rather than responding to criticism that New Delhi is moving closer to a “US alliance”. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar recently suggested that India needs a “bolder” foreign policy that will invariably “unsettle status quo”. There is certainly a case to be made for sharper strategic manoeuvring, but it has not been made in the context of the defence agreements. The United States may be seeking a greater convergence of interests but India has its own reasons to negotiate these agreements.

Privately, Indian officials believe that Russia’s dwindling economy will eventually reduce the state’s capacity to produce cutting edge defence equipment. With China, Beijing’s strategic embrace of Pakistan and India’s own territorial disputes make it a less attractive supplier of advanced equipment. But above all, India’s defence relationship with the United States appears to be premised on the hope that the organic linkages that both countries share on civilian technology will be carried over to the military on the shoulders of agreements like the CISMOA. The eventual goal of co-producing sophisticated technologies is not far-fetched because US-based Indian scientists and engineers have played an important role in the development of American defence platforms as well.

This ambiguity and lack of political direction is presumably the reason why a key chapter on “strategic partnerships” was held back from the new Defence Procurement Policy released last month. The Indian government’s vision for engaging its domestic private sector will also determine  the course of international partnerships. India needs to agree on a model that incorporates the best of all defence production models: private sector-led (US), state supported (France/Israel) and state-led (Russia). Without a clear articulation of its own blueprint to enhance indigenous capacity, agreements like the LSA and CISMOA will be susceptible to political undulation, which explains their non-signing during Sec. Carter’s visit. The delay may well be a blessing in disguise, because India’s interests will hardly be served if it has not clinically assessed the costs and benefits of signing these agreements.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.