New Delhi: India has been deftly playing all sides since the January 4 killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, but a series of defence pacts could severely limit its ability to say a firm “no” should the US request Indian military assistance if hostilities in the Gulf escalate.
These pacts have been negotiated and/or signed through successive regimes in both the US and India from the time that A.B. Vajpayee was prime minister, through the Manmohan Singh tenures and now the Narendra Modi administration.
The Indian Navy on January 10 deployed its carrier battle group led by the INS Vikramaditya to the North Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the Persian Gulf, alongside which Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (operations), Vice Admiral M.S. Pawar has been embarked. The unscheduled deployment marks a new level of seriousness on events in the Gulf.
On the morning of January 11, India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) prototype carried out the first test of landing and taking off from the Vikramaditya even as the carrier is in operations.
The deployment may be benign because the flat-deck (carrier) can accommodate more people than other ships/aircraft for evacuation of its nationals – estimated at some 8 million. Even in 1991, India had to execute the largest airlift of its citizens from West Asia.
The economic cost for India would also be huge if it has to stop importing oil from Iran. But it is the military calculus that might emerge that will put New Delhi between a rock and a hard place.
This week, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper telephoned Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh. It followed conversations between US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Modi and talks between the two foreign ministers.
“Secretary Esper briefed defence minister about the recent developments in the Gulf Region. The defence minister shared India’s stakes, interests and concerns,” a statement from the defence ministry said.
Among the India-US defence pacts – some of which are described as “foundational agreements” – are, first, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (G-SOMIA), followed by the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and, as recently as last month, an Industrial Security Annex (ISA) between the Pentagon and the India defence establishment.
While India’s stated interest in signing these pacts has been that they would facilitate defence technology infusion for its domestic industry, it is the LEMOA that specifically allows the US to use Indian military facilities. The rider is that the decisions would be taken on a “case-by-case basis”.
The use of Indian facilities, if permitted, would not be unprecedented. In August 1990, the Chandra Shekhar government permitted US military aircraft flying from the Philippines to refuel at Bombay, Chennai and Agra. But it led to a furore with even the largest partner in the then coalition government – the Congress(I) led by Rajiv Gandhi – threatening to pull out and the Left objecting to the move. The refuelling continued for about six months before the Indian government withdrew the permission to avoid being seen as part of the US-led Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield) against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s forces had invaded Kuwait.
Beyond that, India in 2001 offered use of its facilities to US-led forces for the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the attack on India’s parliament. But the US was heavily reliant on Pakistan mainly because India does not share a border with Afghanistan (except a sliver of land along the Wakhan Tract that is in PoK, territory that New Delhi does not control but claims).
In 2003 again, the US asked India to be part of the coalition forces that invaded Iraq but India’s Parliament condemned the invasion. Then prime minister Vajpayee had apparently told opposition CPI leader A.B. Bardhan “thoda ooncha boliye” (speak a little louder please) so that the US would register the protest.
India has never deployed troops abroad since its own experience with the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka that met with tragic consequences in 1987. Indian troops have been deployed only in UN-mandated “blue helmet” operations or for military exercises under a UN charter.
In the last two decades, however, India is involved with an increasing and the largest number of joint drills with US forces, all of which have had “interoperability” as the objective. These have involved the armies, navies, air forces and marines of both countries.
These military interactions with the US have increased and intensified even as India’s military interactions with Iran have decreased. Till a few years back, India would even service or help repair Iranian submarines. Their navies enjoyed a certain compatibility because both operate Soviet/Russian-origin boats.
Despite years of sanctions, however, Iran demonstrated that it can still target bases in Iraq that house American troops more or less accurately. Even if the Iranian missiles that struck the bases in Al-Assad and in Erbil in retaliation for Soleimani’s “killing” (or “assassination”) are said to have not resulted in casualties, the fact that they could penetrate defences in the way they did would make both US and its coalition forces nervy.
This would, if hostilities escalate, make stand-off attacks on Iranian targets possibly the first choice for the US with aircraft and/or missiles. That would increase US requests for use of military facilities outside West Asia.
The US has facilities across West Asia but they would need to stay out of the range of Iranian missiles because a ground war with an enraged Iran would further complicate the quagmire. So deep is Iranian hatred for the US that students in Tehran University still walk into campus by treading on the US flag.
Sujan Dutta covered the Kargil War for the Telegraph.