May 25, 2006

What India wants from US

What India wants
By Christopher Griffin

Begin with two countries that are allied with each other’s nuclear adversaries. They spent the Cold War in opposite camps, one emerging as the free world and the other rallying a “nonaligned” movement against superpower politics. The two have bickered over nonproliferation issues for 30 years, one trying to preserve the status quo, the other challenging what it derided as “nuclear apartheid.”
Is this the basis for a beautiful strategic partnership or what?

The Bush administration has come to believe that it is. Indeed, during the last five years, the administration has gradually lifted sanctions on dual-use and military sales and permitted security cooperation with Delhi, reversing a host of policies imposed in the wake of India’s 1998 nuclear tests. This under-the-radar courtship culminated in July 2005 with the so-called “nuclear deal,” under which the U.S. will support India’s civilian nuclear program. With this step, the White House exponentially increased its strategic bet.
The nuclear deal also touched a nerve of opposition to this radical departure from longstanding policy. As the administration went to Congress for the approvals needed for the nuclear deal, a variety of voices, including senior statesmen like former President Carter and former Sen. Sam Nunn, weighed in against the passing of U.S. nuclear technology to India.
On the presumption that one should never share fissile material with strangers, I visited India earlier this year to see how this strategic partnership is shaping up on the ground.
The timing of my trip was lucky: I arrived as India was publicly debating whether to support a U.S.-led effort to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. India has longstanding ties to the Islamic Republic and many Indians questioned whether it was a good idea to abandon a fellow nonaligned government. Conversely, for American skeptics, India’s alliance with Iran was clear evidence that Delhi cannot be trusted. When U.S. Ambassador David Mulford warned — accurately, albeit undiplomatically — that India’s failure to cooperate on Iran would be “devastating” for the nuclear deal, Indian pundits exploded into criticism of American interference.
In principle, my first stop in Delhi was the perfect venue to discuss the question of how to square India’s longstanding ties to Iran with its new strategic partnership with the U.S. The Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, an elite foreign-ministry-funded think tank, was holding its annual Asian Security Conference on India’s relations with the Middle East, or in deference to the local nomenclature, “Southwest Asia.” I would see Indians talking to Indians, not performing for an American audience.
Alas, my hopes for a nuanced discussion of India’s emerging security strategy, or indeed any other issue, were immediately dashed. Early speakers set the tone for the conference when they declared that U.S. efforts to “dominate” the region had done “no good and much harm” and presented India with “a choice between harmony and hegemony” in international relations. Later speakers would alternate between lambasting America’s Middle East policy as oil-grubbing and defending India’s relationships with such countries as Sudan and Iran as necessary in the face of Washington’s efforts to “squeeze India out” of the global energy market. Not the sort of stuff the Bush administration has been touting.
But as the conference wrapped up — and as my despair peaked — one of the organizers took me aside and said: “Ignore everything you’ve just heard.” He explained that although Indians criticize the U.S. and the Singh government, they privately support closer relations with Washington. Indian intellectuals would require more time before they could break free of vestigial mistrust of America and embrace an emerging strategic partnership.
While it initially sounded as though he was apologizing to a dinner guest who had been insulted, the more time passed, the more I saw his point.
In both capitals, the public debate on U.S.-Indian relations is too often obsessed with the bogeymen of the past. Whether it is the fear that India can only be developing ballistic capabilities in order to target the U.S., or apprehension that the current nuclear deal is just another Yankee ploy to undermine India’s strategic ambitions, public, political dialogue — what bureaucrats call “track two” — this is has not caught up to the “track one” diplomatic agreements between the two capitals.
This perception gap is dangerous because it creates political pressures to limit the scope of a strategic partnership that’s barely begun, and which may unravel the progress of the last five years. As one Indian diplomat warned when I asked about the cost of failure to carry out the nuclear deal: “Anybody who expects that, if this deal doesn’t go through, then the morning after will be the same as the day before, will be wrong. ... The next time there is a tsunami disaster, we might not take your call.”
In sum, it is more than possible to destroy the potential of the partnership, and destroy it fairly quickly. This is because the partnership is starting from a weak position: Although officials in Washington and Delhi recognize the necessity for greater cooperation, there have been no major “deliverables” that skeptics would demand in exchange for closer ties.
Indeed, a near-term focus is the major source of confusion in Washington and Delhi; witness the proliferation of litmus tests and ultimatums. This U.S.-Indian relationship should not be judged in terms of immediate deliverables, but the gradual convergence of national interests. This is the essence of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s characterization of the U.S. and India as “natural allies.” Although there are strong reasons for the relationship to come to fruition, it can only occur with concerted, sustained effort.
Trends indicate that over the next 20 to 50 years, India will emerge as one of the world’s great powers. And the Bush administration believes that as Indian power grows, Delhi will assume greater responsibility for regional and international security. India shares Washington’s support of democracy at home and abroad, opposition to international terrorism and concerns about the security of the sea lines of communication upon which the world economy depends. Philip Zelikow, the State Department official who has been one of the key architects of the Bush administration policy, said the goal is “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.”
Bharat Verma, publisher of Indian Defense Review, explained the Indian view of partnership to me: “We won’t hand over strategic autonomy to anyone, but our strategic autonomy does not conflict with American interests.”
But just because India’s rise will not conflict with American interests does not mean there won’t be differing priorities or diverging perceptions. Thus, the challenge for American strategists is to shape India’s understanding of its own power, of its own growing strategic interests, of its role in the world. An essential means will be to tie U.S.-Indian cooperation into those fields where India’s abilities are growing most rapidly.
Some of these possibilities for cooperation — as well as the challenges —were on display when I visited the 2006 Indian Defense Expo, jointly organized by the Ministry of Defense and the Confederation of Indian Industry. India is the largest arms importer in the developing world, purchasing some $15 billion in weapons every year, a figure expected to rise to $50 billion by 2015. India inked deals on $5.7 billion in arms imports last year, almost twice as much as the next largest importer, Saudi Arabia ($2.7 billion) and significantly more than China ($2.2 billion).
This rapid growth in Indian arms imports has fueled intense competition among exporters for market share. Russia remains the largest seller to India, providing some 75 percent of Indian arms imports, including two MiG-29K fighter wings for India’s new aircraft carriers, the converted Russian ship Admiral Gorshkov and the indigenously built “air-defense ship.” And India is still collaborating with Russia on several major research and development projects, including the BrahMos supersonic ramjet cruise missile, which will provide each of India’s military services with long-range strike capabilities.
Delhi is also developing closer ties with other international arms suppliers. In January, it signed a $330 million joint weapons-development agreement with Israel that will cover a line of ship-mounted air-defense missiles. India also recently completed a deal to build six Scorpene submarines with the assistance of French and Spanish designers as part of a $3.9 billion naval modernization program. Three submarines in this project will include a MESAM air-independent propulsion system, tripling the time they can remain underwater.
In contrast to these countries, the U.S. remains a bit player in India’s defense market. Although U.S. sales jumped from $5.6 million in 2003 to $64 million in 2005, they accounted for less than 1 percent of sales to India that year. The reasons for this low level of sales are varied, but the most evident is that the U.S. and India have their own systems for conducting international military sales and have not yet synchronized the bureaucratic and business processes that control them.
The competition to sell India 126 multirole combat aircraft is a primary example of this problem. The major competitors for the contract are the Lockheed Martin F-16, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafael, the SAAB Gripen and the MiG-29. The competition completed the request for information stage in early 2005 and is in limbo while the Indian government prepares its long-delayed request for proposal. Although the full F-16 and F/A-18 suites outclass their international competitors, it is not yet clear that either will win.
When I asked one U.S. industry representative about the deal, he said, “The Indians are issuing [requests for proposal] on a 60 to 90 day time frame, and we take six months to turn around a license before we can make the proposal.” Another industry representative was even more critical of the U.S. licensing process, saying, “When it comes time to sell a product or the technology it entails, people at the bureaucratic level have gotten their hands on it and won’t let go. … It’s as though the bureaucracy doesn’t know the policy has changed.”
Indian strategists also note the challenges posed by the U.S. licensing regime. As Bharat Verma put it to me, “This market is competitive. We have the options and the money. To get into this market, you have to adapt to it.”
In sum, no matter how quickly the Indian market develops, U.S. defense firms will have to fight if they are to compete on a level playing field.
If a U.S.-India defense industrial partnership faces major obstacles, they are perhaps mitigated by the rapid development of other forms of contact and cooperation. What companies and governments find difficult, military exchanges and exercises make easier. They do this by giving Indian officers hands-on experience with U.S. military technology, and showing the types of operations that importing such technology could enable.
The Malabar naval exercises, which resumed in 2002 after an interruption in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests, are a case in point. In the past four years, Malabar has developed from a set of basic maneuvers to one of the most sophisticated bilateral military exercises conducted by the U.S.
Malabar 2002 consisted of basic passing exercises among naval vessels, as well as personnel exchange, antisubmarine exercises and replenishment-at-sea maneuvers. When it was hailed as a major step forward in U.S.-Indian military-to-military relations, then-Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Walter Doran and his Indian counterpart, Arun Prakash, began to discuss how they could increase the exercises’ sophistication. Bolstered by a friendship that stretching back to when Doran attended the Indian Defense Staff Services College in 1979, they quickly made headway.
In 2003 and 2004, the Malabar exercise expanded to include such advanced U.S. platforms as the Alexandria, a Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine, and P3-C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. This upgrade permitted both sides to engage in submarine familiarization, a key capability for antisubmarine warfare collaboration. The difficulty of the exercises also increased to include “visit, board, search and seize” operations against suspected smugglers, a key capability for participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative, as well as cross-deck helicopter landings.
The September 2005 Malabar exercise featured an even more impressive leap in capabilities when two aircraft carriers, the Nimitz and India’s Viraat, participated. During a month of operations, U.S. and Indian forces collaborated on everything from a joint diving salvage operation to a 24-hour “war at sea” scenario in which mixed formations of U.S. and Indian forces faced off.
The inclusion of aircraft carriers in the war-at-sea scenario also increased the communications requirements among the participating vessels. In response, the U.S. sent Centrix terminals and operators to the Indian ships, which permitted communication through the Indian Navy’s existing satellite system. According to Indian Defence Review, the Indian participants were so impressed by this experience that they are considering installing Centrix in some vessels, and are even looking at the possibility of attaining NATO-standard tactical data information links systems.
In February, U.S. and Indian defense planners demonstrated an equally impressive attribute — spontaneity — when they hurriedly organized joint exercises for a U.S. naval convoy passing through the Straits of Malacca.
The growing U.S.-Indian military-to-military relationship has paid major dividends. U.S. and Indian warships jointly escorted U.S. ships through the Straits of Malacca for a year after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in order to guard against the possibility of a USS Cole-like attack. And in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami disaster in Asia, Doran worked with Prakash to coordinate the actions of the U.S. and Indian fleets and avoid wastage. As a result, U.S. and Indian forces established adjacent areas of operation and exchanged liaison personnel to coordinate activities. In the crisis, none of this response would have been possible but for the previous experience of working together through exercises and personnel exchanges.
But, like the overall partnership, the real strength of U.S.-Indian naval cooperation lies in the long run. Exposure of the Indian Navy to U.S. technology, practices and capabilities is the first step toward developing real interoperability between our forces. As the Indian Navy and the country’s other military services acquire systems to communicate with U.S. and other allied forces, they implicitly commit themselves to operating with the U.S. It is the longer-term habits of strategic partnership that matter most.
Thus, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen explains the importance of growing interoperability when he describes the “1,000-ship fleet,” which he sees as a force of “freedom-loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other.” It is in this sense that growing U.S. interoperability with India, Japan, Australia and other Asian-Pacific partners is an important precursor transforming the security regime in Asia. The challenge is to develop a shared vision between Delhi and Washington.
In her groundbreaking study “Indo-U.S. Military Relationship: Expectations and Perceptions,” Juli A. McDonald quotes a U.S. major general on the different criteria of success for the U.S. and Indian militaries. The Indians, he says, “will laud the relationship as a success if they obtain the technology that they want from the United States.” The U.S., by contrast, “will view the relationship as a success if we are able to build a constructive military cooperation program that enables us to jointly operate with the Indians in the future.”
These views need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may well be mutually reinforcing. The Bush administration is betting that as U.S.-Indian military cooperation progresses, both countries’ armed services will, in effect, become core constituencies for a larger strategic partnership.
But Americans have to pay greater attention to what India’s military wants. Beyond the nuclear deal, there are other elements of increased defense cooperation in the works. The transfer to India of the Trenton, an amphibious transport dock, as well as an offer for training exercises with U.S. Marines, will help Delhi deploy its planned amphibious Rapid Deployment Force. As this new capability comes online, India will be able to respond to either security crises or natural disasters throughout Asia, further bolstering its role as a net contributor to regional security whose abilities are harmonized with our own.
Another key challenge will be for the administration to shake up the military-licensing process for sales to India. In the immediate term, the multirole combat aircraft request for proposals should be seized as an opportunity to license advanced American avionics and radar systems for sale to India. Likewise, the Bush administration should work during the next three years to champion the sale of a major weapon system such as the Aegis air-defense system or the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile system. These are more than arms sales, they are strategy by industrial means; such a transfer will demonstrate — in ways that are meaningful to the Indians — the seriousness of the U.S. commitment.
India can reciprocate these moves by continuing its efforts, through bilateral working groups, to resolve American concerns about the security of any advanced technologies we transfer to Delhi and to work out the major remaining kinks in its weapons-procurement system. Delhi can also show its support of the security relationship by discreetly sharing the sonar profile of its Kilo-class submarines, a measure that would give the U.S. far more security in conflicts between the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Strait. The approval of major arms purchases from the U.S. would also help reassure American business leaders and policymakers that they have climbed out on the right branch.
It is impossible to guarantee how the administration’s big bet with India will pay off in coming decades. But, like it or not, the first order of business for the U.S. is to demonstrate that America will be a reliable security partner. Fortunately, provided that it is not spiked in the controversy surrounding the nuclear deal, significant progress has already been made, and the way forward is clear.

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