December 02, 2007

Will the USS Kitty Hawk cement U.S.-India military ties?

MANIPAL, India, Nov. 28
M.D. NALAPAT

Column: Future Present

Thanks largely to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who shared with his leftwing British friends a dislike of the Yanks, the geopolitically senseless alienation between the United States and India continued for five decades after India's independence in 1947.

What seems finally to have convinced the British to leave India was the seepage of loyalty from the Indian component of the armed forces. More than 2 million Indians saw action on the Allied side during World War II. Yet during the war, their loyalty to the Crown was tested by the discriminatory treatment meted out to Indians in the services. British personnel dominated the higher reaches of the military and were given perquisites and privileges far beyond those enjoyed by Indians.

Several thousands of soldiers joined the pro-Axis Indian National Army during the war. Within the ranks of those who remained on the Allied side, there was visible sympathy for those Indian officers and men who switched sides and refused to fight for the British monarchy that denied them the privileges enjoyed by soldiers from the Australian, New Zealand, U.S. and Canadian complements. The possibility of widespread revolts within the armed forces concentrated minds in London and speeded up the withdrawal from India

During World War II, the Muslim League under M. A. Jinnah backed the Allies unreservedly, and was later rewarded with Pakistan, a Muslim state carved out of Hindu-majority India. Jinnah's effusive backing for the British was matched by his successors' similarly emollient line toward the United States. As a result, Washington joined London in regarding Pakistan as a reliable ally, in contrast to the "undependable" Indians -- a tilt that continued until 9/11.

Even as late as the 1990s, the U.S. was pressuring India to surrender the Kashmir valley to Pakistan. At the same time the Clinton administration was covertly backing the jihadi elements that finally took power in Kabul in 1996 as the Taliban. Interestingly, as yet the U.S. Congress has not opened an enquiry into the 1994-96 policies that resulted in Osama bin Laden's patrons being given charge of Afghanistan, with consequences that have been disastrous for international security.

Relentless U.S. and British pressure since the 1950s on the Kashmir issue, and lavish military and civilian help given to Pakistan, caused New Delhi to gravitate toward the Soviet Union. Even in its 1971-1977 heyday, however, the strategic relationship between New Delhi and Moscow never resulted in a single Soviet soldier coming to India for basing or training.

Nowadays the U.S. military routinely undertakes joint exercises and training sorties in India. Fear of international jihad and worries over a fast-developing Chinese military have made the United States and India de facto military allies.

However, within both countries strong lobbies are still at work to abort this alliance. Within the United States these anti-India groups have coalesced around two poles. The first comprises those who take a Euro-centric view of the world, seeing it in terms of the West and the Rest. Such individuals see little value in a full-fledged alliance with India that might divert focus from NATO. According to this school, the only core international partners of value to the United States in worldwide conflicts are the other NATO countries.

The other lobby hard at work within the United States to sabotage the India-U.S. military alliance comprises backers of the Pakistan army. Recent efforts by officers who seek to forge a comprehensive military relationship with India to offer the USS Kitty Hawk carrier to the Indian Navy -- as the USS Trenton was a few years ago -- seem to have foundered on opposition from pro-Pakistan and NATO-centric elements in the U.S. military. They see the move as potentially alienating the Pakistan military.

Such a transfer would link the United States and India in a military supply relationship that could lead to the displacement of Russia as the primary supplier to India of defense equipment. Yet both the NATO and Pakistan lobbies within the U.S. military are working overtime to scuttle the plan to offer the USS Kitty Hawk to the Indians.

Within India too there has been resistance to the induction of the USS Kitty Hawk. It comes from the segment within the Indian Navy that is in favor of Russian or French platforms, both being lucrative sources of patronage. Their efforts at downplaying the force multiplier effect of the U.S. carrier focus on its "obsolete" catapult technology and the expenses involved in a refit.

That their primary interest is to prevent a reversal of the Indian decision to induct the Russian carrier Gorshkov (now estimated to cost US$1.6 billion in place of the $500 million quoted earlier) is clear from the primary argument used against the U.S. naval vessel, which is the age of the four-decade-old ship. However, unlike the Gorshkov, which is unable to sail at all, the U.S. vessel is operational, and was recently in the news for its attempt to dock in Hong Kong over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The fear among those within the Indian defense establishment with financial ties to Russian and French defense suppliers is that acquisition of the USS Kitty Hawk would result in New Delhi purchasing U.S. aircraft for the carrier, and later for the air force, in place of Russian ones. As such purchases could amount to US$22 billion over the next five years, the stakes are substantial even in purely financial terms.

Eager to get India to pay an extra US$1.4 billion for the Russian carrier, the pro-Russia lobby in India has ignored the fact that the modified Kiev class aviation cruiser was earlier mothballed due to a collapse of its propulsion systems. After nearly $500 million was paid toward a refit by India, it has been pulled out for a very expensive refurbishment and rechristened the INS Vikramaditya. The effectiveness of the multidimensional firepower it could unleash after such a $1.9 billion refit is yet to be tested.

The French and Russian lobbies were alerted by the Indian Navy's procurement of the former USS Trenton LPD-14. This ship, rechristened the INS Jalashwa in 2006, has a long record of operational performance with the U.S. Navy's carrier and amphibious groups. The Indian Navy's amphibious expeditionary capabilities have been significantly enhanced with the Jalashwa, the induction of which has helped familiarize naval personnel with U.S. systems.

The Indian Navy will add at least another 45 vessels in the next decade to maintain a 140-ship navy for operations. The focus is to reinforce sea control and sea denial capability that spans the Persian Gulf to the China Seas. The induction of the USS Kitty Hawk could be the trigger for the switchover from Russian-French to U.S. platforms in first the navy and later the air force and the army.

Indeed, the Kitty Hawk was the lead carrier along with the USS Nimitz CVN 68 in the recently concluded Malabar 07-02 in the Bay of Bengal, which significantly enhanced interoperability between U.S. and Indian forces. If it beats back hostile lobbies in both the U.S. and India and is rescued from oblivion by joining the expanding Indian Navy, the USS Kitty Hawk may serve as a force multiplier in the U.S.-India defense relationship.

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(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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