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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph in New Delhi
April 26, 2003
This article is the last of a six-part series on Indo-US military relations. The first part dealt with US attempts to gain access to Indian military bases and establish USAF airbases on Indian soil. The second focussed on how access to American technology could be the key to gaining entry to Indian bases. The third highlighted American perception of Indian decision-makers. The fourth pointed out the reasons for India's wariness in accepting Americans as reliable partners. The fifth dealt with the viewpoint that Indians don't give much importance to economic ties.
The series is based on 'Indo-US Military Relations: Expectations and Perceptions,' a US defence department-commissioned study that is in the possession of rediff.com
So where does the opportunity for cooperation lie? Is there a specific area where India and the US can cooperate militarily, without kicking up controversies that could forever damage the growing relationship? Can the cooperation go beyond joint military exercises and high-profile visits?
The answer seems to be yes, according to the study commissioned by the US defence department and based on interviews with several policymakers in both India and the US.
"The Americans and Indians in this sample broadly agree that naval cooperation represents one of the most promising areas of service-to-service cooperation because it supports the strongest area of strategic convergence -- sea lane protection," says Juli A MacDonald, who has authored the study for the defence department.
The naval cooperation in the Straits of Malacca was the 'first concrete example of Indo-US military cooperation', the policymakers say. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Indian Navy undertook, on the suggestion of the Americans, the escort of commercial ships and patrol of the busy sea lane running from the North Arabian Sea to the Malacca Straits. This joint patrol programme continued for six months.
Most Indian policymakers believe the Indian Navy is 'best equipped' to lead military cooperation with the US military because its mission 'dovetails naturally with the larger cooperation agenda'. "The Indian Navy is the only Indian service that is organised to operate outside of India's borders," MacDonald adds.
A high-ranking American admiral says, "The navy may be the easiest service to move forward with cooperation because the US Navy leaves no footprints in India. Exercises are conducted out of sight, with no US troops on the ground in India. Moreover, patrolling the Straits of Malacca or the Straits of Hormuz provides fertile ground for cooperation."
Another reason why the navy holds the key to the immediate future is because India's only joint command, based on the US principle of joint operability, is the Tri-services Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The command could 'facilitate joint training and exercises', according to the report.
September 11 has been a turning point in increased military cooperation, especially between the navies. In fact, the joint patrol of the Straits of Malacca too started after September 11.
According to officers in the Pacific Command, before September 11 one US Navy ship used to visit India in almost three years. Now there are regular trips. Before September 11, Indians would not allow US troops with weapons on the ground when responding to the Gujarat earthquake, not even for force protection. "Today, after September 11, the US military has full access," the report says. We have witnessed a 'sea change' in India's position, according to the Pacific Command officers.
Policymakers on both sides agree that the Defence Policy Group and Executive Steering Group, the two fora for giving policy direction to military cooperation, have been successful.
Many American policymakers argue that the relationship must start with 'baby steps' or a 'crawl' before it can move forward rapidly. The Americans say that 'building trust, opening communications, and enhancing transparency comes only from increased interaction at the service level'.
Americans identify joint and multilateral exercises, training, and exchanges as integral components of a military-to-military relationship as they are necessary to build goodwill and trust as well as to create transparency between the forces.
Both sides are unanimous in saying that 'the areas most conducive' to military cooperation are 'high-altitude and jungle warfare training, joint operations, and search and rescue exercises'.
An American colonel termed the bilateral military relations a 'blind date', referring to the fact that the two militaries know very little of each other. "They must go through the difficult and awkward process of becoming acquainted, learning the other's idiosyncrasies and preferences, and building trust," the report points out. Americans point out that only after the relationship is 'consummated' can technology transfer begin.
But Indians believe that low-level exercises and cooperation will not help much in improving relations. They argue that the ability of the Indian military to push the Indo-US relationship to new heights is limited without the parallel tracks of political and economic engagement.
Indian policymakers also believe that only a 'defence supply' relationship that includes the transfer of US technology to India 'will demonstrate sufficient US commitment to sustain the relationship'.
An American major general summed up this paradox in perceptions: "The Indians will laud the relationship as a success if they obtain the technology that they want from the United States. We [the US military] will view the relationship as a success if we are able to build a constructive military cooperation programme that enables us to jointly operate with the Indians in the future."
Most American interviewees believe the state department's International Military Education and Training programme represents 'a central component' of the military relationship and a way to improve Indian understanding of the American military. Besides, training of senior Indian military commanders in America would enable the US military to 'build critical relationships' with India's 'best and brightest'.
Indians argue that IMET is of not much help because it is only open to a few senior officers. And the Indian forces would like to access 'more technical training courses for officers' in the lower and middle levels.
Part I: Target next: Indian military bases
Part II: US tech hold key to Indian bases
Part III: Of insults, obsessions and distrust
Part IV: Drawn out, but not ready to fire
Part V: Tango's closer, but shop talk's taboo