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Home > News > Columnists > General V P Malik (retd)

Indo-US military ties are inevitable

September 18, 2007

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Defence and military relations are always sensitive to political and strategic shifts. Such a relationship, therefore, cannot be separated from the overall geo-political relations. This is evident from the turbulent history of the Indo-US political relations of the past six decades.

Our defence and military relations have never been as good as they stand today. Only once before did I see this kind of proximity -- that was immediately after the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. And the fact that such a progress has been made after reaching 'ground zero' on May 11 and 13, 1998, is not only remarkable, but also a good lesson for political pundits.

What is the exact status of these relations today? How has this been achieved? How should one see this development in the new world order, and in the new security environment wherein China and India have, or will, acquire a new status?

I will first point out some Indian political sensitivity which influence the scope and pace of Indo-US defence and military cooperation, then go on to describe the progress made in these relations, and finally make some observations on the future prospects.

Indian political sensitivity and inhibitions: Strategic weakness of India's political class

The first thing we must remember is that India's political class is strategically weak. Historically, India's vast diversity has made Indians culturally, a strong soft power with a global philosophy of Vasudeva Kutumbakam -- the world is one large family.

The ability to generate hard power, and the will and the ability to make use of that, is not their strong point. We tend to remain internalised, fixing each other rather than fixing outsiders. There is too much of political infighting and too less political consensus. Most of our political leaders grew up conjuring the idea of a morally superior India; professing peace and harmony in a world where nations indulge in cut-throat competition. Value-based politics is morally superior. However, as we all know, that does not reflect international realism.

But one cannot blame the political class entirely. The British never permitted Indian political leaders, or civil servants, to deal with defence matters. Even 60 years after Independence, knowledge and experience of defence and military issues is lacking in most of our political class.

Colonial background

Having suffered colonialism for centuries, there is a great deal of sensitivity and abhorrence for any foreign intervention in national affairs. Most Indians are, therefore, very sensitive to seeing foreign troops, particularly of foreign powers, on or near Indian soil. Many political leaders have asked me why we need Indo-US joint military exercises. But these leaders do not mind sending troops abroad for peacekeeping, or peace enforcement. (I suspect that when a few Indian body bags come back to India, they might quickly change this attitude too.)

Defence: A low priority area

India's political priority has been, and shall continue to be, the socio-economic development of its people. Defence is a low priority area. It gains importance, and proper support, only when there is a crisis. That priority goes down as soon as the crisis blows over.

When dealing with a potential conflict situation, the Indian political and civil leadership tends to follow a restrained, consensual approach -- both at domestic as well as international levels. India's primary effort is to shape the security environment through 'cooperative peace' rather than plan on the basis of inevitable armed conflict. I suppose being a true democracy; such an approach is desirable. And as foreign policy is the primary instrument of such a strategy, the military is often left out in the decision making loop. (This situation is improving slowly.)

Decision-making on 'defence' issues is tardy

In security and defence decision making, political consensus is necessary. But political polarisation, coalition governments, and Centre-state relations are making this more and more difficult in India; even chaotic sometimes. The Indian political system and defence decision making is diffused: influenced by many essential and sometimes non essential factors. Defence is also a sensitive issue. It, therefore, comes under close scrutiny of the media, the opposition, and other watchdogs.

Strategic divergences

Both India and the US have their respective strategic interests. There are divergent views on the world order, on Pakistan, terrorism, China, Iran, the Middle East, and nuclear non proliferation. On many issues, like China and Iran, India does not want to be regarded as an element in US strategy.

The reason why I have stated all this is that we must not expect overnight changes in the scope or pace in the Indo-US defence and military cooperation. At the political level, confidence building measures between our two nations must continue to be nurtured further.

Apprehensions about American policies

In American politics currently, there is a fair amount of consensus on US policies towards India. But I am afraid that is not so in India. The left-wing members of Parliament, even some right-wing members, are highly suspicious of US intentions. The coalition politics and leadership can not afford to neglect their voices entirely. (I recall that there was great enthusiasm in Washington, DC when then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then defence minister Pranab Mukherji signed the 'New Framework for the Indo US Defence Relationship' on June 28, 2005. But when Mukherji returned to India, he was compelled to underplay the agreement due to strong opposition from some coalition partners.)

Many strategists in India are also apprehensive of the US tendency to apply its extensive and complex Congressional laws and international obligations regimes to deny or stop defence cooperation.

There are others who believe that American strategies tend to be shortsighted. The Americans tend to follow 'hug and shrug' policies.

These sensitivities points notwithstanding, besides our common basic democratic values, there are several strategic issues where the US and Indian national interests converge. It is obvious that policy makers in both countries now find that a robust Indo-US defence relation can and will play an important role in contributing to global and regional peace and stability.

Defence and military relations

After the end of the Cold War, the US decided to maintain 'cooperative engagement' with militaries of the friendly countries. This change in US policy resulted in the Kicklighter proposals, and the Agreed Minutes of Defence Relations of 1995 for expansion of defence cooperation between the US and Indian defence departments and service-to-service military exchanges. The follow up measures enabled institutionalising joint mechanisms like the Executive Steering Groups, the Joint Technical Group, and the Defence Policy Group (DPG -- an inter governmental body).

The DPG charter is a. review issues of joint concerns (such as post-cold war security planning) and policy perspectives on both sides, b. provide policy guidance to the joint technical group supporting cooperation in defence research and production, c. resolve policy issues raised by the service-to-service steering groups, and d. promote senior level civilian exchanges and joint seminars between the two sides on defence and security issues.

On June 28, 2005, the Agreed Minutes of Defence Relations of 1995 were updated and expanded in the 'New Framework for the Indo US Defence Relationship'. This document was signed by Rumsfeld and Mukherji.

As a result of a major policy shift and these steps, except for a short period when India decided to carry out nuclear tests in May 1998, and the US reaction was sharp and severe, there have been positive and rapid developments in the Indo-US military-to-military relations. This is evident from the growing frequency and scope of meetings of policy makers, bilateral exercises, seminars, personnel exchanges, high level and unit visits, officer and unit exchanges, as well as discussions on military technology sales and cooperation.

Joint Military Training

In the past five years, there have been 40 joint exercises involving one and at times two military services on inter operability. Most of these exercises have been on anti terror operations. This year, after the first-ever US-Japan-India naval exercise, they have entered multinational level stage. In September, Indian troops will be engaged in:

Indo-Thai joint exercises in India, to develop interoperability in anti terror operations. To be repeated in Thailand next year.

Indo Special Forces and US Marine joint exercise on anti terror operations in the Indian Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School.

13th Exercise Malabar in which 25 ships belonging to the US, India, Singapore, Australia and Japan [Images] and some army contingents are participating.

At present, the scale of such exercises is politically insignificant. But there is scope to increase such joint exercises up to a brigade equivalent level in the next five years or so. The numerous joint exercises are indicative of the willingness to learn from each other and work for interoperability. (To achieve this, the training events should now be focusing on aspects such as Communications, concepts and doctrine including peace-enforcement and peacekeeping, command and control structure, logistics/transportation capability including integration of airlift capability, and intelligence sharing.)

Other military cooperation ventures that are being discussed currently are:

Maritime Security Cooperation to prevent acts of transnational crimes at sea including piracy, armed robbery, gun running, drug traffic and sea pollution.

Logistics Support Agreement for provision of logistics support, supplies, re-fuelling and berthing facilities to warships and aircraft.

Agreement on maritime interdiction and visit board, search and seize.

What are the mutual benefits?

Compared to the US military, the Indian military has less experience in warfare with high technology equipment and weapon systems. Therefore, Indian officers' exposure to combined arms training at the US National Training Centre in California is very useful. The Indian military requires more knowledge in information warfare and advanced surveillance and stealth technology. Such training will contribute to further refinement of the Indian military war fighting doctrine, rapid force development, jointmanship and even higher defence management.

The Indian military, on the other hand, has invaluable operational experience in all types of terrain, dealing with sub conventional wars, conflict in ethnically diverse societies, and in international peacekeeping. But here also, they can benefit from the US experience of IED defeating mechanism in Afghanistan and Iraq and cyber terrorism.

The Indians have vast experience in non-combat operations; like aid to civil authorities for maintenance of law and order, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and maintenance of essential services. These are essential aspects in the current nature of conflicts and come handy in the conflict resolution. The US military could benefit from such Indian experience.

Now that the Indian Navy is acquiring USS Trenton, Indian forces could do with more training and learning in amphibious warfare. The Indian Navy could also learn how to carry out rescue operations for submerged vessels from the US Navy. Recently, there has been some perception sharing by the Defence Intelligence Agency officers of both sides. There was also a simulation exercise on the ballistic missiles defence.

Is there scope for greater cooperation? I believe so. For better understanding of each other's military doctrines, concepts, rules of engagement in different contingencies and general inter-operability, we can exchange instructors in some more military institutions.

Cooperation in defence acquisitions and defence industry

India's requirements of defence weapons and equipment are huge. The current 11th Defense Five Year Plan (2007-2011) envisages an expenditure of $30 billion to $40 billion on guns, fighter planes, naval vessels, advanced surveillance, night fighting and other force multipliers. Apart from 126 multi role fighter aircraft worth $10 billion required by the Indian Air Force urgently, the navy envisages getting 35 multi-role stealth frigates made in the next 10 years through a global tender. Unfortunately, our research, development and defence industrial complex has not developed any capacity to meet these requirements. India thus is a great opportunity for building long term relations in the defence industry.

The recent reforms processes in India's defence research, development, planning, procurements, defence finance and foreign direct investments and off-setting is a clear indicator of what Indian defence policy makers want in the field of defence modernisation and industrialisation. India is looking for modernisation as well as capacity building in its defence industry. It is a great opportunity for long term defence cooperation and strategic partnership between the US and Indian research, development, and manufacturing establishments.

I hope the US companies will make use of this to establish a long term foothold in India, and not succumb to making one-time sale of finished products only. Off the shelf sale/purchases do not build long term partnerships. My feeling is that collaborations between public sector establishments of India and private companies of the US are less likely to progress at the desired pace or levels. The US companies will be able to work more efficiently and profitably with Indian private sector partners. India's new policies are encouraging the private sector now to invest and establish manufacturing units by itself or with foreign collaboration.

There are reports of Raytheon and Wipro [Get Quote] establishing a software centre in Gurgaon jointly. Lockheed Martin and Larsen and Toubro are considering manufacture of maritime sensors jointly.

In the field of research and development, it must be noted, that dual use technology issue will remain the litmus test by which healthy relations will be measured. It would be in the national interest of both countries to waive regulations that stand in the way of greater high-tech cooperation.

What are the future prospects?

I return to my opening remarks that defence and military relations are always sensitive to political and strategic shifts and, therefore, cannot be separated from overall geo-political relations. Indo-US defence cooperation is still evolving: Evolving in response to the changing role of India as a regional power, growth of the Indian economy and technology, and its attendant impact on the US regional and global interests. Our most important strategic convergence is that both nations seek regional stability, support non proliferation and want to keep away fundamentalist forces.

Defence cooperation will thrive if this remains embedded in the larger context of our bilateral relations and cooperation encompassing political and economic ties.

The Indo-US civil nuclear deal is hot news these days. It has no direct bearing on defence or military cooperation but it will have an indirect impact on the progress of such cooperation. If it comes through, it will make implementation of the envisaged cooperation easier and more meaningful. It will also unlock another $100 billion to $150 billion of connected commercial activity. If not, defence cooperation will get hampered with doubts, suspicions and recriminations. India and the US may find 'n' number of reasons to delay or not to proceed with understandings already reached. Even if that happens, my feeling is that it will be a temporary phase.

How do I see the current level of strategic partnership? Is it partnership or alliance? Can it become an alliance in future? What are the prospects?

It is clearly not a strategic alliance. 'Evolving entente' as defined by Devine Hagerty is perhaps a better word for it. The partnership will remain fluid. I do not see this turning into a strategic alliance because I doubt if India would let this partnership dilute its strategic relations with other nations including Russia [Images] and China, or be perceived as a hedge against China, or accept the US policy of ensuring peace between India and Pakistan through a 'military balance'.

India cannot afford to let go of its strategic autonomy. In the present world order, a nation of India's stature and potential can and should play an independent role and cooperate or compete on issues with other nations, depending upon its national interests. As Ashley Tellis put it, 'Given its size, history and ambitions, India will always march to the beat of its own drummer.' The partnership is in mutual, regional and global interest so long as there is convergence of our respective national interests -- and for that, the chances are bright. Amen to that!

General V P Malik, former chief of the Indian Army, and chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, gave this talk to kick off the India Lecture Series at Indiana University recently.

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