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US Admiral caught in ministry protocol for appointments

June 26, 2013 09:12 IST

Defence Minister A K Antony has turned down Admiral Sam Locklear's request for a meeting, directing Locklear instead to Defence Secretary R K Mathur. Ajai Shukla reports

Admiral Sam Locklear heads the US Pacific Command, making him the most powerful military commander on earth. With 60 per cent of the US Navy under him, PACOM oversees 52 per cent of the planet. Locklear is America's military pointsman for 36 countries, including India and China.

But for India's protocol-driven ministry of defence, the admiral is just a military commander. During Locklear's ongoing visit to India, Defence Minister A K Antony has turned down a request for a meeting, directing Locklear instead to Defence Secretary R K Mathur. Also turned down was Locklear's request for a meeting with India's three service chiefs. Instead, he was only invited to meet the Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, who heads the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

MoD officials admit that these meetings were "substantive, not just ceremonial." PACOM provides the military muscle for the US "rebalance to Asia." And with the Indian Navy -- concerned about China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean -- rapidly developing Asia-Pacific partnerships with countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, PACOM is a crucial interlocutor.

Furthermore, Locklear is a crucial arbiter of what weaponry and defence technologies the US supplies to India. Every proposed sale must have the PACOM chief's backing, based on his determination that providing that capability to India would be in the strategic interests of the US.

PACOM, headquartered in Hawaii, is by far the biggest of America's six "geographic commands", each headed by a four-star general or admiral who reports to the US President through the Secretary of Defence. These six operational commanders are far more powerful, and relevant to regional partner countries like India, than the Washington-based chiefs of the US air force, army, navy or marine corps. While the service chiefs merely man, equip and recruit for their services, the geographic heads are battlefield commanders who command the US military in combat.

The US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were run from Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. And the PACOM chief would be the top US commander in a hypothetical war against China.

For years, India's ministry of defence has been unenthusiastic about the burgeoning US-India relationship, which insiders frankly say is due to Defence Minister A K Antony's left-of-centre political inclinations. Though the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office are more bullish on the relationship, Antony's seniority and clout allow him to have his way.

While the MoD is authorised a joint secretary from the MEA for coordinating foreign policy, the MEA has failed to provide one. As a result, an Indian Administrative Service officer, Smita Nagaraj, fills that post. MoD insiders say her foreign policy inexperience lets Antony have his way.

Consequently, Antony has resolutely blocked multilateral naval exercises with the US since 2007, when the participation of 25 warships from India, the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore in Exercise Malabar aroused protests from the Left Front and the apparent ire of China.

Now, the MoD is stonewalling India's participation in next year's RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Maritime Exercise), the world's largest multilateral maritime exercise, which PACOM hosts in Hawaii. In the last edition of RIMPAC, 22 navies and 40 warships participated, including the Russian Navy. In the next edition in 2014, the Chinese navy is expected to participate. But the MoD worries that India's participation might offend someone.

In contrast, bilateral exercises with the US have progressed apace; 62 joint exercises have taken place so far. The US says it does more joint training with India than with any other country. Indian Navy officers say US-India exercises have reached a level of sophistication where they provide excellent training.

"This especially helps in developing operational doctrines for platforms like the P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Both countries are just inducting it into service and there are lessons that we can share," says an Indian Navy planner.

Trying to bridge these gaps between the MoD and the Pentagon is the Defence Technology Initiative, jointly headed by US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, and India's National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon. Even though its primary purpose is to find ways of moving beyond a buyer-seller relationship into the realm of co-development and co-production, the DTI also hopes to soothe some of the irritants between the two defence bureaucracies.

Although the MoD has refused to comment, officials say that the US army chief, General Ray Odierno, who will visit India shortly, will be meeting Antony.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi