Understanding the US-India Strategic Defense Partnership

The US-India relationship is one of the most important in the world.  As the oldest and largest democracies, respectively, the United States and India have formed an especially close relationship, particularly in the post-Cold War era.  Indeed, Americans have a highly favorable view of India, with a 2017 Gallup poll indicating that 74 percent of Americans view the South Asian country favorably.  For a Pew Research poll taken during the same year, 49 percent of Indians had a favorable view of the United States, while only 9 percent displayed an unfavorable view.  Such views are indicative of budding ties between Washington and New Delhi. 

Although Indian foreign policy strives to maintain its non-aligned status by not entangling and entrenching itself with one great power or coalition-alliance over another, it has been deepening its military cooperation with the United States.  In the 21st century, both countries have participated in a number of military exercises that seek to boost their military preparedness and interoperability.  Both armed forces have on an almost consecutive annual basis participated in the Yudh Abhyas military exercises (consecutively since 2004), and last year commenced the Vajra Prahar military exercise.  Both countries’ navies, along with Japan, have participated in the Malabar naval exercises.  These exercises are largely aimed at countering China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as a response to Beijing’s increasing activity in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. 

In addition to military exercises, the United States and India have sought to harmonize their militaries in technological and intelligence domains.  Recently, both countries have been holding high level meetings to sign various agreements that would facilitate technology transfers and intelligence sharing. 

According to Sudhi Ranjan Sen, writing for the Hindustan Times, the two countries are likely to finalize two critical agreements: the Industrial Security Annexure (ISA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).  The ISA serves as an addition to the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which enables the US government and defense companies to share classified information with Indian private defense manufacturers.  While the GSOMIA allowed sharing between these US actors and the Indian government and Indian government-owned defense firms, this addition opens up sharing to the Indian private sector.  Meanwhile, the BECA will allow India to use US geospatial maps to achieve pinpoint military accuracy of automate hardware systems and weapons, such as cruise and ballistic missiles, and even drones.  This comes at a particularly important moment after India recently carried out an anti-satellite missile test in late March.  The test, which caused space debris to spread and potentially impact other nearby satellites, briefly increased worries about heightening tensions in space.  Such advanced technologies would allow India to refine its anti-satellite capabilities. 

Both countries have already signed two military agreements: the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).  The first agreement allows the US to transfer communication equipment to India to facilitate secure transmission of data and real-time information between the two countries’ armed forces.  The second agreement allows both armed forces to use each other’s facilities and eases access to supplies and services. 

In addition, India has sought to diversify its military procurements portfolio by relying less on Soviet and Russian equipment.  Although it has made steps to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system—and facing potential US sanctions for doing so—India has also been open to furthering arms agreements with the US.  In fact, in the past decade, the country has purchased $15 billion USD worth of American military hardware.  Currently, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing are vying an arms deal worth an estimated $15 billion USD to manufacture over 100 fighter planes in India. 

However, according to The Economic Times’ Manu Pubby, it is unlikely that the two countries will sign the BECA.  Though the ISA is likely to be formally signed in the near future, the BECA’s signing remains stalled because for Indian Defense Secretary Sanjay Mitra, “too many issues” still remain unresolved.  This comes in contrast to an article by Firstpost, published in early August, that suggested that, “Although India initially had reservations on geospatial mapping on grounds of national security, the Narendra Modi government has made up its mind to sign BECA, provided its concerns are addressed.” 

Ultimately, despite the BECA’s finalization remaining uncertain, the fact that the US-India strategic defense partnership has already evolved to this stage reveals both the depth and breadth of this relationship.  With joint military exercises to continue unabated and further Indian military procurements of US equipment likely in the works, defense cooperation will be further strengthened.  For India, the partnership represents an opportunity to modernize its armed forces and enhance its capabilities and standing as a great power.  For the United States, India is a critical component in its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China. 

Although trade disputes and other issues linger, both countries view each other as vital for addressing economic and security matters.  Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a 2017 speech at the US think tank CSIS, said, “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy; we share a vision of the future.  The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.  Our nations are two bookends of stability on either side of the globe standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”  Regardless of which political party governs in New Delhi or Washington, the US-India strategic partnership is here to stay. 

Photo Credit: US Department of State