The National Bureau of Asian Research

A Way Forward in U.S.-India Defense Cooperation

In an interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research, Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue that to move defense cooperation forward, the United States and India should consider co-developing weapons technology in light of U.S. legislative restrictions on technology transfer.

Could you explain the nature of U.S.-India relations and the role of defense cooperation? How do you envision the future of the relationship?

The U.S.-India relationship is a composite of several important interests: (1) vast social and cultural ties, symbolized by the large Indian-American community, (2) a new economic interdependence, (3) the development of strategic commonality, with both hedging against a rising China and fearful of a declining, but nuclear-armed, Pakistan, and (4) finally, the growth in military and defense ties.

Not all four elements of the relationship have developed at the same pace. With the exceptions of post–nuclear test engagement and the civilian nuclear deal, the unofficial U.S.-India relationship, including people-to-people and economic ties, has outpaced official ties between the two countries. U.S.-India strategic convergence will likely come in the long term, as there are serious short-term differences on Pakistan, China, climate change, energy security, global governance, and economic policy.

Defense cooperation is important because it can bridge long- and short-term differences. Indeed, the nuclear deal bought greater freedom for Washington on its Pakistan policy and could serve this role again as the United States tries to extricate itself from the region. For this to happen, Washington must hold out the large carrot of technology and weapons transfers, which are politically problematic for many reasons, specifically the restrictive domestic legislation on defense hardware. One solution lies in the United States co-developing technology with India, as it does with Israel. Since new technology is not yet developed, it cannot be subjected to restrictive U.S. laws. On the Indian side, a number of things have to happen, including rationalizing the R&D establishment.

What do recent Indian military procurements tell us about the country’s defense outlook and strategic aims?

Most of India’s purchases are replacements for obsolete or broken equipment. However, a few acquisitions of American equipment are notable. The acquisition of a large troop carrier, the INS Jalashwa, formerly a U.S. Marine assault vessel, can provide rapid sealift capacity for Indian forces, presumably allowing for intervention elsewhere in South Asia or the Indian Ocean region. The large Boeing airlifters replace obsolete Soviet aircraft and have greater capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether India will use its new assets to develop a true power-projection capacity. Unless India can start building aircraft carriers on its own, its recent purchase of a carrier and carrier-borne jets from Russia will be largely symbolic. The planned acquisition of a nuclear submarine with nuclear-tipped missiles raises weighty questions about Asian nuclear stability, but this purchase will not come to fruition for many years.

Read the full interview at nbr.org >>