Will the US and India Form the Strongest Naval Partnership in the World? Part 3

This is Part 3 of a special 3-part series on US-India Naval cooperation being published by usindiamonitor, timed in coordination with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s critical voyage to India on April 10th, 2016.  Part 1 focused on the background and history.  Part 2 covered the short-term outcomes from Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India in the context of April 2016 current events.  Part 3 will project what the future may hold for the two Navies.

The Indian Navy has gotten pretty good at nailing pirates. via NDTV.com

What does the future hold for US-India naval relations?  Will the two countries work ever more closely together on the high seas to protect commercial lanes, slay pirates, capture terrorists, rescue hostages, and keep the peace generally?  It’s hard to say at this time, especially accounting for the domestic political realities of both America and India.  Following this bizarre election year, nobody is confident in what a President Trump, Cruz, Clinton, or Sanders might bring to defense policy, not just in relation to India.  It’s possible that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will be replaced early next year.  Meanwhile, India’s fervent anti-US voices are making themselves heard right now.  The two Navies, and two military establishments in general, may continue  floating adrift from one another as they have done for most of the last 7 decades.

However, a very different narrative is percolating after Carter’s trip to India from April 10-13.  The United States and India, if they so choose, could not only tie up to accomplish all the above strategic outcomes, they could also potentially form the world’s strongest naval partnership in history.  Such a route would be a dramatic sea change from current course, and it could quite possibly launch during the partnership of Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar while they are both serving.

Carter’s trip resulted in more forward progress than expected, certainly more than any other delegation in recent memory that the two nations have sent to one another.  Below we will examine the specifics and what they mean.


Carter and Parrikar inspect India’s aircraft carrier

The Pentagon’s India Tiger Team  Ashton Carter is the first SECDEF to create an “India Rapid Reaction Cell” at the Pentagon specifically focused on advancing cooperation with India on research, development, and acquisition under the aegis of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), an outcome of President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi in India in January 2015.  This is the only such country-specific cell in operation at the Pentagon.  As a result of its work before and during Carter’s trip, there were a host of wide-ranging collaboration goals ready to be discussed on aircraft carrier co-development, F-18 fighter jet joint production, sales of US arms rarely shared with other nations, such as Predator drones, and planning for US defense contractors to participate in India’s new Make in India program, which encourages companies from around the world to invest in Indian manufacturing.  Participation in Make in India by the US military could be of benefit to both nations and also others.

Every single one of these actions would be unprecedented, and the fact that they were discussed in detail during the delegation is a big deal.

Preliminary Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement  Any closer cooperation between the US military and Indian military will require a large number of baby steps- or baby swim strokes.  One of those is a logistics agreement, which would allow the two governments to share military bases for repairs, rest, refueling, or resupply, while also sharing digital mapping protocols and advanced lines of communication.  There has never been such an agreement.  The United States has signed them with its full military allies, a status that India does not share at this time.  For example, Carter visited the Philippines following his trip to India, and the two nations this month inked an agreement for the US military to use five Filipino bases for major operations.

USS Carl Vinson is being refueled by INS Shakti during Exercise Malabar.  US Navy photo

India has expressed concern with these types of logistics sharing for several years, especially balking at being forced to accommodate US assets and troops at Indian bases.  Carter assured his Indian hosts that India would have the right to approve or refuse each specific logistics request, initially expected for operations such as disaster relief.  The wording has been changed accordingly, a concession only being offered to India.  If a US-India agreement is signed, which may happen in the next few weeks despite serious Indian domestic opposition, a new door would open that will affect the naval forces the most, especially their ability to work with each other more.  Naval assets are the most important that the US military has in Asia.  We have shown that the two navies are in the vanguard of the US-India relationship through Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, but a logistics agreement would be next-level.

Misgivings Amidships  The best way to gauge the importance of US-India military discussions is the responses they receive from the usual suspects.  An article in Chinese state-owned Global Times in response to Carter’s trip stated that “India wants to be the most beautiful woman, wooed by both US and China.”  This show of bravado, and China’s attempt to equate itself with the United States, is clearly a sign that Chinese thinkers are worried about US-India cooperation on logistics, which they are quick to note has languished on the table for years.

Pakistani commentators rang the alarm, on cue. “The US alliance with India has obvious and significant negative implications for Pakistan’s security,” writes former Pakistan UN Ambassador Munir Akram, who waxes quite eloquently about unfair treatment by India and the United States towards Pakistan without mentioning the country’s outsize influence by the military in government, and ineffectiveness in controlling terrorism despite billions of dollars in unconditional US military and civilian aid.

On a different tack, India’s cadre of Non-Alignment Warriors such as Atul Bhardwaj believe America is trying to throw another new colonial yoke onto India: “India’s strategy must address the issue of freedom from Western thought and question imperial alignments ingrained in such defense agreements.”  Some Indian thinkers do not take into account the rapid changes happening in the world and their effect on the calculus faced by Indian leaders today.  The British Raj is actually over.

There is no better proof that the latest US-India military developments are significant in nature than bravado in the Chinese media, fear-mongering and umbrage in Pakistani media, and anti-imperial rants in Indian media.  All while the ADD-addled US media-entertainment complex is too busy covering the adolescent behaviors of the 2016 election or potential infidelity in the Jay-Z marriage to Beyonce involving a half-Indian designer named Rachel Roy- the closest you will get to US-India “relations” making a splash in mainstream media.

The United States political, diplomatic, and military establishments have all grown bored with Pakistan’s games, foremost among them the harboring of Osama Bin Laden and countenance for the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, both with some unknowable level of Pakistani official involvement.  As the United States troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leverage in holding back US cooperation with India will also proportionally diminish as the major factor in US-Pakistan relations will become keeping nukes out of terrorists’ hands, which is no fun.  I love Pakistan, but they won’t have much of a say in this matter.

As for China, that country can still avoid becoming a rogue state on a much conjectured-about collision course with the United States and its allies in Asia over Taiwan or islands in the South China Sea.  The epic power struggle between the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army are artificially inflating tensions with Japan, India, ASEAN, and the United States.  China can decide to participate in more military exercises with the United States, as they are already being invited to do in the RIMPAC joint naval exercise in Hawaii.  Person to person contact could help lessen tensions.  Even joining Exercise Malabar with India, the United States, and Japan would be a solid show of goodwill while helping reduce hostility.  Ultimately, just like the United States in the Mideast desert, China is blundering around in the water.  Beijing machinations are actually pushing most of its neighbors toward the United States and in India’s case, kicking and screaming the entire way.

Russian jet “buzzes” American ship

US-India military cooperation could help reduce flareups with Russia, which is quite clearly challenging NATO and the US with aggressive military maneuvers in Eastern Europe, Alaska, and Syria, including against the US Navy.  That’s because India is probably Russia’s best friend outside of former USSR satellites- and India’s good offices with Russia perhaps represent the world’s last best chance to prevent a conflagration between Moscow and Washington in a bad re-run of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or worse.  This will test Narendra Modi’s diplomatic chops to the maximum, but he is certainly more capable of pulling Putin’s ear than any other world leader.

What Happens Now?  India has remained non-aligned for almost 70 years.  That means it has not had military allies despite three wars and an additional skirmish with Pakistan, nor in an embarrassingly pathetic war effort against China.  India maintained relations with both the United States and USSR throughout the Cold War, buying arms from both, but not officially taking sides. India also has massive territorial disputes and the constant threat of hostilities with both Pakistan and China.

The potential partners could not be more different in outlook.  Mysteriously spiritual India overthrew the British using Gandhian non-violence, while America became the land of the free and home of the brave by butchering the British up lovely.  The United States has maintained formal military allies around the world for many decades.  It won two World Wars and would win the next one if forced to.  It leads NATO in Europe.  It has major bases as part of that construct, and also other ones throughout Asia and the Middle East.  Americans have been spoiled when it comes to security.  Threats outside of terrorism are far away from US shores, and the United States has a military presence close to all of its threats around the world.  As President George W. Bush said, “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  The opposite of the intended effect may be happening, but that’s why we are where we are today.

The superpower will need to understand the trepidation on the other side.  For India to enter a real logistics agreement now would have consequences both domestically and internationally.  It would mean, finally, the beginning of the end of India’s non-aligned stance, built in order to remain free to buy and sell with everyone, retaining ideological independence, while trying not to threaten anyone beyond its borders.  India has been comfortable mostly coasting under the radar.

But there is an upside that will become harder and harder to ignore as time goes on, not just for India, but for the world.  India’s window of opportunity isn’t unlimited: the next US administration could engage in several behaviors that India would find offensive, such as invading another country, or cozying back up to Pakistan, or withdrawing its technology transfer offers.

In the 21st century, the biggest threats to global peace will continue to come from authoritarian regimes who will need to act tough in order to cling to power such as North Korea, Russia, and China, or non-state terrorists with a scorched-earth agenda.  A smooth-running US-India naval partnership with deep reach into the (fast melting) Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal would be a formidable force between the world’s two largest democracies on, above, and under the water toward addressing any threat.  It would in fact be the strongest naval alliance in the history of the world, as a number of friendly democratic nations from NATO, to Japan and Australia would be providing backup.  And it’s now within reach, if India decides to jump on board.

India needs US technology transfer and a ramp up in training and naval assets in order to become a global power.  The United States needs Indian ports and logistical cooperation in order to successfully complete its Asia pivot.  The two, in concert, could help maintain peace on the high seas for the rest of this century. Or not.

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor


  1. […] Meanwhile, US-India joint military exercises and training exchanges have ramped up.  The two nations’ air forces, armies, special forces, and most prominently, their navies are building powerful relationships through increasingly complex exercises such as Yudh Abhyas and Malabar.  Malabar is now a permanent annual deep-ocean exercise that as of recently also includes Japan.  While these exercises aren’t explicitly meant to threaten any other nation, it’s quite clear that China and Pakistan have taken note, and have been spying on them with a dose of concern.   Speaking of spying, India and the United States are now jointly monitoring the movement of Chinese submarines and other assets in the Indian Ocean.  The US-India naval partnership is now, in our estimation, the most powerful naval partnership in the world. […]


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