Since the U.S. declared India to be a “Major Defense Partner” in 2016, U.S-India defense ties have been widely trumpeted, but the reality of the relationship continues to trail far behind the rhetoric. The President’s upcoming trip to India on February 24th presents an excellent opportunity to confront and resolve the major sticking points that have bedeviled lower level officials. Ironically, the Trump administration’s sharply transactional approach may be just what is needed to achieve strategic ends.
A former colleague of mine in the Office of the Secretary of Defense was known to remark that “India is the future linchpin of U.S. defense posture in Asia. And it always will be.” From 2012 until 2018, the Pentagon played a major role in setting the agenda for U.S. policy towards India because the Secretary of Defense and/or his senior deputies believed in the important potential of the relationship. This is roughly the time period spanning the launch of the U.S.-India Defense Technology & Trade Initiative by then Undersecretary Ash Carter to the departure of Secretary Jim Mattis who repeatedly advocated for U.S. flexibility to accommodate Indian interests. The ties between the two militaries deepened considerably during this time but the envisioned defense industrial integration – the co-production, co-development, and co-fielding of U.S. and Indian defense capabilities for the mutual benefit of both countries – simply didn’t materialize.
There are structural causes that contributed to this outcome. On the U.S. side they include disorienting inconsistency regarding America’s reliability as a defense partner caused by threats to impose Russia related sanctions on India’s Ministry of Defense, sclerotic responses to Indian requests for defense technologies, and U.S. government engagement that has slingshot from intense focus to disengagement caused by personnel turnover among the U.S. officials managing the relationship. On India’s part, the problems include an underperforming economy in which roughly 1.5% of GDP is slated for defense, a decreasing percentage of which is budgeted for modernizing India’s military, coupled with an extraordinarily inefficient acquisition process for channeling those limited funds into military power. To which, can and should be added, the Indian government’s persistent geopolitical hedging – a preference for many friends but no exclusive defense arrangements – that has resulted in Indian military partnerships that are wide but very shallow.
These problems will not go away any time soon, but President Trump’s trip presents an opportunity to tackle problems in a way that hasn’t yet been tried. Since 2018, U.S. policy towards India has flipped from one primarily driven by a focus on defense and “strategic” level cooperation to one defined largely by transactions, trade, and tariffs. When Trump speaks of India, particularly in unstructured settings, the most frequent topic that crosses his lips is trade. This reflects Trump’s priorities, but it is also because U.S. government policy towards a foreign country is determined at the most senior level by who is setting the agenda. Right now, Robert Lighthizer is arguably the most India focused Cabinet ranked official, and consistent with his portfolio, his agenda is trade.
The big deliverable for the upcoming trip is therefore not surprisingly a small, but first of its kind, trade agreement. Issues like intellectual property rights, restrictions on foreign direct investment, data localization, tariffs, and price controls will all be put on the table as part of an intentionally tough negotiation. This is a very different kind of conversation than prior defense focused dialogues structured around cooperation and consensus building, which have gone along the lines of “Since China is a shared concern let’s work together to bolster our capabilities. Agreed?” The Trump team’s strictly transactional approach of “Let’s Make a Deal” hasn’t been applied to the defense sector.
Doing so could begin with the Trump administration presenting the following question: What would it take for India to dump its plans to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system? As has been noted repeatedly by U.S. officials, the S-400 is a giant radar and locating a Russian radar (and Russian technicians) in proximity to advanced American stealth aircraft is a great way to compromise that stealth. The pending sale not only presents a problem for American military operations in South Asia, but more immediately prevents the U.S. and India from integrating their defense industrial ecosystems. Both governments have discussed the issue in the past but by all accounts the U.S. has never asked point blank what it can do to make it worth India’s while to back away from the Russian deal.
Injecting significant defense issues into the trade negotiation would also allow the Indian government to get firm answers on questions that have bedeviled prior defense dialogues. For example, what would it take for the U.S. to authorize the release of the defense technologies that India isn’t able to produce on its own or buy from alternative suppliers? What assurances would the Indian government need to make and what mechanisms would need to be established to provide the U.S. government confidence that critical technology wouldn’t be compromised or stolen if transferred to India? A Presidential level negotiation can force these questions to be answered after many years of dodging and equivocation.
The U.S. is in an intense competition to shape India’s military posture with U.S. interoperable systems, but the French, Russians, and Israeli governments have been far more successful advocates for their defense industries. The Russians have been very tough, highlighting that they will provide capabilities elsewhere (e.g. China, Pakistan) if India turns them down. The U.S. has tried to counterbalance this approach by working with defense primes like Lockheed Martin and Boeing to nudge India in the direction of major American weapons systems like fighter aircraft, but has never made this part of a formal trade negotiation. A purely transaction approach in which defense trade is part of a larger trade negotiation would be new and maybe a more effective way to pen commitments.
After years of declaring the strategic importance of the U.S.-India relationship, maybe it’s time to drop the lofty rhetoric and get transactional. It could be the only way to get truly strategic results.