Washington and New Delhi are getting a lot more serious about military-to-military ties. As the United States and India become more wary of an increasingly assertive China, the two countries are gradually edging closer together.
On May 16, American and Indian officials met for a "maritime security dialogue" in New Delhi. "The dialogue covered issues of mutual interest, including exchange of perspectives on maritime security development in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region as well as prospects for further strengthening cooperation between India and the United States in this regard," stated an Indian Ministry of External Affairs press release.
Washington and New Delhi are also close to formalizing a historic military cooperation agreement hazily called the "Logistics Support Agreement" — or LSA. The agreement would allow the two militaries to use each other's land, air, and naval bases for resupplies, repairs, and conducting operations.
American and Indian officials agreed to hold the summit during an April visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Despite regular meetings and joint military training, the United States and India are not allies in any formal sense. India was officially unaligned in the Cold War but kept close relations with the Soviet Union — and the United States backed arch-rival Pakistan.
But there is a slow yet historic realignment underway. First of all, the United States and India are both growing warier of China's rise as a major regional military power. Second, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has deteriorated during the course of America's decade-and-a-half-long war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan is the world's top recipient of Chinese weapons.
In an April profile in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that U.S. President Barack Obama "privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the U.S. at all."
Then there's the LSA, which — if signed — could enhance cooperation between the U.S. and Indian militaries to an unprecedented level.
Indian sailors perform yoga on board the aircraft carrier INS ‘Viraat' in June 2015 | (Indian Navy/Courtesy War Is Boring)
Adm. Harry Harris, chief of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Command, told Congress in February that America and India are negotiating the LSA, another agreement called the CISMOA that would allow secure communications when both militaries operate together, and a third agreement regarding the exchange of topographical, nautical, and aeronautical data.
"We have not gotten to the point of signing them with India, but I think we're close," Harris told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
During the last few months, the proposed agreements has come closer to being a reality. "Secretary Carter and I agreed in principle to conclude a logistics exchange memorandum of agreement in the coming months," Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said during Carter's April visit.
These developments build on previous moves between the Indian and U.S. governments. In 2012, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed Carter — at the time his deputy — to head an initiative to widen the scope of mil-to-mil cooperation between the two counties. The result was the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).
"The DTTI is not a treaty or a law," the initiative's website states. "It is a flexible mechanism to ensure that senior leaders from our nations are persistently focused on the opportunities and challenges associated with growing our defense partnership."
Through DTTI, American and Indian officials have discussed sharing technology and boosting business ties between the two countries' defense industries.
During Carter's April visit, he discussed the possibility of sharing technology to help New Delhi build its first domestically produced aircraft carrier INS Vishal — a deal the two countries have been negotiating through DTTI under the auspice of the "Aircraft Carrier Working Group."
Vishal, which New Delhi wants to be nuclear powered, is slated to set sail in 2028.
Carter also toured India's imported aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya. The Russian-built vessel has a troubled history. She arrived late, over budget, and lacking several vital components. India — currently the world's number one arms importer — has long counted Russia as its largest supplier of military goods.
This relationship, as noted, dates back to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. But the Vikramaditya experience, along with Russian-built warplanes that frequently fail to meet Indian expectations, seems to have prompted New Delhi to shift some of its dealings to the West.
India's military still relies heavily on Russian weapons and equipment — and business between the two countries certainly hasn't stopped. However, it has changed. During the last few years, the U.S. has edged out the Kremlin as New Delhi's largest source of military hardware.
The growing ties include more than just hardware and meetings between top brass. The U.S. and India have ramped up joint tactical combat training. In September, War Is Boring observed U.S. and Indian troops train together as part of the two countries' annual Exercise Yudh Abhyas at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Teddy Kleisner said that though the exercise was mostly tactical rather than strategic, any interaction between the U.S. and Indian militaries is obviously significant. "On our end we're keenly aware that our two countries are having conversations," Kleisner explained. "What we're doing here is making good on that dialogue."
As the largest military installation on the West Coast, Lewis-McChord has played an increasingly important role in the "pivot to the Pacific" — the Obama administration's strategy of increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In January, the U.S. 1st Special Forces Group hosted Indian Special Forces for a joint maritime special ops exercise.
In June, the United States, India and Japan will hold the trilateral naval Exercise Malabar in the waters near Okinawa. The exercise began as a bilateral event between the U.S. and Indian navies, but for the last few years Japan has participated as a guest and has since become a permanent participant.
The three-country format has irked Chinese leaders, who assert that Beijing has sovereign rights to nearby islands in the South China Sea. As China flexes its military muscles and asserts itself as a rising superpower in the 21st century, it has become increasingly at odds with many of its neighbors — particularly India, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
As tensions mount, new alliances are beginning to form.
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