Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has been extremely vocal and positive on India but it seems after him there is no senior management person to push the whole panoply of initiatives

by Seema Sirohi

WASHINGTON: If India is an important part of the new Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, why has the Pentagon moved the India office out of the iconic building to a secondary address?

Not only has the India Rapid Reaction Cell, which was launched with much fanfare in 2015, been shunted out of the Pentagon, its strength has reportedly been reduced from six officers to just two.

It doesn’t make sense if the idea is to strengthen the defence partnership and make it a crucial to the future of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The downgrade is significant – from being right next door to the US defence secretary, the India office is now housed in a largely administrative building six miles away. The move was made on Nov. 1, according to insiders.

No one seems to have protested or questioned the decision. Is that because there isn’t a high-level official willing to push the cause and fight the necessary bureaucratic battles? Or did no one of consequence notice as office managers juggled the desks around?

Or is it because the dissatisfaction with the larger relationship – trade issues, India’s over compensation for other partners — beginning to infect the defence relationship?

The India cell had momentum when it was born, even a certain cache, I was told, with officers lining up to join. Just as in the State Department in the mid-2000s when the India desk became a coveted place to work.

Above all, in the vast bureaucracy that is the Pentagon, the India cell signalled New Delhi’s importance as a defence partner and a major buyer of US equipment.

Keith Webster, director of Pentagon’s office of international cooperation, led the team as it worked on all ongoing initiatives, especially those under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). The idea was to ramp up the “operational tempo,” he had said then.

Webster was deeply knowledgeable about India’s complexities. He was also patient but most importantly, he enjoyed the complete support of Ash Carter, the former defence secretary and Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defence.

The Carter-Kendall-Webster trio worked seamlessly and was effective in pushing the India relationship forward. It was Carter’s idea to create the first ever country specific cell to focus the mind and overcome the usual bureaucratic paralysis that can stymie the best of intentions.

Carter helped change Pentagon’s mindset on technology transfer to India, shortened the interminable review process and removed India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation from the “entities list” to allow cooperation.

Carter, Kendall and Webster are all gone and it seems the India cell become an orphan no senior official wanted to embrace.

To be sure, defence secretary Jim Mattis has been extremely vocal and positive on India but it seems after him there is no senior management person to push the whole panoply of initiatives.

Mattis has tried hard to shield India from the dreaded sanctions law called CAATSA by lobbying for a waiver from the US Congress.

He was warm and effusive as he welcomed defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, and all but suggested India won’t come under sanctions for signing the S-400 deal with Russia.

So dedicated was he to ensuring the success of Sitharaman’s first visit, he reportedly arrived a full half hour early at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery where he was hosting a dinner for her complete with a military band.

Mattis, widely respected in India, has a lot on his plate and who knows how long he will stay given the constant churn in this administration. He is believed to have a contentious relationship with John Bolton, the national security adviser.

What about the successors of Kendall and Webster? They are — Ellen Lord is under secretary for acquisitions, and Tina Kaidanow, director for international cooperation. Kaidanow retired from the State Department as the head the political-military bureau and was key on arms transfer issues.

Lord’s background may hold some clues on the bureaucratic disinterest in the India cell. Before joining the Pentagon, she was president and CEO of Textron Systems, a major defence contractor and maker of Bell helicopters.

Textron was fined $300,000 by the Indian defence ministry earlier this year for failing to meet the tough offset commitments on a $257-million deal to supply precision guided cluster bombs to the Indian Air Force. Textron decided to wind down its operations in India.

With such “direct” India experience and the mandate to sell more and more weapons, Lord must be working hard to gin up enthusiasm.