Pentagon’s recently downsized sole country-specific cell may experience an upturn in its fortunes

Last month, reports emerged of the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC) being shifted out of the Pentagon to an administrative building about six miles away. Established under the Obama administration, the IRRC is the only country-specific cell focused on increasing “operational tempo” of initiatives under the Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) for co-production and co-development of military equipment. The relevance of DTTI –– and the IRRC by that extension, has thus been at the core of the evolving Indo-US dynamic, due to its purview over joint-development of crucial platforms like the next-generation Raven unmanned aerial vehicles and integrated protection ensemble increment-2 (personnel protection gear against chemical and biological threats). Given the exclusivity that the IRRC accords to the Indo-US dynamic, varied analyses reading the tea leaves over the cell’s ouster from the Pentagon thus emerged.

While one analysis deemed the move to signify the United States having “lost interest in India as a strategic partner”, another deemed it to possibly usher an understanding that “India is not the natural ally of the US”. Beyond such analyses that prematurely spelt a spiralling of the Indo-US dynamic however, some offered a more micro-level analysis. For instance, one analysis professed looking hard at Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Ellen Lord’s past.

Currently serving as the chief of AT&L, Lord was formerly the president and CEO of Textron Systems. Earlier this year, Textron was fined $300,000 by India for failing to meet certain offset commitments to supply precision-guided cluster bombs. As a result, Textron even decided to wind down its India operations. In this context, analysis drawing a parallel between Lord’s background and the sudden “bureaucratic disinterest in the India cell”, holds water given the role of the chief of AT&L in IRRC’s functioning.

Given the sensitivity of technology transfer initiatives and the slow –– yet promising, development of the Indo-US dynamic at the bureaucratic and institutional levels, a hands-on approach spearheaded by the chief of the AT&L makes sense.

Therefore, although the US Secretary of Defence actively participates in the workings of the IRRC, it is the International Cooperation Office of the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics that mainly drives its functioning.

Moreover, in pushing for greater defence cooperation with India and its integration into the US regional calculus, it was a former AT&L chief (Ashton Carter) who went on to preside over the establishment of the IRRC as President Obama’s Secretary of Defence. Recognising impediments on levels of bureaucracy, it was the Carter mantra that sought platforms like the IRRC as a special mechanism to fast-track harnessing economic and defence ties beyond differences — on trade, diplomatic and strategic fronts — to facilitate minimal-yet-positive developments.

In view of Ellen Lord’s sour experience with the Indian dispensation then, the shifting of the IRRC may bear signs of the diminished efficacy of the Carter mantra. However, this may be short-lived, as reports emerge over Lord’s own departure from Trump’s defence establishment.

Reportedly, Lord “is uncomfortable with Trump’s statements” and “not happy” with Deputy Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan assuming the role of Acting Secretary of Defence since the departure of James Mattis. Furthermore, Shanahan and Lord have had a rocky relationship. Most recently, in October, Shanahan accused Lord and her office of dropping “the ball” with regards to an “unpopular proposed change to the way the Pentagon handles industry cash flow.

In addition, former Boeing executive Shanahan’s ascendancy as Acting Secretary of Defence may also address the recent “bureaucratic disinterest” that seems to have crept in with regards to India.

Under the Trump administration, the overt influence of Boeing –– the world’s largest aerospace company, has been apparent. Given Trump’s “personal relationship” with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing has won successive lucrative bids towards Pentagon arms tenders.

In eyeing foreign markets as well, Boeing has hardly had a discouraging experience like Textron in India. In addition to being a burgeoning arms market, Boeing recently also rated India to “become the third-largest commercial aviation market by the early 2020s,” with India set to order “a record of up to 2,300 new planes worth $320 billion from global planemakers over the next 20 years.

Furthermore, the Trump administration’s inclination to prioritise US arms exports is no secret. Examples of the same go from Trump referencingSaudi Arabia’s arms imports from the US to justify inaction on the Khashoggi matter, to pushing the Shinzo Abe government in Japan to purchase more US stealth fighters to “narrow the bilateral trade imbalance”. As a result, under the Trump administration, American foreign arms sales have totalled $55.66 billion in 2018 – registering a 33% increase to reach its highest ever point since 2012.

With regards to India specifically as well, it is hard to predict a downturn due to Ellen Lord’s predispositions as the broader Indo-US trajectory in the recent past has been promising to say the least. For instance, in the period 2013-17, the US witnessed “a blazing growth in its arms exports to India, recording over 550% growth”. This upward trend is sure to continue with the US under Trump pushing for oil, gas and arms exports to square off trade imbalances with allies and partner nations. In this vein probably, India’s new envoy to the US recently announced New Delhi to have “committed to purchase $5 billion worth of oil and gas from the US per annum and $18 billion worth of defence equipment that are under implementation”.

Lastly, Acting Secretary Shanahan – and by that extension influence of arms exporters like Boeing, seems to be here to stay given Trump’s imbroglio over the border wall and limited options on appointing a successor to lead the Pentagon. Shanahan has broadly been known as a “compliant figure” on controversial issues like the Space Force and banning transgenders in the military. In the near future, if Trump declares a national emergency to reallocate funds from the military’s $700+ billion budget to build the wall, a complaint Defence Secretary could be particularly useful. For instance, after a declaration of national emergency, Shanahan can “direct the army’s civil works program to construct a structure needed for national defense and use the military budget to do it.

As for appointing a successor to lead the Pentagon, Trump’s options to tap a credible Republican nominee who can get confirmed by the Congress with a bipartisan mandate are slim. Although the recent mid-term elections led to some gains for Republicans in the Senate, their majority hangs by a slim margin with 53 seats. Further, discontent continues to brew within Senate Republicans over Trump’s policies –– often voiced by the likes of Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), or reflected in the voting records of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Hence, in case of a future contingency, such as a Senate vote on convicting Trump following a Democrat-controlled House opting for impeachment proceedings, every single Republican Senator’s vote would matter for the fate of Trump’s presidency. This calculation seems to have figured in Trump’s mind when he recently said that he is in “no hurry” to replace Acting Secretary Shanahan and that “I sort of like ‘acting’” because “it gives me more flexibility.

Thus, with the possible departure of the AT&L chief Ellen Lord, and the heightened influence of arms exporters like Boeing with Shanahan continuing to be at the helm of affairs, a shot in the arm –– if not a relocation back at the Pentagon, for the IRRC may be on the cards.