by Sumit Ganguly & M Chris Mason

Technology Sharing And Defence Manufacturing

In 2011, India chose not to purchase the U.S. F-16 fighter that had been in contention along with five other aircraft, narrowing its choices to the Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Rafale. The proposed sale was for a tender that the Indian Government had released to acquire some 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft to replace the ageing workhorse of the Indian Air Force, the MiG-21. Though the argument for not shortlisting the Lockheed Martin F-16 was made on technical grounds, it is widely believed in U.S. policy circles that political considerations also played an important role. The Congress Party-led UPA regime, some highly placed U.S. Government officials argue, simply could not handle the political freight of turning over yet another major defence contract to the United States. Earlier that same year, India had acquired 10 C-17 heavy lift aircraft at a cost of US$4.1 billion from the United States. Today, the internal debate over the F-16 drags on.

After the Trump administration assumed office, then-Secretary of Defence James Mattis visited India and made a significant pitch for expanding the existing band of defence cooperation. Despite the Trump administration’s stated interest in building on the existing defence relationship with India and the Modi regime’s apparent willingness to boost the relationship, the bureaucratic hurdles that previously hobbled defence cooperation remain in place. Indian decision-making structures remain hidebound, and India’s policy on offsets often proves to be an obstacle to U.S. defence firms.

That said, a number of projects involving defence cooperation appear to be on the anvil. A handful of examples should illustrate the prospects of increased defence cooperation. In 2017, for example, the United States approved the sale of the General Atomics Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System to the Indian Navy. This system will be incorporated into India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier which, at the moment, is in its planning stage. This technology is significant because it allows for more sorties from a carrier and reduces the thermal signature of the vessel. Earlier in 2017, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates, Reliance Industries, announced an agreement with the U.S. Navy for the repair and servicing of its warships at its Pipavav shipyard in Gujarat. This was made possible by the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.

Other possible cooperative projects are still under discussion. In February 2018, the United States made an offer to India to co-produce armoured personnel carriers in conjunction with Israel. Given that India already has significant defence cooperation arrangements with Israel, the possibility of this trilateral venture coming to fruition looks promising. Despite these developments, three hurdles may still hobble an expansion of U.S.-India defence cooperation. First, India’s defence procurement system stands in acute need of reform. It is complex, labyrinthine, slow, and unlikely to be reformed anytime soon. Second, in a related vein and as has been already discussed, residual misgivings about the reliability of American weapons transfers still linger within important segments of India’s defence establishment. Consequently, those figures may well seek to limit the scope of India’s defence cooperation with the United States. Third, the Modi regime’s emphasis on “Make in India” may not dovetail with the Trump administration’s export policies, which are focused on boosting American weapons exports. Of course, none of these hurdles are insuperable. However, American policymakers need to bear them in mind as efforts to engage India in this realm continue apace.

Intelligence Cooperation

There is solid potential for greater intelligence cooperation between the United States and India. However, both powers’ intelligence services would have to overcome their intrinsic wariness and some heavy historical baggage. Day-to-day cooperation currently takes place through the usual diplomatic channels. Joint talks and exchanges of visits between high-level intelligence officials have been taking place twice a year for several years under the rubric of the “strategic defence dialogue” (once each year in the United States and once in India, at 6-month intervals), although not without some cloak-and-dagger secrecy about identities and locations. Such precautions highlight the degree of caution with which both sides approach the discussions. In the intelligence business, officials are concerned above all with protecting sources and methods—the identities of their sources of information and how it is obtained—and avoiding the compromise of such information via leaks or moles. Mutual trust in the intelligence world takes a very long time to develop and can be quickly broken if a source is uncovered by a friendly country. Another hurdle to greater cooperation between the United States and India is a sense of inequality among senior Indian intelligence officials in regard to the flow of information to and from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to Major General VK Singh (Retd), who previously served in Indian intelligence, there is considerable resentment that the CIA shares very little intelligence with India but routinely pressures India to provide more.

Further complicating matters, the path toward U.S.-India intelligence cooperation has been a rocky one. Several incidents planted the seeds of mistrust along the way that have taken root. It should also be noted that while the CIA and RAW are the main components of the intelligence apparatus of the United States and India, respectively, they are not the only components. The United States has a total of 17 agencies and organisations which collect intelligence. In India, the National Technical Research Organisation was created after 2000 as the hub of India’s drones, spy satellites, and reconnaissance aircraft, similar to the U.S. National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office. After 2000, India also created a Defensive Intelligence Agency that is similar to the organisation of the same name within the U.S. Department of Defence and is charged with similar reporting responsibilities. Regardless of these complexities and challenges, India and the United States share the same primary concern—terrorists in South Asia—and both countries’ intelligence communities are focused intensively on tracking and eliminating these terrorists.

India’s RAW is responsible for external intelligence gathering. The Intelligence Bureau, from which RAW was spun off in 1968, is still responsible for intelligence within India, much like the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. RAW is among the best intelligence services in the world, both highly capable and highly professional. Its greatest strength is the U.S. intelligence community’s greatest weakness—human intelligence. Over the past few decades, RAW has had exceptional success in this domain. Conversely, the greatest strength of the United States in intelligence gathering is in what is euphemistically referred to as “national technical means.”

Counter Terrorism And Special Operations

Both the United States and India have complex and sometimes internally overlapping counter terrorism organisations.

In India, RAW, the Intelligence Bureau, and the Defence Intelligence Agency are statutorily authorised to conduct external operations. In addition, the Indian Army and Navy have specialised military units capable of small-scale strikes of a limited military nature. This is one of the richest potential areas for expanded cooperation in the near term for a number of reasons. First, such training is generally classified, so there is less likelihood that joint training will be subjected to public scrutiny and, thus, would have less potential for political blow-back for New Delhi. In fact, given the political emphasis in both countries on counter terrorism, there would likely be little political objection to any cross training which would enhance the skills of all involved in this domain, as there is strong, domestic, popular support in both countries for strengthening the mechanisms of counter terrorism. Second, these forces in both countries are training almost all the time when they are not deployed, so opportunities for cooperation are plentiful.

Some of the training is in tactical skills and exercises, which are common enough to both countries (with relatively minor variations), so there is little or no concern at that level about sharing classified information. Both sides may have classified delivery systems and capabilities that they would prefer not to reveal, but there are also common techniques, skills, and competitive war-gaming that would make training useful and challenging for both. Indeed, a considerable amount of such training is already being conducted, and both sides seem to benefit from it. However, there has been some speculation that, while not lacking the physical stamina of their U.S. counterparts, the Indian Navy commandos lag behind in high-tech weaponry and advanced support technology, such as dedicated armed drones and specialised assets to deliver them to their objectives. This lag in technology is perhaps a second order consequence of India’s long-standing focus on internal self-defence rather than offensive operations and resulting budgeting priorities.

If Indian Navy commandos were operating more like a 20th century commando force, with more emphasis on well trained soldiers and less on technology than would a 21st-century force that leverages advanced technology across the operating spectrum, then, in turn, this would hamper advanced joint training with the commandos’ U.S. counterparts. This dichotomy could explain the apparent paucity of current joint exercises. Alternatively, they could simply be classified. Whatever the case, in overall strategic terms, there is plenty of room in the domain of counter terrorism—in forces, equipment, and training—for greater cooperation and 46 perhaps, eventually, even interoperability. This potential would be enhanced if India were to follow the lead of the United States in creating a joint special operations command (like the U.S. Southern Command) which would bring operational control of all of India’s Special Forces and special operations forces under one roof.

The other critical areas of strategic cooperation between the two countries should be in Space Technologies, Naval Interoperability & Cyber-Security.


Are the United States and India unnatural partners? Can they actually forge a meaningful strategic partnership that goes beyond bromides and handshakes? At the end of the Cold War, this question may have been superfluous at best and chimerical at worst. The lack of strategic convergence in the relationship virtually precluded the forging of a viable partnership. However, given the movement that has taken place in U.S.-India relations over the past two decades, it is now possible to envisage circumstances under which the partnership might gain real traction. The United States must accept that one size does not fit all in security partnerships, avoid condescension, recognise the paramount importance of the sovereignty issue for India, and stress genuine equality in the relationship. India must move away from the mental artefacts of nonalignment and a patchwork quilt approach to defence acquisitions, which vastly complicates the country’s logistics and repair sectors. Even so, there is no obvious or simple path forward or easy answers to these difficult questions. The strategic and political gaps remain broad and deep. Consequently, even at this stage of progress, our prognosis must be hedged with various caveats. Much depends on how developments evolve at global, regional, and national levels beyond the bilateral equation.

U.S.-India strategic ties today are at an inflection point. It is certainly possible that with deft diplomacy, the two sides can further distance themselves from the baggage of the past and commit to a true strategic partnership. Such a development would suggest a future quite unlike the past. However, given the unpredictable challenges that the rapid rise of the China will pose for Asia (and, indeed, the world), leaders in both Washington and New Delhi may deem that the time has arrived to seize the possibility of forming an enduring strategic partnership—natural or not. (Abridged for suitability)