Arming the Elephant

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Indian Air Force Embraer EMB 1451, courtesy of PL Tandon/Flickr

NEW DELHI – The rise in US arms sales to India is being widely cited as evidence of the two countries’ deepening defense relationship. But the long-term sustainability of the relationship, in which India is more a client than a partner, remains a deep concern for Indians. Does the recently issued Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation, which establishes intent to move beyond weapons sales to the co-production of military hardware, mark a turning point, or is it merely a contrivance to placate India?

The factors driving the strategic relationship’s development are obvious. Since 2006, bilateral trade has quadrupled, reaching roughly $100 billion this year. And, over the last decade, US defense exports to India have skyrocketed from just $100 million to billions of dollars annually.

With US military spending slowing and other export markets remaining tight, American defense firms are eager to expand sales to India, which is now the world’s largest arms importer. And the political environment is amenable to their plans: India now conducts more joint military exercises with the US than with any other country.

For the US, displacing Russia as India’s leading arms supplier was a major diplomatic triumph, akin to Egypt’s decision during the Cold War to shift its allegiance – and its arms supplier – from the Soviet Union to America. The difference is that India can actually pay for the weapons that it acquires.

And the bills are substantial. In recent years, India has ordered American arms worth roughly $9 billion. It is now purchasing additional US weapons systems – 22 Apache attack helicopters, six C-130J turbo military transport aircraft, 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers – worth $5 billion. The value of India’s arms contracts with US firms exceeds that of American military aid to any country except Israel.

Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the US, has called such defense transactions “the new frontier” in US-India relations and “a very promising one at that.” But, while it is certainly a positive development for the US, for India, it represents a new frontier of dependency.

The problem is that India’s defense sector has virtually nothing that it can sell to the US. The country has yet to develop a credible armament-production base like that of, say, Japan, which is co-developing advanced weapons systems with the US. In fact, India depends on imports – not only from major suppliers like the US and Russia, but also from Israel, the world’s sixth-largest arms exporter – to meet even basic defense needs.

Moreover, India’s leaders have not leveraged the bargaining power afforded by its massive arms purchases to advance national interests. They could, for example, try to persuade the US to stop selling arms to Pakistan, or secure better access to the American market for India’s highly competitive IT and pharmaceutical sectors, which are facing new US non-tariff barriers.

Applying the recent declaration on defense cooperation will not be easy. For example, efforts to identify specific opportunities for collaborative weapons-related projects are to be pursued in accordance with “national policies and procedures.” But the two sides cannot truly “place each other at the same level as their closest partners” unless national policies and procedures – especially in the US – evolve sufficiently.

Similarly, the declaration merely reiterates America’s position that it supports India’s “full membership” in the four US-led technology-control regimes: the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Australia Group. Given that US policy is to deny sensitive technologies to those outside these regimes, India’s admission would make all the difference in facilitating technology sharing. But the declaration does not include any commitment from the US to expedite India’s admission

All of this suggests that the US is pandering to India’s desire for a more equal defense relationship. It is willing to co-produce with India some smaller defensive systems, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, in order to pave the way for more multi-billion-dollar deals for US-made systems. The Indian media are doing their part to strengthen the illusion of progress, latching onto the phrase “closest partners” in their acclaim for the agreement.

The irony is that, while America’s pursuit of a stronger defense relationship with India is aimed largely at offsetting an increasingly assertive China, US President Barack Obama has charted a neutral course in Sino-Indian disputes. For example, the US has declined to hold joint military exercises in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China has claimed as “South Tibet” since 2006.

As it stands, the US sells mainly defensive weapons systems to India, while Russia, for example, offers India offensive weapons, including strategic bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a lease on a nuclear submarine. Would the US be willing to sell India offensive weapons – including high-precision conventional arms, anti-submarine systems, and long-range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles – that could help to deter Chinese military preemption?

As US-India defense cooperation broadens, this question will loom ever larger.

Copyright Project Syndicate

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

For additional material on this topic please see:

India and China: Nuclear Rivalry in the Making?

The Tactical Reach and Requirement of the Indian Navy

US – India Homeland Security Cooperation

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.


One reply on “Arming the Elephant”

As long as india has poor self dependence for its weaponry and ammunition and spare parts there can be no bargaining

Currently the situation is so pathetic that even guns for the Police forces are required to be imported So are nigh vision equipment, snow boots and tracking devices The private sector has been kept out of even the basic defence equipment supplies all of which are imported

Speaks poorly of a country which aims to be top of the charts in the world placings

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