U.S.-India Defense Ties: Rebalancing the Indo-Pacific

Defense relations are today the brightest area of U.S.-India cooperation. The perseverance of forward-thinking leaders in both countries in previous years has resulted in a potent mixture of successes on a range of fronts. Momentum in defense cooperation should easily continue into the Biden administration, with such cooperation becoming “hardwired” given our shared threat assessments in the region and regular, tangible progress in our bilateral ties. However, for the most part, recent successes have positioned the partnership for today; it must evolve and grow to prepare for tomorrow’s challenges. 
The United States and India are currently in a virtuous circle right now. We see a faster pace in areas like signing important defense agreements and expanding military exercises. Once obstacles, such elements of cooperation now appear as markers in our rearview mirrors. This faster pace, paired with a shared security outlook in the region, leads to greater senior-level attention. Senior leaders’ summits then become opportunities to line up other agreements. 
When the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was articulated by the Trump administration, India rightly had concerns about the “Indo.” Did it mean India or the Indian Ocean? If the former, it would be received as a dialectal ploy to pressure India to play a larger role in East and Southeast Asian security affairs. If it meant Indian Ocean, it could signify greater U.S. recognition of the rising security challenges India sees in its maritime neighborhood. 
The answer is now clear. India today has greater access to U.S. regional commands looking at the Indian Ocean; India has invited a U.S. representative to the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR); and the first-ever tri-service exercise, Tiger Triumph, took place in the Bay of Bengal. These crucial steps show balance in the U.S.-India relationship. India, for its part, has been more active in the Pacific. Examples include the Indian Foreign Ministry’s creation of an Indo-Pacific Division in April 2019; a joint naval sailing with the United States, Japan, and Philippines in the South China Sea in May 2019; and the delivery of relief supplies to Fiji in January 2021.
Despite continued progress in our defense relationship, there is much more required. Some areas that can form the basis of a new era of bilateral defense cooperation include:

A shared “future threats” assessment in the South Asia/Indian Ocean Region. Much of our recent work focuses on threats that are on the near horizon. But regional threats to stability may take novel forms, some of which have played out in other geographies. Once our security leaders agree on the types and levels of threats, new areas for cooperation will be more apparent. 

Seamless Indo-Pacific naval operations. The Indo-Pacific as a strategic construct is widely accepted; now the U.S. Navy must cover this massive theater more effectively. This could be achieved by carrying forward Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite’s announcement of early plans to resurrect the First Fleet. If this happens, the Navy should strongly consider stationing it the Indian Ocean. The United States can also consider other models, such as creating a joint task force from the three relevant combatant commands. India should, of course, be extensively consulted as to the operational parameters of the First Fleet so that Delhi has a high degree of comfort; otherwise, this step could cause friction.

Andaman & Nicobar Islands Task Force. Similar to the Aircraft Carrier Working Group under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), the United States can offer technical assistance as India looks at ways to strengthen the capabilities of its most important naval outpost. This can include areas such as maritime surveillance, hardened defense, securing critical island infrastructure, and more. 

Cyber defense and offense. Both nations face adversaries with advanced cyber warfare capabilities. In addition to ongoing work to build civilian cybersecurity cooperation, our militaries should have a regular forum to exchange information on threats and tools.

Future wars working group. The tools of warfare are evolving. New tools like drones will be employed regularly, and space is becoming the next frontier for deploying asymmetrical military technologies.

Review U.S. defense export policies to further align with India’s Procurement Model: India’s defense procurement rules are evolving. For instance, the Defense Acquisition Policy (DAP) 2020 allows for leasing of defense equipment. U.S. defense export policies should be reviewed and modernized to ensure continued competitiveness with India’s new procurement policies.
The United States and India will certainly face bumps as they look to expand security cooperation. The most obvious is possible U.S. sanctions against India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). However, India’s increasing role as a security provider in the region, paired with quantifiable progress in bilateral ties, creates crucial gravity for continued engagement and progress.