Without a doubt, deepening defense relations have led the transformation in bilateral ties between the United States and India during the last fifteen-odd years. Whether one examines military-to-military exchanges, defense trade, cooperative development of defense technologies, or defense industrial investment, the picture in 2015 is so far removed from where things stood in 2001 as to defy comparison. Obviously, the record of achievement is more dramatic in some fields than in others, but on balance, both countries today are more deeply engaged in diverse forms of defense cooperation—the highest manifestation of friendship in high politics—than is common for states that do not share a formal alliance.

The meetings on December 10 between the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Indian Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar will be counted as successful if they provide new direction to this already-burgeoning partnership. In particular, if the U.S. aim of accelerating India’s rise in power is to be accomplished rapidly in a way that benefits both nations, then the practical ends of bilateral defense cooperation must transcend interoperability and enable India to secure a lasting operational advantage over its local competitors. To the degree that U.S.-Indian defense cooperation evolves in this direction, it will have had a positive and durable impact on the strategic fortunes of both democracies as they navigate the evolving geopolitical challenges in Asia.          

The Long and Winding Road to Defense Cooperation

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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For all its recent achievements, the functional objective of expanded U.S.-Indian defense cooperation has thus far been rather modest. During the 1990s, when bilateral defense ties were gradually developing during then U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration, the aim of closer engagement was largely “getting to know you.” In the aftermath of the Cold War, the dissolution of bipolarity removed one significant structural reason for continued U.S.-Indian estrangement. U.S. policymakers, then, recognizing the benefits of reaching out to an emerging power, conceived of closer defense ties mainly as advancing the objective of increasing familiarity with the large and capable armed services of a hitherto neglected, but now important, fellow democracy. Consistent with this vision, military-to-military exchanges received greatest priority, with modestly increased Indian access to discrete pieces of U.S. military equipment following distantly.

In the first decade of the new century, when then president George W. Bush’s administration embarked on a decisive transformation of U.S.-Indian relations, defense cooperation was conceived of far more ambitiously because India was viewed as a unique geopolitical partner of the United States. Washington, in fact, took upon itself the obligation of assisting India’s rise because its ascendancy was judged to foster the stable balance of power that might thwart any possible Chinese domination of Asia. At the same time, such U.S. support was expected to deepen fraternal bonds with a major non-Western democracy whose comprehensive success would contribute to a thriving liberal international order.

These goals justified the revitalization of defense cooperation in ways that went beyond mere military-to-military exchanges and occasional defense sales. Rather, they included efforts at positioning the United States as a major supplier of defense goods to India, increasing defense industrial cooperation, and beginning the first efforts at collaborative defense research and development.

Although some of these initiatives did not bear much fruit in the face of historical U.S. technology transfer restrictions, Indian fears of vulnerability to possible U.S. sanctions in a crisis, and the enormous commitment of political energy on both sides to consummating their civilian nuclear deal, the Bush era ended on a fecund note as far as defense cooperation was concerned. For a nation that had long been suspicious of India and its legacy of nonalignment, the United States was resolved to build a relationship with India that, despite the latter’s commitment to strategic autonomy, would permit both sides to pursue the goal of interoperability. This objective implied that the United States and India would pursue the long-term ambition of developing those military capabilities that would enable them to engage in combined operations, should such operations be required to defend common national interests. As Senator John McCain would reiterate in 2010, after President Bush had left office, the United States views “the enhancement of India’s defense capabilities and its increasing interoperability with U.S. forces as . . . positive. Now, I realize that many in India are skeptical of such a proposal, viewing it as limiting India’s autonomy and eroding its sovereignty. In fact, the opposite is true. The decision about whether to cooperate with the United States will always rest with India’s democratic leaders; greater interoperability simply creates more options for how to cooperate if India chooses to do so.”

On this one issue, President Barack Obama has actually doubled down on the policies of his predecessor. Treating the expansion of the U.S.-Indian relationship as a strategic priority for the United States—in fact, articulating its importance in instructions to his entire administration—he pursued the comprehensive expansion of defense cooperation with New Delhi long before it was patently obvious that China would pursue various assertive policies in Asia and with respect to the larger international order. Under Obama, even those elements of bilateral defense cooperation that were previously flagging—namely cooperative research and development and defense industrial collaboration—received a fillip. And those components that had already demonstrated progress, such as military-to-military exchanges and defense trade, scaled new heights that had been simply unimaginable when bilateral ties were at their nadir in the aftermath of India’s 1998 nuclear tests.

Further, and to the surprise of many, the Obama administration also articulated clearly its vision of—and support for—Indian leadership throughout the Indian Ocean basin. In 2001, in his confirmation hearings, Bush’s secretary of state designate, Colin Powell, gingerly suggested that “India has the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and its periphery,” concluding that “we need to work harder and more consistently to assist India in this endeavor.” Barely eight years later, Obama’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, would forthrightly declare, “In coming years, we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”

Now Needed: A Bolder Step Forward

From the hesitant beginnings of the 1990s when the United States and India were cautiously feeling each other out, to the second decade of the twenty-first century with both nations comfortable and confident enough to promulgate a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, the transformation in bilateral defense cooperation is visible for all to see. The election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India in 2014 only intensified the imperatives for bolder collaboration. Unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who also ardently sought a strategic partnership with the United States but was prevented from consummating it by pressures from within his own party, Modi neither has the patience for the traditional Indian shibboleths about nonalignment and strategic autonomy nor is he diffident about cementing stronger ties with Washington because of its value for India’s vital interests.

Given this evolution in Indian leadership attitudes toward collaborating with the United States, the goal of bilateral defense cooperation thus far—interoperability—must also undergo a metamorphosis. Unquestionably, both nations should continue to work toward enabling their military forces to synergize their activities in the field when required, and to that end should shape their planning, procurement, training, and exercises as appropriate—with the full understanding that unilateral employment will likely remain the primary means of exercising coercive power. Yet, the importance of strengthening India’s pivotal role as a force for stability in the Indo-Pacific region in the years ahead demands that the prevailing goal of interoperability be eclipsed by a newer ambition, namely that of enabling India to maintain a competitive operational advantage over its regional adversaries.

India’s capacity to acquire and sustain a persistent operational edge over its immediate rivals, Pakistan and China, remains in American interests as the Asian geopolitical system continues its evolution, especially in the face of chronic instability in Pakistan and the continuing expansion of Chinese military power. Assisting New Delhi to overcome the challenges posed by both of these threats, which will persist for a long time to come, is not only the logical predicate of the now-conventional U.S. strategic objective of aiding India’s rise. It is also essential to advancing Washington’s aims of constructing an Asian power balance that limits China’s ability to intimidate its neighbors, containing Pakistan’s capacity for self-destructive behaviors, and providing India with the requisite surplus of military power that satisfies its immediate defense needs while still permitting the appropriate excess necessary to underwrite its role as a net provider of public goods in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Enabling New Delhi to sustain a competitive operational advantage over Islamabad and Beijing in military terms should therefore become the new functional objective of U.S.-Indian defense cooperation. This aim comports with larger U.S. grand strategy and would breathe new life into and offer new direction for security cooperation more generally.

Realizing this objective is easier where Pakistan is concerned, because India is already the stronger power in this dyad. But it would require Washington to be more cognizant of when its own military assistance to Pakistan—which is likely to continue indefinitely—turns out to undermine the larger functional aims of defense cooperation with India. On occasion, the tensions in these competing policies may not lend themselves to conclusive resolution, but they ought to at least be recognized and actively managed in ways that do not weaken the partnership with India because of its importance to larger U.S. strategic interests in Asia.

A similar problem is unlikely to materialize in the case of China, since U.S. policymakers, recognizing the threats posed by an ever more powerful Beijing, are unlikely to strengthen Chinese military capabilities in ways that were contemplated prior to 1989. Yet the Chinese challenge will be even more daunting than the Pakistani one because the current Sino-Indian power balance substantially disadvantages India and hence will require greater U.S. assistance if New Delhi is to preserve its traditional military advantage along the Chinese border while acquiring the capacity to neutralize the emerging Chinese threat in the wider Indian Ocean.

New Directions

If the goal of nurturing India’s operational advantage is to be achieved in these circumstances, U.S.-Indian defense cooperation must evolve further in three promising directions.

First, the United States must make conscious decisions to provide India with preferential access to advanced, high-leverage military technologies that would enable New Delhi to gain battlefield superiority in its geographic areas of interest. This will require U.S. policymakers to review current restrictions on the transfer of several next-generation combat systems and, wherever possible, accommodate the current Indian desire to co-produce or manufacture them in India. So long as American military superiority, or the security of U.S. treaty allies, is not compromised by more liberal military technology access for India, Washington should consider many of the current Indian requests for advanced weapons favorably.

India, for its part, needs to help the process along. It should quickly conclude the outstanding agreements intended to protect either critical technologies or vital intangibles. By doing so, Indian policymakers can shore up the confidence of their American counterparts with respect to the protections that must be afforded to all puissant systems that could be transferred.

Second, bilateral defense cooperation must expand to offering India advanced military training in critical functional specialties. In recent years, New Delhi has, after concerted efforts, acquired new warfighting capabilities such as airborne warning and control systems, high-altitude air antisubmarine warfare platforms, and unmanned aerial vehicles. New combat capabilities on the anvil include conventional takeoff and landing aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and long-range air and missile defense systems. A central element of increasing India’s operational advantage in the field will be enabling its warfighters to use these advanced systems to their technological limits.

Given the U.S. proficiency in operating such weapons, permitting India access to U.S. training schools—and transferring intangible knowledge in the form of shared tactics, techniques, and procedures—would make an enormous difference to India’s ability to use its new capabilities effectively. This would require the United States to reconfigure both the opportunities currently offered to India under the International Military Education and Training program, as well as to offer to post Indian officers at the relevant combatant commands in order to strengthen liaison and coordination at the operational level. Given the obvious benefits for India, it is unfortunate that Indian policymakers have still not responded positively to current U.S. offers on the latter, all the more because these proposals were precipitated by New Delhi’s interest in the first instance.

Third, the United States and India must develop an ambitious program of complex military exercises in all warfighting domains and supplement these with combined operations wherever possible. The secret to developing operational proficiency and, by implication, securing an operational advantage on the battlefield lies in constant and diverse training.

The Indian military already has a well-developed schedule of year-round exercises for all components of its combat forces. Yet nothing hones competence like the ability to practice with one’s international peers, especially those that deploy advanced military capabilities not in one’s own inventory. U.S.-Indian military exercises are indeed frequent and diverse. But those joint exercises are for the most part still relatively simple and oftentimes overly scripted. If the aim of ensuring India’s competitive operational advantage over its adversaries is to be realized in the near term, bilateral military exercises must become more complex and more routine, and they should involve the best combatant capabilities on both sides—expanding to regularly include other friendly partners as well. Providing access to each other’s major training ranges would also be a valuable evolution in this process.

There have been significant improvements in the bilateral exercise program to date, but the potential for improvement here, especially in the areas of antisubmarine warfare, large-force air employment, specialized land warfare operations, missile defense, and cybersecurity operations, is enormous and will only redound to mutual advantage. Taking the gains from familiarization and common tactics, techniques, and procedures and applying them in combined operations represents the acme of defense cooperation. Without prejudice to the national interests of both nations, there are already remarkable opportunities for such activities in the Indian Ocean. It would therefore behoove India, which stands to gain tremendously, to examine seriously the U.S. proposals in this regard that are already on the table.


After almost two decades of efforts at building a new strategic partnership, the United States and India now stand on the cusp of realizing their ambition to entrench meaningful defense cooperation despite the absence of any formal alliance. If the U.S. goal of aiding India’s rise as a means of protecting an Asian power balance that is favorable to American interests is to be accomplished, the functional objective of U.S.-Indian defense cooperation will have to expand beyond interoperability to furnishing India with an operational military advantage over its immediate rivals. Only such a condition would permit India to play the role that limits both the pathologies arising from Pakistan’s weakness as well as the willfulness emerging from Chinese strength.

Because aiding India’s rise comports perfectly with American interests, Washington ought to be ambitious with regard to future defense cooperation with New Delhi. Policymakers in the United States should think expansively about increasing India’s access to advanced military technologies, providing the Indian armed forces with new opportunities for training with their American counterparts, and pursuing ever more complex military exercises with India that hone common skills in ways that would advantage both nations in the wider Indo-Pacific.

India’s government (including its military leadership), for its part, ought to seize the opportunities offered by Prime Minister Modi’s bold overtures toward the United States and conclude the outstanding agreements whose absence has precluded the transfer of advanced military technologies. Meanwhile, the government should move unflinchingly to accept the U.S. offers of joint military operations that would only benefit India at a time when it faces serious and growing external threats.

If both Washington and New Delhi can thus move complementarily to cement their growing defense ties in ways that were inconceivable barely two decades ago, the first principle underlying the transformation of the U.S.-Indian relationship—assisting India’s ascendancy as a means of preserving the balance of power that favors freedom in Asia—will have been amply justified to the lasting benefit of both partners. If Defense Minister Parrikar’s current visit to the United States yields further progress in this direction, it will have been an important investment in realizing the promise of U.S.-Indian defense ties.