Growing strategic convergence between the United States and India has transformed bilateral defence relations over the past two decades. Today, Washington and New Delhi are no longer estranged democracies of the Cold War era, but strategic partners that share common values and an array of core interests.

Looking ahead, the United States and India have an opportunity to deepen bilateral defence relations under the Major Defence Partner framework, which places India on par, for the purposes of transferring advanced technology, with Washington’s closest allies and partners. The MDP designation is unique to India. No other country has been designated a Major Defence Partner of the United States.

However, after three years, Washington and New Delhi have yet to fully define and operationalise this concept, which engenders uncertainty and misaligns expectations. With political tensions on the rise in the Indo-Pacific, building a common understanding of MDP’s scope, aims, and focus is vital.

US-India relations ::

Senior-level engagement drives forward progress: Successive US and Indian leaders have understood this imperative, and President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have continued to support high-level engagement on defence issues, but there is considerable room for both leaders to deepen the relationship further — and leave their own imprint and legacy on it — by investing greater political capital and senior-level bandwidth.

Washington and New Delhi build habits of cooperation: There has been a notable rise in defence cooperation and engagement, as well as an increase in US defence sales to India — from just US$ 220 million in 2005 to US$ 18 billion in 2019. While these gains are significant, the United States and India have far greater potential.

Navigating challenges ::

Arriving at and implementing a common vision for the MDP will require both sides to deftly navigate a host of bureaucratic and bilateral challenges:

Lack of a high-level policy champion: With the exits of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ resignation, the US-India relationship lost important advocates inside the Trump administration at the cabinet level. While work continues diligently at lower levels, senior voices with a broad appreciation of the strategic dimensions driving the relationship are missing, which could make advancing cooperation and managing disputes challenging.

Bilateral disputes impacting the security partnership: The United States and India do not have decades of experience managing irritants in their relationship. There is a risk that bilateral disputes in the commercial or trade sector could bleed into and affect the defence relationship, or that short-sighted policy decisions could have long-term strategic ramifications.

Export controls: Both the US and India continue to be frustrated by obstructive and cumbersome export controls, legal restrictions, and review procedures. Misaligned procurement processes further contribute to misunderstanding and speak to the need for improved efforts to build familiarity with acquisition, budgeting, and procurement processes.

Misaligned bureaucracy and resourcing: If MDP is to result in more meaningful and tangible cooperation, then both Washington and New Delhi need to ensure that the prioritisation of this relationship is reflected in resourcing, bureaucratic organisation, and procedures. At present, the Pentagon has not devoted personnel and resources commensurate with the lofty aspirations articulated in the MDP designation. Meanwhile, India’s bureaucratic system creates bottlenecks due to insufficient manpower in critical offices and byzantine reporting structures that marginalise major stakeholders, contributing to an unwieldy and slow decision-making process.

DTTI frustration: While Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) has served as a “silent enabler” to support greater defence technology cooperation between the United States and India, it has also generated frustration as it has often been perceived, incorrectly, as a venue for fast-tracking sole-source contracts on major defence articles. Technologies identified for co-development and production were unviable and of questionable commercial potential and operational requirements.

Reciprocity: The Major Defence Partner designation is currently one-sided United States designation. India refers to the United States as a “strategic partner” though this nomenclature is used to characterise a number of India’s critical bilateral relationships. To add greater clarity to the relationship, India may wish to consider a unique, corollary designation for the United States.

Actionable recommendations ::

Washington and New Delhi first need to address the range of challenges limiting forward progress under MDP. In line with this goal, The Asia Group (TAG) and Observer Research Foundation (ORF) outline ten actionable recommendations for US and Indian policymakers’ consideration.

1. Create a dedicated India cell within DoD. The United States should develop a dedicated, cross-functional India planning cell (India Cell) involving elements from US Indo-Pacific Command, US Central Command, US Africa Command, the Joint Staff, and OSDP. The India Cell should focus on (1) developing and executing bilateral and multilateral exercises to enhance critical war-fighting capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare and counterterrorism, (2) enhancing jointness among India’s services and interoperability with key partners, (3) strengthening US-India Army-to-Army ties, and (4) exploring forward-leaning opportunities to operationalise foundational agreements like LEMOA and COMCASA.

2. Conclude and operationalise foundational agreements. The United States and India should quickly conclude negotiations on the Information Security Arrangement (ISA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). Meanwhile, the COMCASA and LEMOA, signed in 2018 and 2016, respectively, must be further operationalised. The partners should begin discussions on intelligence sharing under the 2002 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with a particular focus on regional issues.

3. Establish a combined disaster relief team. The Pacific Rim and the Indian Ocean regions are prone to natural disasters — a threat expected to grow increasingly over the coming years. A Combined Disaster Relief Team would coordinate bilateral disaster response planning and training, which could enhance interoperability, help operationalise foundational agreements like LEMOA, and demonstrate to skeptics and adversaries alike of the good the US and Indian militaries can achieve together.

4. Create a new visa category to improve defence exchanges. The United States and India should take steps to promote and streamline exchanges and greater cooperation through the creation of a special visa category, through which senior officials would be able to travel on a regular basis without the entry visa being tied to a specific trip. India could offer a reciprocal program to support the ease of travel for senior US officials.

5. Redouble focus on exchanges and professional military education. Defence exchanges and education should focus on a mixture of operations training, strategic planning and military doctrine, and military professionalisation, among other subjects. The number of defence educational exchanges between the United States and India has stagnated in recent years. This trend should be reversed.

6. Institutionalise requirements and mission-driven technology cooperation. Some immediate areas of focus should be on maritime domain awareness, undersea domain awareness, anti-submarine warfare, and integrated air and missile defence. This may require further export control reform on the US side to reflect India’s unique status as a Major Defence Partner. For example, Congress should also advance amendments to Title 22 — specifically to sections 2571 and 2767, the Arms Export and Control Act — as well as Title 10, section 2350, to specifically recognise India’s special status as a Major Defence Partner.

7. Focus on co-production opportunities. Both countries should be more aggressively exploring co-production opportunities, particularly in next-generation areas that would give a needed boost to the partnership. Additionally, India and the United States should consider how to leverage India’s access to markets in South and Southeast Asia, and in Africa to help India develop into a defence export hub to these regions. Such an initiative would support India’s goal of becoming a major defence exporter while also providing alternatives in countries traditionally reliant on Chinese and Russian defence equipment.

8. Launch DTTI 2.0. DTTI should be reinvigorated, with an explicit mandate to drive cooperative research, development, and production of defence technologies. The DTTI must develop further ties with Indian industry. In addition, governments on both sides must cultivate interest in Indian and American universities that can help incubate joint R&D projects, especially “blue sky” endeavours with little expectations of immediate return.

9. Include regional strategy in the 2+2 Dialogue. Regional strategy should be an explicit area of focus for the US-India 2+2 ministerial and working-level meetings. To ensure a comprehensive discussion, the 2+2 should include representatives from the Joint Staff, PACOM, CENTCOM and the corresponding Indian commands and Integrated Defence Staff, as well as from State, DoD, MEA, and MoD. Along these lines, it would be critical to ensure the key personnel are in place. Therefore, the Trump administration should advance the nomination and confirmation process for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs without further delay. Finally, the United States and India should resume holding regular meetings of the Trade Policy Forum, particularly given ongoing bilateral tensions in this area.

10. Institutionalise MDP in Washington and New Delhi. In recent years, the US Congress has taken steps to institutionalise the Major Defence Partnership designation for India, as well as flesh out the concept — both through the 2017 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. India’s Parliament should consider taking similar steps to first develop and enunciate an Indian corollary designation to MDP to better frame its relationship with the United States, and then similarly pursue legislative initiatives to build out this framework together in partnership with their counterparts in the US Congress. Working together, Members of Congress and India’s Parliamentarians can help to better define and drive the relationship forward while also updating laws to facilitate greater cooperation and ensuring that the future of this strategic partnership is not dependent on individual personalities.