Warrior Maven, March 18, 2024

By Logan M. Williams, Warrior Editorial Fellow | Author’s Twitter

Warrior Maven had the distinct honor and pleasure to partner with CUTS International and the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum in hosting a roundtable on the Future of the U.S.-India Defense Partnership. This event celebrated the immense progress that has been made in advancing the U.S.-India bilateral relationship through the efforts of recent government administrations in both states — these efforts have transformed this relationship from a hope to an ambition, and then into a reality. India is rapidly becoming one of the United States’ closest friends and most critical partners; and furthermore, since this partnership is burgeoning, there is tremendous potential for future growth, based upon the promise of mutual respect.

While the roundtable highlighted the United States’ and India’s shared priorities for preserving and securing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, especially in the face of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s subversion and aggression, the event also focused upon how the United States supports India’s unique aspirations and interests. For example, CUTS International highlighted their organizational goal of transforming India into a $30-trillion economy (approximately equal to the United States’ GDP and twice China’s present GDP) by 2047 — in honor of India’s centennial celebration of freedom from the British colonial empire. The United States’ cooperation with India within the innovation sphere, particularly increased cooperation between the United States’ and India’s defense industrial base, is critical to India achieving this goal.

Pradeep Mehta, the Secretary General of CUTS International, who made the lengthy trip from India to speak at the event, placed a strong emphasis upon this technological cooperation.

Sec. Gen. Mehta began his remarks by invoking President Biden’s National Defense Industrial Strategy (NDIS), an innovative, sweeping national plan for achieving the defense industrial supremacy that was lost following the Cold War — and the United States’ first-ever effort to create a framework through the Department of Defense to bolster defense manufacturing nation-wide. Mehta noted that President Biden’s ambitious NDIS “discusses the need for sustained global partnerships and acknowledges that by working together, ‘we and our allies and partners can address capacity and capability gaps, enhance production capacity and capabilities, boost economic advantages, and re-enforce alliances.’” Mehta argued that India’s “abundance of skilled manpower” and youth eager to specialize in STEM-related areas, made the future South-East Asian powerhouse an ideal partner for the United States in the spheres of “joint innovation and start-ups, facilities for R&D, technical guidance and mentoring, testing facilities, investments, [skills training], jobs and [other] economic benefits.”

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Mehta then praised the U.S.-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), stating that it presents an opportunity for a “quantum leap in the India-U.S. relationship.” The iCET arrangement is a commitment between these two states to cooperate toward advancing the development of key, strategic technologies — primarily, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, and wireless telecommunications. In addition to these technologies, iCET intends to enhance the cooperative production of critical minerals and rare earth processing technologies, as well as biotechnology — to further reduce dependence upon China. To facilitate the cooperative production of these technologies, the U.S. National Science Foundation and various science agencies in India (including the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and the Department of Biotechnology) inked an implementation agreement creating a research agency partnership. Additionally, a taskforce was initiated between the United States’ Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and the India Electronics Semiconductor Association (IESA), to identify potential synergies for promoting cooperative production and building resilient supply chains. Finally, in the realm of Outer Space, the United States and India have bolstered the pre-existing India-U.S. Civil Space Working Group to include military and defense matters.

Sec. Gen. Mehta argued, in particular, for the co-production of weapons technologies, in addition to simple weapons sales. Weapons sales from U.S. defense corporations, such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ recent sale of 31 MQ-9B “Reaper” hunter-killer drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, provide India’s military with the arsenal that they need to defend themselves, to act as a guarantor of regional stability, and to deter China. However, co-production agreements, such as has been proposed for the Stryker infantry carrier vehicle, enable India to produce American defense technologies domestically, with indigenous infrastructure, factories, and labor force. This component of the present government’s “Made in India” initiative is crucial to achieving the ambitious goal of transforming India’s economy into a $30-trillion powerhouse by 2047.

Mehta and other speakers identified the recent India-U.S. Defense Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) initiative as a crucial component of promoting this cooperation between the United States’ and India’s defense industrial base(s). INDUS-X is a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Indian Ministry of Defense’s Innovations for Defense Excellence (iDEX), intended to promote cooperation between the U.S’ and India’s defense companies, universities, and other stakeholders by providing education, workshops, strategic guidance, and other support.

Mehta, as well as other attendees of the roundtable, emphasized the importance of one particular potential co-production agreement: the General Electric F-414 jet engines. This agreement between General Electric (GE) and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) will provide India with a key capability, since India and Hal have struggled to produce jet engines domestically, due to technology gaps. The GE engine is set to power India’s indigenously produced light combat aircraft, the HAL Tejas Mk2 — “Tejas” translates approximately to “luster,” “shining (like a star),” “radiance,” or “majesty.” India’s domestic production of a strike fighter, paired with the capability to produce a powerful engine to drive the fighter jet, is a significant victory for India’s defense industry, and a source of lasting national pride. Importantly, due to India’s domestic production, the cost of the engine is relatively low, with 99 engines set to cost less than a billion dollars — and domestic production reduces India’s reliance upon foreign entities. This project is especially symbolic of the improving relationship between the United States and India because it has been a prolonged, decade-long process, in which the United States initially only felt comfortable agreeing to half of the necessary technology transfers to produce the engine, and the Pentagon has now agreed to more than 80-percent of the necessary technology transfer.

While military technology is the primary bailiwick of the Center for Military Modernization’s Warrior Maven, the U.S.-India friendship has many other facets.

For example, since 2018, the United States and India have held an annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, where the respective Foreign Ministers and Defense Ministers (i.e., the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense) convene to discuss cooperation on important shared economic and strategic interests. In 2022, India also participated in similar ministerial sessions with Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Necessarily, these discussions have often revolved around countering China’s continued imperial aggression and subversion in the Indo-Pacific region.

These Ministerial discussions can be seen as an extension of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “the Quad,” a strategic partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, dedicated to promoting the establishment of an ambitious “Asian Arc for Democracy.” In 2021, the Quad described a core interest as their “shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” and the securing of a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas.” This commitment to one of the central values of the human rights-centric, liberal world order is part of what enables the development of a strong friendship between the United States and India — India taking a great deal of pride in its status as the world’s largest democracy.

Mehta also mentioned the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which seeks to unite the economies of 12 critical Indo-Pacific allies, in pursuit of further cooperation toward advancing the shared goal of building a fair and prosperous economy for each member state — based upon shared interests and values of building resilient supply chains as well as promoting corporate responsibility, environmentally-sound business practices, and fair labor standards. The Economic Framework is President Biden’s alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a monumental trade deal that was blown up by the Trump Administration. The IPEF is a significant step towards furthering regional economic decoupling from China and its imperialist ambitions.

Additionally, Sec. Gen. Mehta expressed his concerns that recent conflict in the Middle East might derail the India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), perhaps the most significant example of the United States’ and India’s cooperation to integrate India into the liberal, western sphere. IMEC was established as the result of President Biden’s steady, inspiring leadership, connecting key global economies into one massive, multi-modal, trade and infrastructure network. It has been widely heralded as the West’s answer to the PRC’s neocolonial, subjugatory, and peonizing “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Without a doubt, India is the core of this corridor, without whom, the entire enterprise – and all of the geopolitical advantages which it offers – would collapse in an instant.

Finally, Mehta argued that India was poised to serve as a counterbalance against Chinese influence within Africa and amongst third-world nations, due to India’s decades-long record of economic aid and investment within Africa, and because of the “dirty hand” of China’s debt-trap model, in which China directly extracts profits by weaponizing the dire needs of financially disadvantaged states.

Conspicuously absent from Mehta’s speech was any reference to some of the divisive issues that serve to introduce discord into the United States’ and India’s flourishing friendship; such as India’s reluctance to lead on protecting Ukraine’s democracy and preventing the Ukrainian people’s subjugation by a revanchist, colonial Russia, or to publicly adopt any foreign policy position that might strain its relationship with Russia; or, India’s hesitancy to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian – the U.S.-led effort to counter the Houthi threat to civilian shipping – likely, due to India’s concerns about upsetting its traditional partnership with Iran; or, as a final example, the growth of ethnoreligious nationalism, populism, and problematic democratic backsliding under the last several years of President Modi’s leadership.

Representing the United States government at this roundtable were Siddharth Iyer – the Director of South-East Asia Policy with the Department of Defense, and Ryan Holliway – a Political-Military Officer for the India Desk with the Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Both of these individuals have extensive experience within their field. Siddharth Iyer has served as an intelligence and policy analyst for the Indo-Pacific space for the better part of two decades; Ryan Holliway formerly served on the National Security Council as the Director for India Policy.

Both of these esteemed representatives from the United States’ defense and diplomatic apparatus expressed excitement at the remarkable trajectory of the U.S.-India partnership, which is making strides that could not have been imagined even a decade ago.

Much like Sec. Gen. Mehta, neither Siddharth Iyer, nor Ryan Holliway, directly addressed the few, potent areas of remaining disagreement between the United States and India. However, both Iyer and Holliway emphasized the increased trust that exists between the United States and India, which enables the two states to amicably discuss these disagreements, while not losing sight of the core principles which underpin their strengthened friendship.

This trust is what has enabled the United States to make immense progress in its bilateral relationship with India, and much of it has been built in the last 12-months under President Biden’s astute leadership.

While neither Iyer nor Holliway stated so explicitly, it is worth nothing that India’s leaders spent the better part of a century building economic and strategic dependencies upon Russia, which will be difficult to extricate themselves from in short order; more importantly, about 60% of the Indian general public still maintains a largely positive view of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and three-quarters of the general public views gaining access to Russian fossil fuels as more important than supporting the Ukrainian people’s fight for their freedom. Although more Indians hold a positive opinion of the United States than Russia, the historical connection between the Indian and Russian people is proving to be a particularly intractable problem, and it will be the most difficult tie to sever. The best metric for the success of the U.S.-India friendship is its trajectory, which continues to out-pace the hopes and dreams of the most optimistic foreign affairs specialist — and India’s proven dedication to the core values that underpin the liberal, human rights-centric world order.

It is also worth noting that the hallmark of a true friendship is the ability to engage in constructive discourse and criticism, without any trepidation about how one party might react. Certainly, in this way – as this roundtable, itself, proves – the United States’ friendship with India appears as though it will stand the test of time.

Logan Williams currently studies at the University of Connecticut. He is an International Affairs Researcher; Work Published in Newspapers, Magazines, and Journals, Such As: Geopolitics Magazine, Modern Diplomacy, Tufts University’s The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Democracy Paradox, Diario Las Américas, International Affairs Forum, Fair Observer, History Is Now Magazine, UNC at Chapel Hill’s American Diplomacy, The Center for Military Modernization’s Warrior Maven Magazine

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