I recently wrote this short opinion piece for the Observer Research Foundation, a private think-tank in Delhi.
Shared values do not always lead to common interests. Shared threats, however, have a way of cementing partnerships beyond rhetorical flourishes. This article argues that both India and the United States face a growing anti-access challenge. By working together to mitigate A2/AD threats, they may come to a better mutual understanding on major security issues in Asia.
Shared values do not always lead to common interests. This harsh truism has been brutally hammered home to all those in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, who have trumpeted the virtues of the Indo-US Strategic Partnership over the past decade. From a “natural alliance based on shared values”, the Indo-Us partnership seems to have slipped into a succession of frustrations and misunderstandings. Refusing to support US-led sanctions against a rapidly nuclearizing Iran and seemingly reluctant to provide any kind of moral leadership at the United Nations Security Council; India has demonstrated that while it may reap the benefits of a democratic system at home, it still tends to behave in the amoralistic tradition of a realist power abroad.
This revelation should not be viewed as a major setback to Indo-US ties, but rather as the perfect opportunity for a shift in tone. Grandiloquent verbiage on shared democratic values has provided a solid ideological bedrock for the Indo-US partnership. In order to cement ties, however, nothing is more effective than the crude language of shared threats. Over past years, successive US administrations have engaged India on issues such as nuclear proliferation, Islamic terrorism, and the uncertainties linked to China’s rise. Looking ahead, one cannot help but notice that both nations’ armed forces, and in particular their navies, face remarkably similar future challenges.
Indeed, both nations operate blue-water, carrier-centric navies whose continued ability to project power risks being negated in the face of potential adversaries’ growing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. In the Western Pacific, Beijing is pursuing an aggressively missile-centric strategy, which seeks to vault the PLA’s precision-strike capability from land to sea. The Chinese have developed an anti-ship variant of the DF-21 ballistic missile, which has reportedly reached initial operating capability, and have invested en masse in the acquisition of diesel-electric submarines optimized for missions of sea denial. The threat to American surface vessels is compounded by China’s growing investment in high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles, and continued interest in offensive mine warfare. Lightly defended American forward bases in Japan could find themselves suddenly annihilated under a barrage of China’s numerous conventionally armed ballistic missiles, and US carrier groups could become wasting assets, as their growing vulnerability gradually renders them operationally irrelevant.
India, for its part, faces strikingly similar threats, albeit on a much smaller scale. Pakistan, since independence, has opted for a strategy of offensive sea denial, heavily dependent on the use of submarines and anti-ship missiles, in order to offset its neighbor’s conventional naval advantage. This asymmetric strategy is currently being pursued through the induction of small, stealthy fast-attack craft armed with anti-ship missiles, and via an ever growing inventory of land-based, Chinese-made, high speed cruise missiles. The Pakistani Navy also hopes to add six more submarines equipped with Air Independent Propulsion and submarine-launched cruise missiles to its fleet. Meanwhile, the growing range and sophistication of China’s anti-access systems risks impacting negatively on the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean. If deployed by Second Artillery Brigades stationed in the western reaches of the Tibetan plateau, or from the hills of Yunnan, China’s DF 21D could encompass most of India’s maritime backyard under its extended threat envelop. Judging by the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military power, Chinese missile strike range already covers large swathes of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. In the future, this capability could be harnessed by Beijing in order to provide a protective umbrella to its vessels operating in the Indian Ocean, or to shield its Pakistani ally’s assets during an Indo-Pakistani conflict. Employed in a more offensive manner, it could be used to sink Indian destroyers or aircraft carriers, or to target India’s coastal infrastructure.
In the face of this shared threat, how can Delhi and Washington cooperate more effectively? For the time being, the 2006 Indo-US Framework for Maritime Security Cooperation focuses largely on non-traditional security threats, such as piracy, conventional and non-conventional arms proliferation and smuggling.“Hard” maritime challenges, however, such as shared anti-access threats, also need to be placed at the heart of the US-India maritime cooperative agenda. This can be accomplished in various ways.
- First of all, by jointly working towards an AirSea Battle Concept "with Indian characteristics".
For the past few years, the DOD has been laboring to mitigate the anti-access threat through the crafting of a transformational new concept: AirSea Battle. The latter calls for greater jointness in-between the US Air Force and Navy, and hinges upon the reprioritization of long-range weapon programs such as the new-generation stealth bomber and the X-47B long-range carrier-borne attack drone. Indian naval and airpower strategists could learn a great deal through participating in AirSea Battle wargames with their US counterparts. Indeed, the Indian Navy and Air Force have been historically averse to pursue any kind of meaningful operational synergy. While both services have initiated joint training under the aegis of the TROPEX exercises annually held in the Bay of Bengal, they still prefer to coordinate -rather than to genuinely fuse- their combat exercises. The Indian Air Force and Naval Aviation are provided with distinct, pre-designated “air corridors” in which to operate and respond to the instructions of their own service-specific commanders. Institutionalized joint Navy/Air Force exercises in-between the US and India could go a long way towards helping Indian mindsets change, and eventually give birth to true interoperability. In 2010, US PACOM and the Indian IDS (Integrated Defense Staff) conducted their first joint tabletop exercise, entitled JEI (Joint Exercise India), in Alaska. This is a promising first step towards bilateral multiservice cooperation, and should be leveraged in order to begin planning for joint US-India AirSea Battle Exercises in the Indian Ocean.
- Second, both countries should draw on the conclusions of their joint threat assessment.
Defense transfers and sales, by focusing on certain of India’s clearly identified vulnerabilities, would be more targeted and, therefore more successful. The Indian Navy, for example, presents certain critical weaknesses in terms of modern anti-submarine warfare, and has yet to invest significantly in point-defense systems for its surface fleet. In the future, it may also wish to opt for US-made long-range carrier drones in order to penetrate highly contested environments with greater ease and minimal loss of life. The Indian Air Force, after having more fully interiorized the logic unraveled by AirSea Battle, may come to privilege strike range over strike density, and aspire to acquire American long-range stealth bombers. With time, these key areas could grow to form the structural pillars of Indo-US defense cooperation. This could prove very lucrative for US defense firms, which would find themselves in the privileged position of almost exclusively catering to India’s growing AirSea Battle needs. New Delhi, for its part, could benefit from state-of-the-art US technology, as well as from the enhanced tactical expertise it would glean from joint warfighting exercises of unprecedented magnitude and complexity.
- Finally, an Indian military more capable of countering anti-access challenges would not only display a greater degree of interoperability with US armed forces, but also a heightened appreciation for American security concerns in Asia.
In the unhappy event of a Sino-US conflict breaking out in the Western Pacific, India could be eventually called upon to provide a stabilizing, flanking presence west of the Malacca Straits, ensuring the safety of sea-lanes of communications while American naval strength is concentrated elsewhere.
It is through such initiatives, which focus on shared concerns and perceived threats, that the Indo-US strategic partnership will reveal its true potential. Until then, the ritualized repetition of the importance of shared values may only lead to false hopes, and thus to perpetual disappointment.