From being an aggressor force to being one of the most trusted strategic partner, the United States of America has in the past few decades effortlessly sailed ever closer to India. The Indo-US relationship, solidly built up on mutual trust and shared values, has stood the test of time, be it during the cold war era or Indo-Pak aggressions, to only emerge ever closer.

The relations have witnessed a metamorphic rise, especially in the past decade and a half, as both the democracies have strived to check the onslaught of a raising China. From increased trade to unmatched military cooperation, comparable to what US shares with it’s closest NATO allies, the relations has steadily been sailing on course to being one of the most robust bilateral relationship.

However, it has largely been feared that under the Trump administration, the relations have hit an air pocket, throwing a wrench into decades of diplomacy. Even though numerous bilateral meetings have been held between the highest offices; diplomats and several think tanks, on the diplomatic beat, fear that both administrations have failed to effectively break the logjam in the relations.

Seasoned diplomats at both India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the State Department credit this unforeseen bump in the relations, to the largely uncharted foreign policy being followed by the Trump administration. In fact, the maiden meet between PM Narendra Modi and President Trump in June, 2017 was largely aimed at addressing these concerns. Even though deliverables from the meeting were considerably low, the leaders decided to chart a new course in the relations by deciding to initiate a high-powered ‘2+2 Dialogue’.

Drawing up on the efforts of the leaders, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met their counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis in New Delhi on September 6 for the inaugural 2+2 dialogue between the strategic partners.

Indian Minister of Defense Nirmala Sitharaman welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis to New Delhi, India, Sept. 5, 2018. Mattis is in New Delhi for the first-ever U.S.-India “2+2” ministerial dialogue, in which Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will meet with their Indian counterparts to discuss issues and reaffirm a shared vision for the region. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

Termed a ‘watershed movement’ in the Indo-US relations, the 2+2 dialogue is primarily aimed towards creating a synergy in diplomatic and security efforts between the partners. These annual dialogues provide a platform for exchange of views directly between the principals involved in shaping the country’s foreign and defence policies.

The inaugural high-stakes dialogue, which was held after being postponed on two successive occasions, has been successful in insulating the strategic and defence co-operation from the contagious trade disputes. Deliverables from the maiden meet have, in fact, far exceeded the expectations setting a new tone in the strategic partnership.

Elevation of Defence Co-operation

Defence Co-operation has emerged as a cornerstone in the Indo-US bilateral relations. From having had almost no defence trade with India in the 90s to now being one of the largest supplier to the Indian armed force, the USA has clawed deep into India’s lucrative defence market. In the last decade alone, US companies have been successful in selling high-tech military hardware, ranging from front-line battleships to crucial strategic lift aircraft, worth over US $15 Billion to Indian forces.

Successive administrations both at New Delhi and Washington have been trying relentlessly to add pace to this vertical. Be it the democrats or the  republicans at power, India has been a nation they have stoked regardless in an effort to sustain America’s efforts in the region.

In 2016, the USA accorded India a ‘Major Defence Partner (MDP)’ status, putting India on par with the America’s closest NATO allies and partners. This promised India unhindered access to critical and sensitive defence technology and hardware. However, both the partners have failed to operationalise this much vaunted status, even after successive National Defense Authorisation Acts, US’ defence budget document, having reaffirmed India as a MDP.

The 2+2 dialogue, which had senior MoD and Pentagon officials in attendance, provided an apt platform towards devising a roadmap to operationalising the MDP status and also towards taking full advantage of this elevation.

The United States has been making due efforts to energise this MDP status and in this regard the Department of Commerce on August 1 accorded India with STA – 1 (Strategic Trade Authorisation – 1) stratus. This license exception, which has been accorded to only US’ closest allies, will give India access to sensitive dual-use items for both defence and space applications. Armed with STA – 1 license exception, India will here forth need no separate licenses for export of these sensitive items, thereby drastically cutting down acquisition timeframes.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, speaking about the elevation of India to STA Tier – 1 status, said “ Welcome USA’s recent decision to elevate India to STA Tier – 1 status for access to advanced U.S dual-use items, we are hopeful that our defence industry cooperation can also move forward faster in tandem with other dimensions of the defence partnership.”

A Boeing P8I long range maritime surveillance aircraft of the Indian Navy; Courtesy – Boeing.

Secretary James Mattis, speaking after the meet, termed it a successful consultative meet between the world’s two largest democracies and said that India and USA had uncovered no difficulties in moving forward on a number of pragmatic steps to draw themselves closer together in terms of security.  Speaking about the future course in the relations, he said, “We will continue working together, join hands and expand India’s role as a primary major defence partner, to elevate our relationship to a level commiserate with our closest allies and partners.”

Another key concern that the principals addressed was the delay in programs being handled under Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Launched in 2012, under the watch of then Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, DTTI was mooted to drive defence cooperation away from the traditional ‘buyer seller’ dynamic, making it independent of bureaucratic obstacles. Projects developed under DTTI have the potential to arm Indian defence manufacturers and technology developers with niche technologies and also has the scope for inception of projects on a co-development and co-production basis.

Till date, seven joint working groups (JWGs) have been formed under DTTI. However, progress with these JWGs have been far from satisfactory. For instance, the Jet Engine Technology Joint Working Group (JETJWG) is on the verge of closure and this is after terms of reference had been agreed upon. If India ever wants to develop a true indigenous fighter aircraft, it is this core technology that the country needs to realise and it needs to happen at the earliest. JWGs for development of land warfare systems, joint intelligence collection systems, chemical and biological protection systems for soldiers have also been making sluggish progress, according to sources.

The Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC) has by far been the only JWG to have made considerable progress. Indian Navy has been making great in roads into the development of EMALS (Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) technology for its future carriers under the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE) vertical of the JWGACTC. JWGs on aerial systems is concentrating on development of a “roll-on, roll-off” intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance modules for C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, which according to sources is making satisfactory progress.

The principals are believed to have agreed to ratify the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC) at Pentagon and also towards empaneling an individual with experience in defence acquisition and technology in the DTTI leadership. Further, a Memorandum of Intent has been signed between the US’ Defense Innovation Unit and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation – Innovation for Defence Excellence (DIO – iDEX).

Today, India’s defence forces carry out more training exercises with the US forces than with any other foreign partners. Ranging from counter-terrorism exercises to full fledged war-games in the high seas, Indian and US forces are working closer than ever to drastically increase their interoperability levels. As India and US steer towards encountering a larger common threat, China, in the Indo-Pacific waters, it crucial that the military cooperation between the partners is ratified.

The principals have agreed upon on putting in place and enabling a framework for increasing the co-operation between the military forces and defence establishments. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “The 2+2 presents a historic opportunity to develop our partnership and to explore ways of enhancing our security cooperation.”

India and US have also agreed to hold the first ever joint training military exercise, involving forces on the land, air and sea, next year. This joint exercise, which will involve amphibious operations, will be one of the largest ever such exercise to be done by India.

India will also be deploying a liaison officer at the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) at Bahrain. NAVCENT is in charge of naval operations in the waters of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Seas. This will increase India’s readiness in countering any hostile threats along its operational horizon.

Further, a joint counter-terrorism exercise will complement the existing exercises. Indian and US forces have also agreed to increasing cooperation in dealing with cyber warfare threats.

A MiG 29K Fighter Aircraft of the Indian Navy makes a low pass over an US Navy Aircraft even as the venerable F-18s remain ready for action on the decks; Courtesy – US Navy.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of 2+2 dialgoue would be the conclusion of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which had been in negotiations since 2007. COMCASA, an Indian-specific version of CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), allows for India and US to seamlessly share and communicate data collected by their platforms.

Secretary Pompeo termed the conclusion of COMCASA a significant milestone. Even though negotiations for the agreement began as early as 2007, India was reluctant to conclude the agreement fearing political backslash in the country. COMCASA, besides enabling India to have access to US’ intelligence and a wide operations picture of Indo-Pacific waters, will abet transfer of high-end US defence technology to India.

President Trump has been vocal about the trade deficit that exists between India and US. His ‘America First’ rhetoric has placed India in the crosshairs on more than one occasion. From accusing India of imposing 100% tariffs on American products to receiving unsubstantiated subsidies, Trump has time and again called up on India to implement policies for maintaining balance in bilateral trade.

EAM Sushma Swaraj and Secretary Pompeo, in an effort to address these concerns, committed to increasing bilateral trade and agreed on improving market access and facilitating trade by addressing issues of mutual interest. Expansion of reciprocal trade has been given impetus during the dialogue. Secretary Pompeo has promised to address India’s concerns about the H1B Visa, up on which India’s expatriate population is greatly dependent.

From reclaiming Islands and construction of militarised artificial land masses in the South China Sea to increased deployments along the Indian Ocean, China is steadily increasing its footprint in the region.

India and US have time and again raised concerns about China’s contested policies such as the ‘String of Pearls’ and the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), which they say is undermining the freedom of the seas and the regional stability through unprovoked and unwarranted actions.

Both the National Defense Authorisation Acts and the National Security Strategy of US has placed India at the epicentre of its effort to counter China in the region.  As China forays deeper into the Indo-Pacific waters, it is time that India and the US embrace to counter the common threat in their traditional area of responsibility.

At a time when Taliban is emerging as resurgent power faction in war-torn Afghanistan and America is in the process of slimming its presence, it is crucial that America receives some backing from a partner who has had traditional presence in the region.

In the past decade, India and the US have found a new common ground in Afghanistan. India has been largely successful in winning the hearts and minds of the local population through its initiatives to create a robust industrial and infrastructural network. From providing crucial support in reconstruction efforts to vocational training of Afghan’s youth, India has been at the forefront in the mission to develop and stabilise a war-torn Afghanistan. Having committed well -over $3 Billion in support of Afghanistan’s economic development, India can play a perfect shot-gun for the US.

USAF F-15C Eagles from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska and Indian air force MIG-27 Floggers fly together over the Indian landscape during Cope India 04, the first bilateral fighter exercise between the two air forces in more than 40 years. The 10-day exercise concluded Feb 25. (IAF courtesy photo)

One dreaded common enemy that is threatening both India and the US alike right at their doorsteps is terrorism. 9/11 and 26/11 terror attacks have struck both countries at their hearts leaving a permanent scar. Since America began its ‘War on Terror’, both partners have worked closely to counter these dreaded extremists.

During the 2+2 dialogue both the partners agreed upon elevating their cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts. Increased information-sharing between their agencies have also been agreed upon. Pakistan’s support to various terror factions was also discussed and the US has called upon Pakistan to immediately make efforts in containing these groups. Besides designating several Pakistani citizens, who are active terror sympathisers and financiers, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), the USA has blocked $350 million coalition support funds to Pakistan till it initiates sufficient actions against terror factions.

While it was strongly believed that the Iran and CAATSA sanctions would take the centre stage off negotiations during the 2+2 dialogue, diplomatic sources claim that the US entourage only took of India’s concerns with these sanctions but did not reveal any concrete plans to remove India from its crosshairs. Nonetheless, it is strongly believed that a waiver for India from both these sanctions is imminent in the foreseeable future.

Deliverable from the maiden 2+2 dialogue have far exceeded expectations of diplomats from both the EAM and State Department. This dialogue has undoubtedly enabled the elevation of the relations to newer heights.