Fulfilling the Promise of the U.S.-India Defense Partnership

With India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, scheduled to visit the United States next month, considerable attention has once again focused on the U.S.-India strategic partnership. Bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi are multifaceted, encompassing collaboration in the strategic, economic, energy, education, and cultural spheres, among others. Defense cooperation, however, has surfaced as the most successful and promising pillar of U.S.-India ties, constituting a key cornerstone of the relationship. Recent trends indicate that security cooperation between the two countries carries with it enormous potential for future growth. If leaders in Washington and New Delhi stay committed to fostering a long-term, sustainable defense partnership, both the United States and India could realize significant net security gains and achieve common strategic interests for years to come.

The past decade has witnessed a transformation in U.S.-India defense and security cooperation. The United States conducts more military exercises with India than any other country in the world. Washington and New Delhi have inked defense deals worth over $9 billion over the past six years for equipment ranging from ultra-light weight howitzers to heavy-lift helicopters. Joint trainings and exchanges of defense personnel have become routine. Homeland security and counterterrorism initiatives and working groups have been established. This level of engagement was virtually inconceivable just fifteen years ago.

Recent developments in New Delhi portend an even greater expansion of defense cooperation between the United States and India. The landslide victory of Prime Minister Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Indian elections this past May heralded a newfound focus on India's defense sector, creating a host of new opportunities for U.S.-India defense collaboration. The BJP's election manifesto specifically called for modernizing India's armed forces and building its indigenous defense procurement capacities, something it currently cannot do on its own. Toward this end, the Modi government increased total defense spending by 12 percent to more than $38 billion in its first budget, released this past July amid considerable fanfare. New Delhi also raised foreign direct investment caps in the defense sector to 49 percent, a 23 percent increase from the current limit.

These are encouraging developments for U.S.-India security ties. They present Washington, as well as American defense companies, with unparalleled opportunities to help India attain its defense modernization ambitions. U.S. investment in India's defense sector, particularly through innovative American technologies, will allow the United States to become an important stakeholder in New Delhi's efforts to update its antiquated, Soviet-era arms and defense systems. This will enable both countries to further accelerate ongoing collaboration and build upon past progress. In fact, the United States recently displaced Russia as New Delhi's primary weapons supplier--and this at a time when India has emerged as the largest arms importer in the world.

The vast potential of the U.S.-India defense ties was on full display following Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's visit to India earlier this month. Hagel called on both states to move from a traditional buyer-seller relationship to "co-production, co-development and freer exchange of technology." Such a proposal aligns closely with New Delhi's own aspirations in this arena and highlights the importance of the U.S.-India Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI).

Launched in 2012, the DTTI is aimed at promoting defense trade, facilitating technology transfers, cutting red tape, and identifying opportunities for co-production and co-development between the two countries. Secretary Hagel reaffirmed his personal commitment to the DTTI during his visit to India. This potentially sets the stage for Washington and New Delhi to reauthorize--and meaningfully update--the Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship set to expire next year.

Washington and New Delhi share strong incentives to continue building their security partnership, particularly given the evolving geostrategic and geopolitical landscapes in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Both countries are concerned with China's rapid rise and its potentially destabilizing impact in the region. The impending American withdrawal from Afghanistan will also create new security challenges for the United States and India as questions surrounding the resurgence of the Taliban, Pakistan's future, and Afghanistan's stability remain unanswered and implicate important American and Indian interests. India is steadily emerging as a key provider of security and leading source of stability in the area as the United States endeavors to execute its "strategic rebalance" toward Asia. Against this background, the convergence of interests between the two countries comes into sharper focus.

The U.S.-India defense partnership is thriving, but its full promise remains unrealized. By expanding defense cooperation in a manner that is transformational but not transactional, Washington and New Delhi can realize a host of net security gains that will help promote a zone of stability in an otherwise increasingly volatile part of the world. The defense relationship remains one of the few components of the U.S.-India strategic partnership immune from the turbulence afflicting bilateral ties recently. While setbacks are inevitable, they do not have to become intractable. Officials in both countries would be wise to continue nurturing this burgeoning relationship and confront the world's growing challenges together.