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National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 and Indo-US Defence Partnership

The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDA, requires the US Secretaries of Defense and State to designate an official with the specific task of clearing roadblocks to greater cooperation

Issue: 01-2017 By Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd)

“Congress strongly supports an enhanced defence relationship between the United States and India.”

— James Mattis, US Defense Secretary

What is your view of the current state of the US-India security relationship?

India is the world’s largest democracy, and our relationship with it is of the utmost importance. In my view, and particularly on security and defence issues, the US-India relationship has been strengthened in recent years. Cooperation on defence trade and technology has grown to the benefit of both countries under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. I also believe that India’s ‘Act East’ policy allows it to play a greater role in contributing to security in the Asia-Pacific region.

What would be your strategy for bolstering the overall defence relationship between our two countries? Which areas would you focus on? If confirmed, what specific priorities would you establish for this relationship?

US policy should continue to pursue a long-term strategic relationship with India based on the convergence of our interests and our shared democratic values. I note that the United States and India recently cemented India’s status as a major defence partner. If confirmed, I would assess what particular areas in the bilateral security relationship I should focus on, and what steps can be taken to bolster the overall defence relationship.

In the twilight of Obama Administration a very crucial law relating to the Indo-US defence partnership cleared its final legislative hurdle and was signed by President Barack Obama before demitting the office, making it mandatory for President Donald Trump and his administration to be legally bound to treat India as a “major defence partner”. The bill designated as “Enhancing Defence and Security Cooperation with India” has been incorporated as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDA) of 2017.

NDA 2017 was passed with an overwhelming majority both by the US Congress’ upper house, the Senate and the lower house, the House of Representatives. With such overwhelming congressional support, the President is not empowered to veto the bill.

In the last meeting held in December 2016 between outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar a joint statement was issued which read, “The designation as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ is a status unique to India and institutionalises the progress made to facilitate defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level at par with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners, and ensures enduring cooperation into the future.”

Senator Mark Warner, who drafted the India amendment that the Senate passed had pronounced, “I welcome the continued advancement of our bilateral defence relationship with India, as evidenced by the establishment of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), the signing of the Defence Framework Agreement, the completion of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the designation of India as a major defence partner.”

Congressman George Holding, who steered the India amendment through the House of Representatives, pointed out, “India plays a critical role as a strategic partner to the US and as a pillar of stability in South Asia. I’m proud to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to solidify the economic and defence relationship between our countries.”

On US extending defence cooperation to India, Ben Schwartz of the US-India Business Council, which represents numerous top-tier US companies doing defence business with India, had said, “We want the Indian military to be capable of managing the growing security threats in the Indian Ocean region. And we want many of those capabilities to come from American industry and US-India industrial partnerships.”

The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDA, requires the US Secretaries of Defense and State to designate an official with the specific task of clearing roadblocks to greater cooperation. In the Obama Administration, this function was earlier performed by Ashton Carter himself, as co-chairman of the DTTI, and is currently being performed by Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L).

It will be interesting to see how the Indian Government would react to the “operational” clauses of the India amendment, which requires the US Administration to coordinate with their Indian counterparts on “engagement between the militaries of the two countries for threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, mutual security interests, logistical support, intelligence, tactics, techniques and procedures, humanitarian aid and disaster relief.” Adherence to such vital clauses will be essential for upgradation of bilateral relationship to Strategic Partner status. The flip side is that the Indian Governments in the past, as also the present dispensation, have been very weary and extremely cautious to obviate the tag of a military ally of the Washington.

In specific terms of Section 1292 of NDA 2017, US Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State have been jointly authorised for the following:

  • Recognise India as a major defence partner of the US.
  • Designate an official to (i) Pursue the “Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship”; and (ii) Help resolve issues that impede defence cooperation.
  • Facilitate the transfer of advanced technology to India, to support combined military planning for missiles like HADR, counter-piracy, freedom of navigation, MDA and to promote weapons interoperability.
  • Strengthen the DTTI and the Pentagon’s “India Rapid Reaction Cell”.
  • Collaborate with the Government of India to develop “mutually agreeable” mechanisms for verifying security and end-use monitoring.
  • Support alignment of India’s export control and procurement regimes with those of US and multilateral control regimes.
  • Enhance defence and security cooperation with India to advance US interests in South Asia and the Indo-Asia-Pacific regions.

This Act also directs the Secretaries for Defense and State to report to Congress within 180 days and thereafter annually on progress made on the above authorisation.

For an effective bilateral coordination, Secretary of Defense has also been authorised to facilitate exchanges between senior defence and civil officials of US and India to cover the following aspects relating to the Act:

  • To enhance military engagement in threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, mutual security interests, logistical support, intelligence, tactics, techniques and procedures and HADR.
  • Include exchanges of senior military officers.
  • Enhance military cooperation, including maritime security, counter-piracy, counter-terror cooperation and domain awareness in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
  • Accelerate combined military planning for (HADR, counter-piracy, freedom of navigation, MDA and to promote weapons interoperability) or (threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, mutual security interests, logistical support, intelligence, tactics, techniques and procedures, HADR) or other missions in the national security interests of both countries.
  • Solicit efforts by India that would allow US to treat India as a “major defence partner”.

While Section 1292 of NDA 2017 provides a most comprehensive mandate by the US Administration and adequate provisions and authorisation to the Secretaries of Defense and the State, the litmus test of its success would lie in the Indian Government’s acceptance to adhere to the mandate. General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, in his first statement on US-India ties said that “the US-India [defence] relationship has been strengthened in recent years.” However, the Government of India will have to wait and watch the priority the Trump Administration may assign to defence cooperation with India.

NDAA 2017 and Aircraft Carrier Technology

The Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation (JWGACTC) was formed between India and US in February 2015 under the auspices of Defence Trade and Technology Initiative to share information in the field of aircraft carrier technology. Since India seeks to build a future generation aircraft carrier with modern technologies, the Indian Navy stands to benefit from this cooperative engagement with the US.

Considering that IAC-2 would be the largest and most complex platform to be built in the country in terms of niche technologies the design and construction of the ship is likely to take about 15 years after the government gives a formal ‘go-ahead’ for the project. Provisions of Section 1292 of NDA 2017 will certainly be a shot in the arm for the JWGACTC to make available the requisite technologies for India’s aspirations to build super aircraft carriers in India.