India and the US gear up for strategic competition
26 Jun 2023|

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Modi and US President Joe Biden declared that the partnership between their countries ‘spans the seas to the stars’. Indeed, Modi’s state visit to Washington yielded initiatives in an extraordinarily wide range of fields, from visa processing to space exploration. But the outcomes were not only remarkable in number; they also represent a qualitative improvement in how the partners posture for strategic competition.

The headline announcement was the unprecedented plan to co-produce General Electric jet engines in India—and, critically, to transfer sensitive engine technology to India. Alongside investments in semiconductor facilities and collaboration in space exploration, these agreements mark the most significant milestone in the relationship since the 2005 civil-nuclear deal.

That agreement was the transformative moment that opened the way for the blossoming of the US–India defence relationship. In the years that followed, the two countries declared that they shared a common strategic vision for region. They increased the tempo and complexity of army, navy, air force and joint exercises. They signed foundational agreements to share logistics, communications and intelligence. Those measures helped to create an enabling framework for military cooperation and interoperability.

When it came to building Indian military power, the greatest advances came in the form of arms transfers. The US sold to India transport aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, assault and transport helicopters and light artillery. Although India acquired them in relatively small numbers, these systems have been invaluable additions to Indian military capability, allowing it to more quickly reinforce its disputed northern border with China, conduct several high-profile civilian evacuations around the world, and extend its naval power into the Indian Ocean.

Because weapons transfers were quantifiable and tangible, they became the clearest measure of the defence relationship, and the barometer of its progress. In recent years, however, major deals dried up. The Indian Navy is still deliberating over whether it will select the American Super Hornet for its new carrier’s air wing, but there are few other prospects in the offing. Ashley Tellis, a leading analyst of the relationship, recently warned that the era of major weapons sales ‘has probably run its course’. Although the defence relationship was maturing, with many routine points of contact, in the absence of major new arms sales or agreements, it seemed to have reached a comfortable plateau.

In that context, New Delhi’s decision this month to acquire armed Sea Guardian drones is itself a notable development. It shows continued, if slowed, vitality in that aspect of the relationship, and it adds an important niche capability—long-range surveillance and strike—for India.

But the state visit had an even more consequential impact, marking a significant inflection point in the strategic partnership and propelling it into two new dimensions. First, the US and India have agreed to develop their global-order-building enterprise. With India’s signing of the Artemis Accords, the two countries will develop—alongside a small number of other space-faring countries—a like-minded vision for the norms governing space exploration, resource extraction and security. The US and India have already accelerated similar efforts to develop new international norms and public goods in the Indo-Pacific through the Quad, alongside partners Australia and Japan.

In both Artemis and the Quad, members have joined a small, non-binding group for issue-specific collective action. For the Quad, the aim is to build the capacity and resilience of regional states by providing support on public health, maritime domain awareness and standards for new technologies. For Artemis, the aim is to set new rules of the road for space exploration. In both, New Delhi and Washington recognise that the current international structures are inadequate, and that like-minded partners must collaborate to fill the vacuum—or else China will.

The second new dimension of the US–India strategic partnership is the unprecedented integration of defence industrial bases. Pending final approvals, General Electric will co-produce its state-of-the-art F414 jet engine in India, and transfer progressively increasing amounts of technology to its Indian partners, led by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The GE deal is notable because high-technology transfer has been an elusive goal of the defence relationship for well over a decade. The ill-fated defence technology and trade initiative, begun in 2012 to accelerate joint work on new defence technologies—including jet engines—yielded nothing. In that light, the rapid progression of the GE deal—less than six months after it was first announced—has defied the usual pattern of endless talk, immovable bureaucracies and frustrated expectations.

Jet engines, however, are just the most tangible headline outcome. The GE deal is the first major test case for the initiative on critical and emerging technologies, launched in January, which seeks to foster strategically vital private-sector innovation. Related announcements included plans for Micron Technologies to develop new semiconductor facilities in India, and India’s entry into the Minerals Security Partnership—both moves designed to strengthen supply chains for key technologies, including those critical to the defence industry.

This defence industrial integration is a qualitative addition to the partnership. It builds Indian power not only with the discrete transfer of specific military capability, but also with the eventual development of scientific and industrial capacity to innovate and field new technologies. This also suits Modi’s political agenda of building Atmanirbhar Bharat, or a self-reliant India. Indeed, the GE deal and its associated initiatives are the proof that, with sufficient top-down political pressure, even the ponderous US and Indian bureaucracies can be moved. They do something previous arms transactions never sought to do: they change the structure and processes of both national security systems.

These new dimensions are the product of urgency in both New Delhi and Washington; but they are designed for long-term strategic competition, not short-term posture. The GE engines and Micron semiconductors won’t be produced for years, at best. And they don’t directly improve interoperability or contingency planning. In this way they stand in stark contrast to the Biden administration’s other recent initiatives with partners—in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and, of course, Australia—which are all designed to better position US forces in case of a security crisis, especially over Taiwan.

The other dimensions of the relationship continue their incremental march. The state visit also yielded, for example, the long-discussed posting of Indian personnel as liaison officers in American combatant commands. The two countries will begin a strategic dialogue on the Indian Ocean. And India will get some Sea Guardians. But, as Tellis argued, the two countries aren’t moving closer to coordinating on military crises. The major new moves in the partnership are attempts to gear up for competition, not crisis.

Success in these initiatives will of course depend on implementation. The GE engines deal will depend critically on the performance of Hindustan Aeronautics—which historically has been mixed at best. Even in the landmark civil-nuclear deal, planned US investments in Indian civil nuclear power have yet to arrive. But, with that agreement as an analogy, the real significance of the state visit is not in specific memoranda of understanding, or the engines and chips they produce—whenever they may materialise. The real significance lies in the precedent these initiatives set.

India and the US have overcome previously insurmountable bureaucratic taboos and deepened their mutual trust about technology transfer. Both sides will still require sustained top-down political pressure, risk acceptance by private industry and policymaking creativity to ensure these deals are in fact precedent-setting and not one-offs. But with last week’s state visit, India and the US have now demonstrated that such goals are within reach.