Growing India and US military relationship

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By Harsha Kakar
The US ambassador to India, Kenneth I Juster, proposed during his first public speech in Delhi that scaling up of strategic relations with India can also involve posting of liaison officers in each other’s combatant commands. He claimed that this was aimed at taking the relationship from ‘the strategic to the durable’. This was a gesture to India that the US is serious when it implies India is a valued partner in the region and the relations between the two are much more than just words. It also highlighted the acceptance of the US on the professionalism and capability of the Indian armed forces.
He did not put any timeframe on the subject, but placed on the table, an issue which has so far been ‘discussed behind closed doors’. He also proposed conduct of multi-service military exercises, as against the present concept of single service exercises. Such combat exercises would enhance understanding of each other’s concepts, methodology and employment of resources for generating optimum combat power. The US presently has arrangements for military liaison officers with some of its NATO allies and close defence partners including Australia, Canada, Republic of Korea, Philippines, New Zealand and Great Britain. These liaison officers are attached with the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, where the US also proposes for India. Canada also has liaison officers with the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) as that caters for the defence of the North American continent.

Picture taken on June 26, 2017 shows US President Donald J. Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi entering the White House Rose Garden for joint press availability.

All commands in the US are joint commands comprising of resources from all arms of the military. This is essential as they operate away from the mainland and hence require a joint force structure to enable maximum utilization of combat power. The advantage of having liaison officers enables better coordination in joint operations and exercises with defence partners. India, does not operate operationally with the US, however exercises with it and has also signed the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), which implies access to designated military facilities for refuelling and replenishment. This enhances the reach of the military in the international arena. The US has never fought any battle on its soil and has always aimed to deter threats as far away from the US mainland as possible. Its present operations in Afghanistan and Syriaare examples. Further, the US is part of multilateral defence agreements and is a guarantor for many nations, including Japan and South Korea. Thus, a large part of its force is always deployed overseas. Therefore, it requires coordination with its allies.
India on the other hand is more involved in ensuring its own national security. Both its borders are tense and require monitoring. Its internal security environment is threatened by terrorist strikes from across the border. Its naval power is deployed to dominate the Indian Ocean for ensuring national security. Hence its armed forces operate largely on service specific commands. Since they are perpetually in operations, their professionalism and capability as a fighting force is well recognized. Other than a few joint commands, the Indian military has service specific commands, responsible for operations of their own service. These commands are area specific and cater to immediate security requirements and threat. India is part of multilateral defence agreements, however mainly for training and joint exercises, as it has no territorial ambitions beyond its borders. It does not form part of joint operations with any country, despite the US seeking it.
Of its few joint commands, the only command ideal for coordination with multinational powers is the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC).ANC, based in Port Blair, is a theatre command, comprising of troops of the three services. Its strategic location enables it to dominate the main shipping routes of the Indian Ocean which pass through the Malacca Straits. However, inter-service rivalry and desire to directly control service assets have left the ANC under-equipped and hence under-utilized. Ideally this should have been the command where liaison officers from the US could be based, provided India is serious on upgrading its working relationship with them. However, its limited equipment holdings and resultant poor operational capabilities have made it unsuitable for joint operations. Thus, in the present context establishing liaison officers between the nations would not serve any purpose.
The other aspect raised by the US Ambassador was the conduct of joint exercises. India has recently conducted joint exercises with Russia. With most other nations, the exercises are service specific. However, conducting joint exercises with the US is always feasible and should be explored as it would benefit both nations and be a stepping stone for the future as India becomes a dominant power in the region. However, there is an option of posting instructors in major schools of instructions of both nations. The two institutes which officers from multiple nations attend are the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) and the National Defence College (NDC). While the NDC curriculum is more based on interactions with a vast variety of experts, including the academia, governance and industry, the DSSC is more structured and has emphasis on classroom teachings and discussions. It therefore is an ideal institute for a qualified instructor from the US. An Indian instructor could similarly be placed in a US institute. This would enable understanding differences in outlook, when it comes to operational concepts, employment of resources and analysis of threats, especially at junior levels. It could become a precursor to establishing liaison officers between the two nations. The US has a similar exchange arrangement with many nations, where it has its staff with major training institutes. This should be the approach which India should adopt initially, if it seeks to expand its operational and working relations with the US. Joint exercises should become the order of the day, as we seek to enhance joint operations internally. Enhancing to the next level of placing of liaison officers should only come about once the nature of our participation in international operations has been clearly enunciated. Completely ignoring the offer of the US Ambassador would be letting an ideal opportunity pass.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and now a geo-political analyst.)