Partnership, Not Threats: How to Deepen U.S.-Indian Naval Cooperation
Aircraft carriers from the U.S. and Indian navies sailed together to lead the second phase of the Malabar 2020 exercise, conducting advanced air defense drills with their respective MiG 29K and F-18 fighters. In 2021, American and Indian guided-missile destroyers worked closely together, alongside the USS Carl Vinson and Japanese and Australian frigates and destroyers. Yet despite increased cooperation and regular statements from American and Indian naval leaders expressing a desire to work together more, the India-U.S. naval relationship remains one of considerable untapped potential.
Operational cooperation between the two, once thought to be either politically impossible or simply not in their shared interest, is now a subject of regular conversation in both capitals. India and the United States still have differing views on regional threats and how to uphold international norms. Yet despite these divergences, the Indian and U.S. navies should be operating at sea together to address shared maritime security priorities such as maritime domain awareness and chokepoint security. To do so, the two navies should consider aligning their regional security assistance programs so as to better align training of allied navies, expand cooperation on maritime domain awareness, and expand training exercises and access agreements for maintenance and refueling.
A generation ago, U.S.-India maritime cooperation was limited by India’s commitment to non-alignment during the Cold War, Delhi’s close relationship with the Soviet Union, and Washington’s partnership with Pakistan. While these issues are still salient, mutual concerns about China and American acceptance of India’s nuclear weapons program have created pathways for the two sides to cooperate.
As half of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, their cooperation would also send a strong signal of the group’s continued momentum and commitment to maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific. The operational familiarity both partners would gain through greater cooperation would create a solid foundation in five specific areas to help bolster cooperation for future contingencies ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to high-end naval operations.
Critical skills like underway replenishment, maritime surveillance, and integrating aviation operations do not need a warfighting justification: They are capabilities worth having in peacetime. However, should a more serious contingency arise between either partner and China, having those shared capabilities and operational familiarity will be well worth the early investment.
The United States and India each have a multiplicity of regional bilateral security assistance relationships that could be increased by coordinating and integrating their parallel approaches.
Both navies conduct significant capacity-building efforts with countries across the Indian Ocean region and Southeast Asia. India has trained Vietnam’s submariners and has entered into a contract to supply the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines. The United States has provided Vietnam with two refurbished Hamilton-class coast guard cutters and maintains a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, providing it with uncrewed aircraft, weapons, and other defense equipment. Increased bilateral partnership in this area would help the two donors integrate key technologies for the recipients and deliver comprehensive solutions rather than creating a patchwork of donated equipment that cannot be easily integrated. The two states’ expertise in building and integrating maritime sensors, particularly evident in India’s broad distribution of its Coastal Surveillance Radar systems in the region, are valuable separately, but their effects would be multiplied if the delivery of equipment, support, and training were planned and delivered together.
While national objectives may differ to some degree, both India and the United States support good order at sea by giving partners the training and tools to enforce their laws and defend their own sovereignty. The ways navies do this differ very little across national boundaries and generally takes the form of capacity building through delivery of equipment and training — developing new capabilities for partners or honing their existing abilities in certain areas. The U.S. and Indian navies should seek to align their respective capacity-building programs. Doing so will identify where efforts may be overlapping, or divergent, allowing the two forces to find more efficient ways to lift regional naval capacity. Both states already have credible security assistance programs and considerable defense ties in the Indo-Pacific littoral, both of which are important in delivering appropriately tailored solutions to partner states. Establishing this as a cooperative bilateral effort would require both states to make the time for coordination, which would increase bilateral burden-sharing and to deconflict and integrate certain capabilities.
Building Stronger Staff Links
Staff exchanges are a time-tested mechanism for creating confidence and clear communication at the operational levels of militaries and have the added bonus of creating positive interpersonal ties that pay dividends over time and build trust. Progressing the naval relationship to more complex combined operations will rely on these kinds of staff relationships. The U.S. Navy has one liaison officer placed within Delhi’s Information Fusion Centre–Indian Ocean Region supporting its domain awareness mission, but this is insufficient for two navies of this caliber. To move cooperation forward, major commands and fleet headquarters should also exchange liaisons. From an American perspective, this should begin at the Geographic Combatant Command level, with an Indian naval officer embedded on the Indo-Pacific Command staff, and progress down through the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and reaching down to the task force level. Including the U.S. Navy’s Commander, Logistics Western Pacific in that construct would create necessary linkages for logistics planning and cooperation. The U.S. Navy’s Combined Task Force-76, responsible for planning and executing U.S. participation in the Malabar exercise, might also be an effective placement for a liaison. From the Indian side, adding U.S. Navy liaisons at its Eastern and Western Commands would be appropriate.
Maritime Domain Awareness
Maritime domain awareness and information-sharing are priorities for both the United States and India, and the two have made inroads on that front, both together and separately. As a general definition, domain awareness is an effective understanding of things under, on, or above the sea that may impact safety, security, the environment, or economy. Both are part of the Quad’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative, and both are active in delivering radars, software, and other sensors to regional states needing support in surveilling their exclusive economic zones. The two could do even more to integrate and share their own common operating pictures. This might start off in a more limited form, focusing on agreed-upon critical chokepoints and sea lines of communication, such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, but could grow to encompass the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The two should also consider developing a shared undersea common operating picture, starting with preliminary discussions on potential areas of focus and the fidelity of detail each side might be willing to share.
Learning to Share
The U.S. Navy’s ability to refuel and resupply its own ships relies on 15 Henry J. Kaiser-class replenishment oilers that entered service in the mid-1980s. This number of ships is not enough to provide a lot of spare capacity to meet increasing U.S. Navy commitments around the world. Worse, these ships are aging, as are the civilian mariners operating them. Ensuring resupply ships are where they need to be when they need to be there requires painstaking scheduling, even more so in areas where the U.S. Navy has a limited presence, such as the Indian Ocean. But the Indian Navy operates four tankers in the Indian Ocean, with another five of a new class likely to enter service by 2027. Under the terms of the existing Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, U.S. ships can take on food, water, petroleum, and other critical supplies from Indian vessels and vice versa.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense and Indian Ministry of Defence renewed a long-term fuel agreement that functions separately from the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, streamlining the fuel transfer process and, for the United States, designating Indian fuel as a Defense Logistics Agency-approved source, which dispenses with extra administrative requirements like fuel testing applied for non-Defense Logistics Agency-approved sources. These acquisition and cross servicing agreements typically come into play during events like combined exercises, training, and deployments, but can be used to support transiting vessels or those engaged in operations. From the U.S. side, they are implemented by combatant commanders at their discretion, which creates an opportunity for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to maximize opportunities to take advantage of the capability. As an example of the utility provided by this type of operational flexibility, in June 2020 a U.S. P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft landed for refueling in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, highlighting the growing cooperation between the two partners.
With these elements in place, a U.S. Navy transit across the Indian Ocean that occurs without meeting an Indian Navy resupply vessel represents a missed opportunity to use these carefully negotiated tools at their disposal. In the same vein, Indian Navy vessels being greeted by U.S. resupply ships when leaving the Indian Ocean would highlight the reciprocal nature of the relationship and increase burden-sharing. The same Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement applies to port services and billeting, creating space for cooperative basing, whether that manifests itself in U.S. ships operating from Indian bases or Indian Navy ships from U.S. facilities. These arrangements could be structured similarly to the U.S. agreement with Singapore to rotationally deploy ships to Singapore without formally basing them there. By operationalizing these agreements, both navies will find new efficiencies and be able to stretch scarce resources further without duplication of effort.
Ship repair and maintenance offers another area of potential cooperation created by these agreements. While U.S. shipyards remain behind and short of the capacity required to keep the U.S. fleet seaworthy, India operates six major shipyards with capacity to spare. In August of 2022, USNS Charles Drew — one of the U.S. Navy’s 14 Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships — entered L&T’s Shipyard at Kattupalli, Chennai, for repairs, the first time a U.S. Navy ship was repaired in an Indian shipyard. This is an encouraging start, but the USNS Charles Drew must not be allowed to be a one-off publicity event but rather should be the beginning of a persistent U.S. presence in Indian shipyards to help alleviate a critical maintenance capacity shortfall. Bringing these ships to India will create a new constituency for the bilateral partnership. As shipyards and their communities derive economic benefits from U.S. presence, they are likely to be increasingly invested in the bilateral relationship.
Getting Beyond Training
Bringing U.S.-Indian cooperation a step beyond exercises and into the operational realm should be the next priority. These operations will not be fully integrated at the outset. Coordinated operations in key areas of importance to both navies will suffice to lay a foundation for building upon. There are areas of mutual interest in subjects like anti-submarine warfare in vital sea lines of communication, such as the Indian Ocean approaches to the Strait of Malacca. Coordinating presence and maritime security missions in areas of key importance, such as the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, is another area of opportunity and one where there is some headway. During the 2022 U.S.-India 2+2, India formally announced its intention to join the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces multilateral as an associate partner. As this operational relationship matures, however, cooperation will become more complex. If the two forces elect to integrate their forces more fully, moving from merely coordinated operations to cooperative or combined activities, their respective command and control software and mission systems will require technical upgrades to communicate with one another. This may take the form of technology transfer from the United States to India to bring it into its existing communications network and data link infrastructure. Interoperability between combat management systems will be needed. Tactics and operational procedures should be deconflicted and shared.
Ultimately, these preliminary operational moves could set the stage for true combined operations. With logistics arrangements in place, cooperative basing available, integrated tactics, and common platforms, interoperability becomes a real possibility. The two navies would be well positioned to work interchangeably in relevant regional missions, like humanitarian assistance operations, which would have broader strategic implications in certain contingencies. While differing strategic priorities and threat perceptions make it unlikely that India would engage militarily in external flashpoints, the Indian Navy could, with sufficiently honed interchangeability, relieve the U.S. Navy of its maritime security responsibilities in the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa, allowing U.S. forces to flow outward to respond to crises. In the meantime, it should not be unthinkable to imagine escort vessels from either nation escorting the other’s aircraft carriers or embarking aircraft like the MH-60R on one another’s ships. To our minds, blended U.S. Navy -Indian Navy fleets should be considered as an aspirational goal that would open the door for combined presence and humanitarian operations in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The maritime domain presents an unparalleled opportunity to the navies of the United States and India to advance the security relationship between them. The sea itself is an advantage, as those cooperative activities the two navies pursue can be conducted in international waters, far from prying eyes and without appearing to be overtly pointed in any other state’s direction. While both states face a challenge from China, their relationship need not be entirely defined as a reaction to Beijing. By collaborating more and integrating operations, both navies will further their broader objectives of ensuring free, open and inclusive seas and positively contributing to the regional security architecture.
What Does the Future Hold?
This is not an argument identifying low-hanging fruit: Each of the proposed areas of cooperation will require deft staff work and considerable effort on behalf of operational forces to achieve. But the proposed areas of cooperation are achievable and reflect the strategic priorities that both navies in the region see as most important to their national security. The fact that these proposals will require concerted effort is precisely the reason that the two navies should start work on them now so they are ready when called upon to perform these tasks.
Putting these items on the agenda for the next U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue would signal both governments’ seriousness about increasing naval cooperation and incentivize military commands to prioritize them in key engagements and staff talks. This would also help both sides to push through the institutionalized lazy thinking around operational cooperation. Within the respective bureaucracies, it can be too easy to dismiss an idea because “the other side doesn’t do that,” but this is a new era for the India-U.S. relationship, and restricting ourselves to our past experiences or assumptions without asking questions is a recipe for failure. A clear sign from the top that these types of interactions are both possible and desirable will help create momentum.
Operationally, the bulk of the work will fall to the respective commands responsible for the coordination — India’s Eastern and Western Commands, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Within that framework, the two can create operational frameworks to align security assistance, exchange staff liaisons, share maritime domain awareness information, arrange for regular logistics interactions, and integrate forces to build interoperability and, more importantly, interchangeability.
While initial progress may be slow, increasing cooperation is the most effective way to surmount remaining trust barriers and create the bilateral relationship that both sides want but may be too afraid to ask for. A strong India-U.S. naval relationship’s reason for being need not be an explicit bogeyman — navies’ peacetime functions offer more than enough room for cooperation in areas of critical importance to both states. But the skills built in peacetime will create the operational familiarity and flexibility needed to deal with future contingencies in the Indo-Pacific.
Adm. Karambir Singh (Ret. ) was the Republic of India’s 24th chief of the naval staff and is chairman of the National Maritime Foundation.
Blake Herzinger (@BDHerzinger) is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Department of Defense