The Enduring Russian Impediment to U.S.-Indian Relations
On Jan. 31, 2023, National Security Advisors and other agency heads from the United States and India met in Washington, DC for the inaugural meeting of the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology. The previous day they had sat alongside private industry and academic leaders, in a signal that mastering advanced technologies required broader cooperation between the two countries. The countries agreed to start cooperating on a range of technology projects including some with defense applications. The meeting was a marked shift for the two partners, which had managed a period of policy tension only months earlier.
The U.S.-Indian relationship may progress through programs like the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, but it also suffers the impediment posed by Russia. The two countries’ differing responses to the invasion of Ukraine have highlighted New Delhi’s longstanding defense ties with Russia, which is straining its relationship with Washington.
India’s continued defense relationship with Russia poses new challenges for Washington. The United States should work to deepen ties with its Indian partners and to encourage them away from Russia by helping them to meet their defense needs, especially in the Indian Ocean. To solve the Russian obstacle to U.S.-Indian Relations, Washington should waive the looming sanctions on India for its procurement of Russian S-400s while also focusing on building Indian anti-submarine warfare capacity to counter the threat from China.
The Russian Stumbling Block
India remains guided by a principle of strategic autonomy, which seeks to maximize its policymaking freedom of movement. The country avoids commitments like formal alliances and maintains partnerships based on issues rather than on a particular ideology. As a result, India is able to maintain relationships with a diverse set of countries, including both the United States and Russia.
New Delhi has maintained both political and defense ties to Moscow, stretching back to the 1970s, much to Washington’s consternation. India and Russia held their first 2+2 last year, making Russia the only non-Quad country with whom India has had a 2+2 dialogue. Further, a majority of Indian military equipment across the army, navy, and air force is of Russian or Soviet origin. This include the T-90 and T-72 tanks used by the Indian army, the Su-30s used by the Indian air force, and the Talwar-class guided missile frigates operated by the Indian navy. Despite declining Indian defense purchases from Russia, the country has increased purchases of Russian oil since the invasion of Ukraine last year and has been muted in its statements about the war.
India is also facing the threat of U.S. sanctions for its procurement of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system under a 2017 U.S. law called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. These sanctions have already been imposed on Turkey for its own procurement of S-400s. While there has been discussion of granting India a waiver for its S-400 purchases, this has yet to happen.
Washington’s approach to India has traditionally been one of “strategic altruism,” in which the United States supports a militarily strong India, despite bilateral issues, under the assumption that India is a natural counterbalance to China’s rising power. However, it has long voiced a twofold concern about New Delhi’s defense relationship with Moscow. First, India’s Russian-origin systems and U.S. systems are not technologically compatible, which makes interoperability difficult. Second, and of greater concern to the United States, is the possibility that Russian intelligence-collection platforms, like the S-400, could breach the security of U.S. systems and collect information on advanced U.S. technology. This was the reasoning that Washington used in ultimately removing Turkey from the F-35 coproduction program. As the U.S.-Indian defense relationship progresses into more advanced technology procurements and cooperation, India’s possession of Russian technology is a clear potential hurdle for expanding ties.
India’s Current and Emergent Priorities
India’s ground forces have been a higher priority for Indian defense officials and policymakers than other branches of the military since the country’s independence. This stems from territorial concerns over both the demarcation line between Indian-controlled and Chinese-controlled territory, known as the Line of Actual Control, and the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. However, China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean is leading to renewed interest in maritime forces in New Delhi and concern about its ability to counter perceived threats. The Indian navy’s strategy calls for it to be able to exercise sea control of the entire Indian Ocean, a tall order considering that the force receives the smallest portion of India’s defense budget.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has been expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean, such as with anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, since 2009. Chinese submarines are also an ever-increasing presence. In 2014, one of these submarines even docked in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port. Maritime domain awareness and anti-submarine warfare are therefore becoming a priority for the Indian navy.
Russia’s Ukraine invasion has also complicated maritime defense for India. India purchases gas turbine engines for its Talwar-class frigates from Ukraine, then the ships are constructed in Russia. However, the war has meant that the delivery of these frigates has been delayed.
New Delhi is already leveraging its relationship with Washington to achieve improved maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean. Maritime security — and the capabilities that it requires — has become a fixture in most U.S.-Indian strategic interactions, including less obvious ones such as the just-signed initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology. India has so far acquired anti-submarine aircraft, including the P-8I and the MH-60R helicopters, and leased Sea Guardian drones. Indian officials want to develop the country’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities and they want improved technology transfer, ideally through co-development, rather than simply procuring through foreign military sales or leases.
Russia remains the primary arms supplier for the Indian military but the United States is better positioned to assist India with its emergent needs due the convergent priorities between Washington and New Delhi in the Indian Ocean. As the United States competes with China, supporting India’s military power is no longer a matter of “strategic altruism” — it is an urgent American interest.
Lifting the Threat of Sanctions
Going forward, the United States should avoid public ultimatums on India on all points of disagreement, including New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow. Instead, officials should discuss bilateral issues in private. India is unlikely to ever fully abandon its relationship with Russia based not only on New Delhi’s principle of strategic autonomy, but also on India’s need for the S-400 and other Russian systems for territorial defense against China and Pakistan. There are few viable alternatives at a similar price point. Placing sanctions on India, which is already moving slowly away from its historical dependence on Russian arms, would therefore likely cause India to question its relationship with the United States, not its relationship with Russia. Waiving sanctions for the S-400 and other Russian systems would reinforce to India that the United States is a trustworthy partner, which could further encourage India to shift away from its historical Russia relationship.
Precedent shows that a U.S. sanctions waiver for India could pave the way for an expansion of bilateral defense ties. Analysts point to the 2005 civil nuclear agreement, which addressed Washington’s concerns over India’s nuclear program, as a watershed moment in U.S.-Indian relations. However, the agreement would not have happened if, in 2001, Washington had not lifted sanctions on India. This led to tangible expansion of defense ties, including the 2002 signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement after 15 years of negotiation, a 2005 U.S.-Indian defense framework, and an increase in Indian defense acquisitions from the United States.
Clarifying the Military Priority
The United States should also concentrate its efforts on deepening a niche for the U.S.-Indian defense relationship that Russia does not fill for India, further encouraging New Delhi’s shift away from Moscow. The United States cannot replace India’s entire inventory of Russian-origin equipment. However, it can provide India with capabilities distinct from those that Moscow provides, based on New Delhi’s emerging and future needs. The United States should therefore become a necessary partner for India while avoiding concerns about interoperability or security.
The U.S. focus should be on ensuring Indian navy capacity to conduct sea denial in the critical chokepoints leading into the Indian Ocean. Improved Indian sea denial capacity, complemented by U.S.-Indian maritime interoperability, would give India both a more accurate and a more complete picture of Chinese presence around sea lines of communications and create potential response options to Chinese sub-surface vessels. This creates the capacity to block Chinese lines of communication and makes Chinese operations riskier and potentially more likely to fail.
Co-Development of Anti-Submarine Warfare Capabilities
While maintaining an inventory of capable anti-submarine warfare-oriented platforms is crucial, procurement alone is unlikely to help the Indian navy reach its aims. The cost of U.S. equipment is enormous in the face of India’s economic constraints and India is further constrained by its principle of atmanirbharta, or self-reliance, which prioritizes domestic or indigenous defense development and production over foreign procurements. These limitations are exacerbated by the low level of funding for the Indian navy, which is why New Delhi instead wants to participate in co-development with the United States.
In 2012, India and the United States established the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, aimed at enabling co-development and co-production while reducing inhibiting bureaucracy in both the U.S. and Indian systems. Over the last decade, however, the initiative has had little traction due to mismatched expectations. In September 2021, the United States and India did however sign an agreement to co-develop an air-launched unmanned aerial vehicle, a promising step in the right direction.
Going forward, the United States and India should also look for co-development opportunities that could improve India’s sea denial capacity. The two states could, for example, co-develop a large or extra-large unmanned undersea vessel. Neither India nor the United States has this technology, though the United States has contracted Boeing to develop extra-large unmanned undersea minesweeping vessels for the U.S. Navy. These vessels also have the capacity to carry electronic intelligence sensors for improved maritime domain awareness. This is admittedly a tall order for the trade initiative, which has seen limited success in the 10 years since its inception. However, if India and the United States were unable to co-develop such extra-large vessels, they could co-produce or co-develop a subsystem such as an electromagnetic sensor, used for detection and tracking, or a power source, such as battery technology. U.S. officials who work with India should keep in mind that India is looking for affordable equipment, not necessarily the latest high-tech platforms.
Anti-Submarine Warfare Exercise in the Andaman Sea
The United States and India could also improve their interoperability through a bilateral anti-submarine warfare-focused exercise in the Andaman Sea at the opening of a critical chokepoint, the Strait of Malacca. Holding the exercise in the Andaman Sea is critical because successful anti-submarine warfare is highly dependent on the operating environment. A tabletop exercise elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific would do little to improve the ability of the United States and India to monitor and deter China from expanding into the Indian Ocean.
India has hosted bilateral exercises with Singapore, as well and tri- and multi-lateral exercises such as the Singapore, India, Thailand maritime exercise and MILAN in the Andaman Sea. But the United States has yet to participate. India would also likely be more receptive to a new bilateral exercise than to having the United States join an existing exercise as India remains sensitive to maintaining its position as the regional leader in the Indian Ocean. U.S. participation could be conceived as an attempt to displace India as a security provider in the region.
This robust U.S.-Indian defense relationship rooted in anti-submarine warfare-focused maritime cooperation will be critical as China continues its far-seas expansion into the Indian Ocean. With this in mind, the United States should support India’s role as a security provider in the region.
Erin Mello was a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Asia Pacific Research Center, where she conducted research on impediments to and opportunities for the U.S.-Indian defense relationship. She has been with the Department of the Defense for eight years and has served the last two and a half years at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as a South Asia analyst. Opinions expressed in this article are her own, and do not reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Defense.
Image: The White House