Defence contractors everywhere licked their lips in August when India solicited bids to supply 126 fighter jets – an order worth more than $10bn. Salivating the most were US defence giants such as Lockheed Martin, which have been excluded from India for decades. American naval contractors, however, must realise that the relationship between India and the US is like a microwave dinner – it’s warming up very quickly but it won’t feed everyone.

Certainly, India and the United States are building a defence relationship consistent in scope with their existing economic relationship.

In 2005, a convivial summit produced the ‘New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship’, in which the Bush administration committed to helping India become a major global power.

Equally clear is the intersection of both nations’ strategic goals (oil security) and potential adversaries (China). Both the US and India share similar democratic, pluralistic and enterprising values and both want India to be a global power.

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Intersection, however, does not necessarily mean concordance: although Indian and US strategists perceive the same threats, their prioritisations of these threats differ.


For most of the 40 years from Indian independence to the end of the Cold War, India’s non-alignment policy meant a de facto military tilt toward the then Soviet Union, which provided India with the vast majority of its equipment and training.

The US and India have cooperated militarily only since 1990, after the demise of the Soviet Union caused Russian-Indian relations to fray and the resurgence of global capitalism encouraged India to turn away from its socialist model.

The most visible measure of Indo-US military cooperation is the annual Malabar naval exercise.

“The most visible measure of
Indo-US military cooperation is the annual Malabar naval exercise.”

This series actually began in 1992 but was suspended after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 compelled the US to reassess its strategic priorities, the exercises resumed in 2002 with basic re-familiarisation drills such as passing manoeuvres.

Over the next four years, Malabar evolved into one of the most sophisticated bilateral military exercises conducted by the US Navy.

  • In 2003 and 2004, the US Navy added attack submarines and maritime patrol aircraft to the Malabar roster, enabling both sides to train for anti-submarine warfare collaboration
  • In 2005 the US and Indian navies upped the ante with two aircraft carriers – the USS Nimitz and INS Viraat. As a result the exercise included a 24-hour combat simulation with mixed US and Indian formations conducting full-featured 3D (air, surface and undersea) operations
  • In 2006 the US contributed amphibious vessels for the first time, permitting both navies to develop the ability to coordinate onshore power projection

In 2007, Malabar continues to break new ground in qualitatively different ways. First, the exercises will feature visit, boarding, search and seizure (VBSS) drills, which extend anti-terrorist operations to the nautical arena. More strategically significant, participants this year include units from Australia, Singapore and Japan, making Malabar a multinational exercise for the first time.

Another new feature is that this year’s training venue is the Bay of Bengal, closer to the Malacca Strait and China – which was sufficiently concerned by the Malabar expansion to make diplomatic noises about the strategic intent behind the exercises.

“The US gave the Indian Navy something it would have been unable to build for itself.”

Despite its scope, this year’s Malabar extensions point toward the structural constraints on Indo-US technological cooperation. Underlying these constraints is a general principle of strategic self-interest: leaders want partners that are strong enough to be useful, but not so strong as to be completely independent, let alone threatening.


Strategically, the United States has set for itself the challenging objective of being prepared to fight multiple regional wars while simultaneously conducting a low-intensity global campaign indefinitely against a stateless ideological enemy (presumably without going bankrupt in the process).

Consistent with Sun Tzu’s dictum that trying to be strong everywhere means being weak everywhere, American policymakers seek to distribute the burden of its global military and policing activities.

The more ambitious manifestation of this goal was the Proliferation Security Initiative, proposed by President Bush in 2003, under which the US and its allies could aggressively search and seize ‘suspicious’ ships on the high seas, notwithstanding international legal conventions. Although explicitly aimed at seagoing terrorism, this concept would effectively permit quarantines of ‘rogue’ nations, implying too much carte blanche for the liking of many nations.

More recently, the US has promoted its TSN concept, in which navies of like-minded nations coordinate operations enough to form a virtual ‘thousand-ship navy’. According to one senior Indian officer: “TSN is more of a cooperative arrangement against non-state actors, it’s workable since it will just require the different navies to be networked on one common information grid.” This plays to India’s existing strengths in software, information services and technical support.

“India’s navy comprises a relatively small number of fairly sophisticated vessels.”

Combating the low-tech guerrilla-style operations of terrorists and sub-national antagonists, however, presents a conflict of interest regarding force structure. Just as counterinsurgency on land requires many boots on the ground, safeguarding the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) throughout the Indian Ocean against low-intensity but low-visibility threats – what the US wants the Indian navy to do – requires relatively large numbers of fairly low-tech units.

In contrast, consistent with its traditional doctrine and great-power ambitions, India’s navy comprises a relatively small number of fairly sophisticated vessels meant to be capable of defeating front-line naval vessels from serious countries: in particular, China, and even, theoretically, the US.


India has always positioned itself as a non-aligned power. Indeed, it was a leader of the independent Third World during the Cold War and its dependence on the Soviet Union for weaponry stemmed from industrial need as much as preference.

In aspiring to ‘global power’ status, India gains nothing by moving the US to the front of the vendor line, especially as the number of nations and companies selling high-quality military equipment is increasing significantly. Consequently:

  • India will continue to buy weapons systems from a wide array of suppliers, as much to maintain geopolitical independence as to maximise bargaining leverage
  • Given that India’s military modernisation can’t be all things to all partners, India will remain prepared to sacrifice technological benefits from international cooperation in order to maintain strategic flexibility

In these respects, notwithstanding the recent civilian nuclear energy deal, past US sanctions have coated the Indian military psyche with a faint residue of distrust that will take some years to fully remove.

Moreover, superpowers have the ability to make their own weaponry. This is a natural extension of India’s traditional ambitions: true non-alignment requires economic and technological independence. Consistent with this national goal, according to one retired vice admiral, the Indian Navy has followed two policies since the 1960s:

  • Its ships were to be technologically equivalent to those of other navies (within budgetary constraints)
  • These ships were to be as indigenous in design, construction and outfitting as possible
“India will require foreign military vendors to build a certain percentage of equipment domestically.”

In this respect, the traditional US policy of not exporting its top-of-the-line weapons (or creating dumbed-down versions for export) does not work in favour of US vendors.


Indo-US technological cooperation is most likely in areas of common strategic interest where Indian sophistication is close enough to US standards to make cooperation worth the effort.

Submarine attack capabilities, for example, would fail on the first criterion, which is why India bought two Akula-class submarines from Russia and is building its own subs (the Skorpene class).

US-style naval aviation, in contrast, would fail on the second criterion; for example, even the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) that India is currently building will take fewer than half the aircraft complement of a US carrier.

In June 2007, a former US amphibious transport, the USS Trenton, was recommissioned as the INS Jalashwa after two years of refitting following its purchase for roughly $50m in 2005.

Indian Ambassador Sen stated that the transfer was ‘a reflection of the trust and long-term commitment that both sides bring to this relationship’. Relevant in this respect is that India heretofore had no remotely equivalent capability; implicitly, the US gave the Indian Navy something it would have been unable to build for itself, at least in the short term.


Even so, opportunities for US naval vendors will arise more in component and system provision than in outright ship sales. Among other factors, India will require foreign military vendors to build a certain percentage of equipment content domestically – an especially stringent condition for low-unit shipbuilding.

Consequently, the further upstream in the supply chain American naval vendors are, the more likely they are to receive orders.

Finally, US shipbuilders could benefit if existing construction delays at Indian and Russian shipyards worsen.

“Malabar evolved into one of the most sophisticated bilateral military exercises conducted by the US Navy.”

For example, both the refitting of the Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov and the construction of the IAC have been delayed, by two and four years respectively.

Although the IAC delays stem as much from steel shortages as from mismanagement – some of which is inevitable the first time anyone builds a new ship class – other analysts have noted that cost overruns are common on domestic defence orders, and that domestically built Indian warships have much longer completion cycles than their foreign counterparts.

To the extent that American vendors can contribute fabrication know-how, they will be regarded as more valuable by India, which wants to build things itself.