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The American Legion Magazine | 10.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd

Let’s play a game of global guess-who.

What country is helping rebuild Afghanistan, fighting piracy off the coast of Africa, keeping a close eye on China and fueling the global economy—all while remaining unembarrassed about its close association with the United States?

This mystery ally may sound like a description of Britain or Japan, but it’s actually India—America’s newest partner in peace.

Natural Allies
The U.S.-India partnership is built on shared values, shared economic interests and shared threats.

The two countries have strong democratic credentials. India calls itself the world’s largest democracy, and the U.S. considers itself the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Moreover, as President Barack Obama has pointed out, India and the U.S. embrace freedom, human rights and an entrepreneurial ethos. “The United States and India are natural allies,” Obama observes.[1]

Even as other countries wax and wane in their support for the U.S., India’s 1.1 billion people have been remarkably consistent in their pro-American views: more than 65 percent held a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2002, 71 percent in 2005 and 76 percent in 2009.[2]

This may be a function of the growing economic ties between India and the United States. Total U.S.-India trade has exploded from $14.3 billion in 2000 to $43 billion in 2009—a 300-percent increase. The Indian economy is among the world’s 12 largest economies.

Moreover, global markets increasingly count on India to police the ocean that bears its name. “India is key to ensuring the flow of trade through much of the Indian Ocean,” says Eric Wertheim, editor of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World.

As a report by the StimsonCenter details, “one-fifth of the world’s energy supplies now travel across the Indian Ocean,” and cargo ships rely on the Indian Ocean to carry goods from Asia to the Middle East and Europe. “Between 2003 and 2012, the volume of that trade is expected to triple.”[3]

At the intersection of economic ties and security ties, the U.S. and India hammered out a landmark deal on nuclear cooperation in 2008, allowing technology transfers and U.S. investment in India’s nuclear power industry.[4]

The Bush administration laid the groundwork for these new technology and security ties by declaring in 2002 that “U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.” By 2005, the two countries had signed a long-term agreement, opening the way to unprecedented U.S.-India defense cooperation.[5]

“It was inevitable that India would find common ground with the United States,” Wertheim says, noting that the two need each other. “It is important for the U.S. to have friends in this vital region,” he explains. “And for the sake of military modernization and long-term security, it’s important for India to tilt toward the West.”   

Checking China

The challenge for Washington, according to Wertheim, is to resist the inclination to push too hard or too fast. “We can’t be overbearing with India without risking alienating India,” he warns.

So far, Wertheim believes that the U.S. has struck the right posture.

For example, cabinet-level exchanges now take place as part of what Washington calls its “strategic dialogue” with New Delhi.

Joint military maneuvers began in 2002 and continue today, usually under the codename “Cope India.” Calling the U.S.-India security relationship “indispensible,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the “number and complexity” of these exercises have increased in recent years.[6]

In 2004, for example, the U.S. and India conducted air combat exercises.[7] In 2005, they focused on counterinsurgency and jungle warfare.

Cope India 2009, the largest U.S.-India war games ever, featured search-and-rescue training, airlifts and airdrops, and armored maneuvers. The U.S. even deployed its high-tech Stryker combat vehicle to central India for the two-week exercise. As Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon told Armed Forces Press Service, the exercises were “on the high end of fighting.”[8]

This should come as no surprise. As U.S. Joint Forces Command observed in 2008, India has a “proud martial tradition.” Combined with its newfound interest in military modernization and longstanding commitment to democracy, India possesses all the ingredients of a close U.S. ally.[9] Indeed, Gates has labeled India “a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[10]

Increasingly, the operative word here is “beyond.”

  • In mid-2009, Indian warships steamed to the Atlantic Ocean for anti-submarine warfare exercises with the French and British navies.
  • The Indian navy is participating in counter-piracy operations off the coasts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In December 2009, Indian warships and helicopters foiled a pirate attack against a Norwegian tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
  • Elements of the Indian air force deployed to Oman for joint exercises in late 2009. As Defense News reports, India and Oman have inked a defense deal that includes maritime security and naval exercises, and even contemplates stationing Indian troops in Oman. In early 2010, the countries’ defense ministers began planning for joint anti-piracy operations.[11]
  • India is upgrading military-to-military ties with Israel and Japan. In fact, Japan and India recently agreed to a Defense Action Plan to increase maritime military cooperation.

The convergence of India and Japan is being fueled by one of the very same factors fueling the U.S.-India partnership: the rapid emergence of China.

India and China, it pays to recall, went to war in the not-too-distant past. Barely noticed in the U.S., Chinese troops frequently violate Indian territory.[12]India worries about China’s increasing investment in neighboring countries as a Trojan horse strategy to undermine India’s regional standing. And China’s military buildup—highlighted by the acquisition of power-projecting naval assets, warplanes, missilery, satellites and information technologies—has gotten everyone’s attention in the Asia-Pacific neighborhood.

Indeed, India and the U.S. increasingly view one another as a helpful counterweight to China, each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis China in the global chess match.

While sidestepping any direct reference to China, Obama says India is helping shape “a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia” and calls America’s relationship with India “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”[13]

Fighting Terror

This spirit of partnership is a dramatic and welcome change. After all, India and the U.S. were often at odds during the Cold War. India refused to side with—or be manipulated by—Moscow or Washington. Instead, India carved out its own path and led the nonaligned movement.

The days of distance from the U.S. appear to be over for India.

The rise of China may have been the impetus for India’s tilt toward Washington, but “terrorism has sped the partnership,” according to Wertheim.

Immediately after 9/11, India offered unequivocal support to the U.S., and India remains a stalwart partner in the effort to stabilize the spawning ground of 9/11: Afghanistan.

India is pouring $1.3 billion in development aid into Afghanistan—what Gates calls “extraordinary support.”[14] As The New York Times reports, India is building hospitals, schools, roads and Afghanistan’s new parliament.

To be sure, this is partly a function of India’s desire to counter Pakistani influence over Afghanistan. However, India’s commitment to a more stable Afghanistan is a function of something more than regional rivalry. India understands the deadly danger of terrorism.

To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, India is a frontline state in the war on terror, weathering a relentless barrage of terror attacks in the past decade. The State Department places India “among the world’s most terrorism-afflicted countries.”[15]

Terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in 2001. Commuter-train attacks and bomb-laden taxis killed 71 in 2003. Attacks on outdoor markets, schools and Hindu festivals killed 309 in 2005 and 2006. Attacks on trains, mosques and an amusement park killed 119 in 2007. And then there was 2008, a year that proved to be a bloody turning point for India.[16]

After a terrorist attack on India’s embassy in Afghanistan killed 54 people, the jihadists launched what amounted to an invasion of Mumbai, India’s financial center, in late 2008.  The siege of Mumbai killed 183 people, including six Americans. But it was the attack’s military sophistication and precision—the terrorists launched their assault from the ocean, seized three hotels, a train station and a Jewish religious center, and employed GPS systems to coordinate the operation—that caught the world’s attention.  

“From a military perspective,” Wertheim observes, “Mumbai was a sophisticated sea-borne attack. India sees Mumbai as its 9/11.”

Spurred by the Mumbai attacks, India is strengthening its coastal defenses and deploying new anti-terror commando teams. Fifteen new coast guard stations will dot India’s shoreline in the near future.[17]


These upgrades represent just a fraction of a much larger military modernization effort now underway in India.

Already the fifth-largest navy and fourth-largest air force on earth, India currently deploys 120 warships and 900 warplanes. But many of these assets are far too old to serve India’s 21st-century needs and interests. Hence, New Delhi is in the midst of a $50-billion spending binge between now and 2015. In fact, Indian defense spending jumped by 34 percent in 2009.

These fresh investments in the military are crucial, according to Wertheim, especially on the maritime front. “India’s submarine program badly needs to be modernized,” he says. Some 60 percent of India’s aging submarine fleet will need to be retired by 2012.

India plans to build more than 100 new warships in the next 10 years. Thirty-two of the ships are already under construction, with 75 slated for christening by 2019. Recent and planned acquisitions include up to three new aircraft carriers, a U.S.-built amphibious docking ship and six new subs, as well as heavy-lift cargo planes and the C4ISR assets needed to network a modern military force.[18]India also plans to acquire 126 fighter-bombers.

Even with its submarine deficiencies, India is a bona fide naval power, according to Wertheim. “India’s navy is in the top tier of Asian navies, just behind Japan and South Korea, and roughly equivalent with China,” he says. Internationally, he sees India playing important niche roles that will augment U.S. naval power in the coming years, including combating piracy, securing regional sea lanes and contributing to the thousand-ship navy concept.

The thousand-ship navy is rapidly moving beyond the conceptual stage. This navy of navies enfolds the combined sea power of the United States and its closest allies, including members of NATO, Japan, Australia and, increasingly, India. We see glimpses of what this navy of navies can accomplish in the multinational anti-piracy task force and in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative.

In the same way, the U.S.-India partnership is no longer a conceptual possibility, but rather a here-and-now reality. Whether it’s on the high seas, the frontlines of the war on terror, or the frontiers of freedom and free markets, India and the United States are learning they can do great things as partners.

[1] President Barack Obama Remarks November 24, 2009.

[2]PewResearchCenter, Opinion of the United States: India, January 13, 2010.

[3] Ellen Laipson and Amit Pandya, “The Indian Ocean: Resource and Governance Challenges,”
StimsonCenter, 2009, www.stimson.org/rv/pdf/Indian_Ocean(PDF)/Indian_Ocean-Chapter_6_Laipson.pdf 

[4] J. Bajoria and Esther Pan, The U.S.-India Deal, http://www.cfr.org/.

[5] Alan Kronstadt, US-India Bilateral Agreements in 2005, CRS Report for Congress, September 8, 2005.

[6] Gates, “Forward, together,” The Times of India, January 19, 2010.

[7] CRS.

[8] Fred Baker, “Strykers to deploy to India for exercise,” AFPS, October 6, 2009.

[9] USJFC, The Joint Operating Environment 2008, pp.32-33.

[10] Viola Gienger, “Gates uses India visit to push defense accords,” Bloomberg News, January 19, 2010.

[11] Vivek Raghuvanshi, “India, Oman launch first joint air exercise,” Defense News, October 14, 2009;

[12] The Economist, “Himalayan histrionics,” October 29, 2009; Dan Blumenthal, “India prepares for a two-front war,” The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2010.

[13] President Barack Obama Remarks November 24, 2009.

[14] Robert Gates Remarks January 20, 2010.

[15] State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009, p.144.

[16] Washington Post, “Indian growing terrorism,” November 28, 2008, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/27/AR2008112702344.html.

[17] CNN, :After Mumbai’s 9/11, city bulks up anti-terror fight,” May 12, 2010.

[18] Dan Blumenthal, “India prepares for a two-front war,” The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2010.