India – US 2+2 Dialogue: Forging a Predictable Defence Relationship
Lt Gen Anil Ahuja, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd.) - Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The recently concluded India – US 2+2 dialogue (October 26- 27, 2020), third in this series, is a pointer towards the two countries converging substantially in overcoming the often lamented `hesitation of history’. Coming just days before the US elections and in the midst of ongoing India- China standoff in Ladakh, the messaging inherent is more substantive than the achievements listed in the Joint statement1. What stands out most notably is a concerted effort by both sides to bring about `Institutional convergence’ (beyond the perceived chemistry between individual leaders); driven by the realisation of India being the most significant pillar of stability in the Indo- Pacific and as a symbol of determination and challenge to Chinese hegemony. This lies behind the American assurances to India of the US being a `predictable' and `reliable’ defence partner in face of geostrategic challenges of the new cold war. In fact, it is a manifestation of Secretary Mattis remarks on the eve of the inaugural 2+2, in September 2018, “India’s significance as a stabilising force on the region’s geographic frontlines’2.

Evolving Framework of Defence and Security Relationship

A resume of the progress made in strengthening defence and security relations between the two countries, over the last four years, particularly through the medium of 2+2 dialogue, instituted in 2018, would give the policymakers of the two countries a rightful sense of achievement. This is reflected in the joint statement of October 27, 2020, where both sides have commended each other for developing a comprehensive, resilient, and multi-faceted Major Defence Partnership.

To recapitulate: India is now a signatory to all the defence foundational agreements (long referred to as the `Enabling agreements' due to the sensitivity attached): LEMOA (India specific LSA- Logistics support Agreement), signed in 2016; COMCASA (India specific CISMOA- Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), signed in 2018; and the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation), signed on October 27, 2020. The `Industrial security Annexe (ISA) to General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA-2002) was signed during the second 2+2 dialogue in December 2019, enabling the transfer of classified technology and information between private industries of the U.S. and India. The two countries are now looking forward to an ISA summit, to be held shortly, to further strengthen defence industrial cooperation. It was also in the run-up to the first 2+2 dialogue that India was elevated to the Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1) status, allowing controlled items to be exported under defined conditions without a transaction-specific license. These arrangementshave laid a sound foundation for progressing defence cooperation across multiple fields.

Besides the direct outcomes attributed to the 2+2 dialogues, there have been other tangible developments which can be attributed to the momentum accorded by this forum. It was in the run-up to the inaugural dialogue in September 2018 that the United States Congress, in July- August, passed the National Defence Authorisation Act- 2019 (NDAA-19), providing some room for a possible waiver to punitive sanctions under Section 231 of "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act" or CAATSA; an endeavour was also made to extend the provisions of ‘Major Defence Partner (India) to the State Department, giving it legislative authority under Title 22. While the provisions have not got extended to the State Department yet, the idea has at least been germinated. From the Indian side, besides the political significanceof the decision to accede to foundational agreements, these dialogues also provided an impetus to in-principle approval of major acquisitions like the US $ 1.86 billion, National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System- II (NASAM- II) 3 and 24MH-60 R (Seahawk) Multi-Mission helicopters for a bill of approximately US $ 2.6 billion4.

In addition, momentum has also been accorded to already robust military to military cooperation. Adding to a plethora of military exercises between the two countries, the first-ever India and U.S. armed forces tri-services exercise ‘Tiger Triumph’ was held on the East Coast of India, in the Bay of Bengal, in November 2019; liaison officers have now been exchanged between Indian and the US Navy and deployed with US Naval Forces Central Command(NAVCENT), Bahrain and with India’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), respectively. There is a substantially enhanced level of intelligence exchange and maritime information sharing both at the joint services and service to service level. Dialogue is also underway for enhancing cooperation with the US Navy fleets under Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and Africa Command and to subsequently expand similar cooperation between their respective Armies and the Air Forces. Greater collaboration in the field of special operations is also being contemplated.

In fact, the inclusion of Japan in Exercise Malabar, since 2015 and of the Royal Australian Navy in thenext edition of the exercise to be held in 2020, is directly attributable to the growing India - US defence and security cooperation. The positive impact is also being felt in the evolution of Quad, which has now graduated to the level of the second Quadrilateral ministerial meeting (held at Tokyo, on October 6, 2020) and is at the threshold of enhancing the security component.

The scope of expanding India-US defence cooperation is also getting extended to the development of defence industry of the two countries, cooperation in the field of defence innovation and in making the global supply chains of major defence platforms more resilient. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), formally instituted in mid-2014/2015, has steadily matured over the years and has emerged as a `silent-enabler’ and `driver’ of integrated activities in diverse fields, including for planning major acquisitions and capability development.

Extending to the larger ambit of security, the recent joint statement calls out Pakistan directly for cross border terrorism and assures sharing of information, through the Joint Working Group (JWG) on counter-terrorism. Similar structures have also been created for initiating India- US Defence Cyber Dialogue, Space dialogue and for exploring areas of potential space defence cooperation. The scope of engagement is expanding exponentially putting in place a momentum which is likely to sustain in the new US Administration.

Foundation of a Predictable & Reliable Relationship

Future forecasting and crystal ball gazing is inherent in national strategic planning. Amongst the most significant considerations are the extent of `predictability and reliability’ of potential partners or allies. Afterall the weapon systems, arms and munitions that a nation acquires, as part of this relationship or the exchange agreements and interoperability protocols that the nations develop have a long lead time for (re) orientation, training and absorption into the system. There is also a requirement of guaranteed lifetime support for equipment sustenance, which may extend to three to four decades. The uncertainties get compounded in democracies, where the governments in power and national perceptions remain dynamic, making continued support unpredictable.

The recent experience of `management’ of transition by the US Administration / Pentagon, should help assuage concerns of continuity in India- US defence relations. In 2016, in the last year of Obama administration, on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, in June 2016, US announced recognition of India as a Major Defence Partner (MDP), a first in the history of both nations. According to Keith Webster, Director International Cooperation at the Pentagon, then, the reason behind this decision and its inclusion in the Joint Statement5 was to, `…cement the progress made within the US Department of Defence, to advance policy decisions that ultimately redefined the bilateral relationship by placing India on par with most of the US allies within NATO. The policy changes gave equal footing to India with these countries in respect of technology release and cooperation decisions enabling a closer political, military and industrial partnership’6. He added that `with the looming end of the Obama Presidency and subsequent exit of supportive political appointees that enabled this rapid and historic shift, changes within key US documents, statements and legislation reflecting this progress were needed to ensure a smooth and consistent transition to a new administration, regardless of which candidate won the election’7. The experience of the last four years suggests that this `bridging experiment’ has been successful. All achievements of Obama Administration related to defence relationship were legalised and codified in US law, through the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA)- 2017. Consequently, as has been experienced, the trajectory of the India-US defence and security relationship has remained positive during the entire tenure of the Trump Administration.

It would not be out of place to situate the recently concluded 2+2 dialogue and the Joint Statement issued on October 27, 2020, in the same context, of `bridging transition’. This Joint Statement could yet again provide for `smooth and consistent transition to a new administration’, providing a basic reference document for carrying forward the trend of the bilateral defence and security relationship, regardless of which candidate wins the election! This ensures continuity, predictability and reliability.

As India and the U.S. take new steps in cementing defence relationship, there are certain (legitimate) apprehensions amongst many traditional thinkers on both sides. On the Indian side, some believe; acceding to the foundational agreements compromises national security interests. Likewise, questions are raised by Americans about what India is doing to justify its designation as a Major Defence Partner and to call China out directly? These are real but difficult questions which are best addressed by a better appreciation of each other’s vital concerns and deeper comprehension of their perceptions and established systems, within respective democratic structures.

As regards signing the foundational agreements, there is now a better understanding on the Indian side that acceding to these is procedurally beneficial for processing licensing, technology and product (military equipment) release requests from India, a process in which, the Pentagon, State Department and the Department of Commerce, all have a part to play. This also formalises and facilitates intelligence and information exchange and enhances the level of operational interoperability, between the partners.

As regards India’s approach to China, admittedly, at least till the recent Ladakh standoff, while it was widely recognised by India that China is the primary military threat, the defence orientation had remained Pakistan centric with China hedging strategies like at Wuhan and Malappuram informal summits. The reticence in calling out China directly and endeavour to keep boundary disputes separate from other facets of bilateral relations was an attempt to underplay the boundary dispute while India built other elements of bilateral relations with China. This was also a construct of apprehension of a possible US-China G2, given their strong economic convergences. This has changed, with Chinese military aggression. It has made (helped) India cross the tipping point. China would now be perceived as the primary threat and the unsettled boundary as the foremost security concern.

It is however also well appreciated that in this environment of global interdependence, both India - China, and the US-China would continue to have multiple areas of engagement amongst each other with accommodation in certain fields. However, the overall relationship in the core area of defence and security is unlikely to change. China’s recent actions have ensured that it would be perceived as the primary threat by India, the US and other regional neighbours, hereafter.

In developing a closer partnership, the US also continues to voice concerns over India's defence relationship with Russia and its continued acquisition of Russian origin weapon systems. The aspect of nearly 60 % of Indian armed forces' inventory being of Soviet / Russian origin is well known to the U.S. side. Besides, India has also highlighted the traditional nature of its relationship with Russia and the current regional dynamics around SCO, RIC and BRICS. It is important for the US to understand that this engagement is without prejudice to the shared geostrategic vision and convergence in the Indo-Pacific, which India and the US have forged. Concerning arms acquisitions, the Indian military inventory is large enough to have near independent segments for the Russian and the US/Western sourced weapon systems. Assurance concerning firewalling of differently sourced technologies has also been repeatedly extended by India, in letter and spirit.

Yet another area of divergence between the two countries has been India's primary focus on the land borders, be it along the LAC with China or the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. On the US side, this is perceived as a dilution of India's commitment to the Indo-Pacific, in the maritime domain. The current standoff with China and the looming two-front threat along the land borders would give a clear idea of India's predicament. Addressing threats across the land borders is a matter of sovereignty and territorial integrity and has to be met only by the 'Indian boots on the ground'. U.S. support would be valuable for capability development particularly in the field of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), intelligence sharing, provision of force multipliers- in particular, the unmanned aerial systems, strategic and tactical airlift etc. While addressing these concerns, India remains conscious of the maritime dimension of the Chinese threat in the Indo- Pacific as well as its regional responsibilities in the maritime domain, particularly in the Indian Ocean. Prioritisation of domains is for operational concerns, in face of stretched defence budgets, rather than on account of any dilution of commitment.


India and the US are conscious that despite substantial efforts, creation of a much needed, `framework of strategic cooperation’ which is essential to define the `trajectory of defence relationship’ remains a work in progress. It is this road map that would institutionally support overall capability development, nature of training and exercises, major acquisitions and technology transfers, development of defence industry, the evolution of regional security architectures and forging of interoperability, amongst many other decisions. The desired framework would emerge with deeper mutual understanding, including on issues where there is a divergence of perceptions. There is substantial merit in appreciating that India and the US are `two co-equal democracies, which owe each other the highest respect for their sovereignty'8

Finally, it is important to underscore that defence and security relations have the potential to catalyse addressing contentious issues in other fields. In this backdrop lies the true potential of this partnership.

  1. on the third India-U.S. 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.October 27, 2020. _Ministerial Dialogue
  2. US Department of Defence. Secretary of Defence James N Mattis’ Remarks at India 2+2 Joint Press Conference. September 6, 2018.
  3. Raghuvanshi Vivek. India to spend $1 billion on advanced air defence system from the US. Defence News. July 31, 2018.
    Snehesh Alex Phillip. New Delhi to get Washington-type missile shield NASAMS II
    The Print. February 11, 2020.
  4. Franz-Stefan Gady. Ahead of Trump Visit: India Clears Procurement of 24 MH-60R Seahawk Helicopters. The Diplomat. February 20, 2020.
  5. India-US Joint Statement during the visit of Prime Minister to USA (The United States and India: Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century).June 07, 2016. Para 17.
  6. Webster Keith. Trump Must Act Now on US-India Defence Relations. The Diplomat. January 26, 2018.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Op. Cit. Secretary Mattis Remarks at India 2+2 Joint Press Conference.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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