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How SecDef Austin Can Make the Most of His India Visit

The defense secretary should pave the way for more and deeper defense trade and technology cooperation.

As the last stop on U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's first international trip, India caps a carefully choreographed display of the U.S. administration's focus on working with America’s closest allies and partners to safeguard a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific. This is a good move, given that India and the United States will be linchpins in keeping the region at peace.

Austin’s visit follows the first-ever Quad leaders’ summit and coincides with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sitting down in Alaska for their first meeting with Chinese counterparts. The defense secretary arrives in Delhi after holding 2+2 meetings with Secretary Blinken and their counterparts in Japan and South Korea. For America's partners – and for China – the message of resolve and continued commitment to this region is unambiguous.  

At the Quad virtual summit, the four leaders aimed to show that the Indo-Pacific’s largest democracies can and will deliver for their own people and work cooperatively to promote a more prosperous and stable region. Rather than highlighting military efforts to counter China’s destabilizing activities, they focused on addressing shared challenges: global health starting with the COVID pandemic; setting standards for new technologies; and action to manage climate change. 

The joint statement released after the summit did not even mention China, but set forth an inclusive and affirmative agenda that the rest of the region will welcome. China most especially will find it hard to object to any of the stated goals for Quad cooperation made by its leaders. 

Deemphasizing any notion that the Quad is a de facto military alliance and counter to China sent an important and reassuring signal to countries around the region: this grouping is not asking them to choose sides. But make no mistake, military cooperation will remain a critical component of Quad cooperation. The threat the Quad countries face is primarily from China, which continues to militarize disputes from the Himalayas to the Taiwan Strait, challenge freedom of navigation in international waters, and coerce neighbors who refuse to accept Beijing’s views. In this context, the bilateral U.S.-India Major Defense Partnership is key to facilitating broader Quad military cooperation and deterring Chinese aggression. 

At their meeting, the defense leaders should seek concrete action on defense trade and technology cooperation to bolster India’s capabilities and its effectiveness as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. Encouragingly, a range of important defense sales that will benefit the Indian armed forces are poised to move forward soon. Highlights include MQ-9 drones, the MK 45 Naval Gun System, the NASAMS missile-defense shield for New Delhi and the ISTAR surveillance platform. Announcements on any of these, as well as follow-on purchases for existing contracts, would serve both countries well and bolster Quad maritime security capabilities. Every effort should be made to express support for Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” priority in defense trade and for pursuing joint ventures. Developing India’s domestic defense industrial base is in the interests of India , the United States, and their partners in the region and beyond.

Secretary Austin can also look to move into more advanced systems and platforms and taking the partnership to the next level. Should India choose to buy a U.S. fighter for the Indian Air Force and/or its Navy, it would be a game-changer in the defense relationship. It is in the interest of the United States to offer India the most advanced technology it is able to share. And it is in India’s interest to factor into their defense procurement decisions how U.S. systems and the interoperability and long-term defense cooperation that comes with them will serve India’s core national security needs going forward. This bilateral integration is also critical to Quad interoperability on high-end military contingencies. 

Technology cooperation is critical to the ability of democracies and like-minded countries to maintain their edge in this century’s competition with those sharing a different vision for the future. For example, by 2025, China will probably outspend [link] the United States on basic research and development. That trend is less concerning when you consider the investments made by the U.S. aggregated with those of its allies and partners. 

Secretary Austin and Minister Singh could agree to further improve the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, or DTTI, which made important progress in the past few years. It is important to reiterate a commitment to existing DTTI projects, including work on unmanned systems and on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and to set even more ambitious goals. 

We would urge the two sides to study examples of bilateral investment mechanisms, like the BIRD Foundation that established non-military technology cooperation between Israeli and American firms starting in 1977. Some form of a Defense Technology Fund could support joint private-sector initiatives on crucial technology. Continued progress in defense innovation cooperation would be in the interests of both the U.S. and India to pursue for example between India’s Innovations in Defence Excellence and the U.S. DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit.

Another opportunity for improving mil-mil cooperation stems from the pandemic and ties directly back to Quad priorities on global health. The U.S. and India, along with their Quad partners, struggled with COVID outbreaks on military installations and ships. Both nations also drew on their military to support civil authorities overwhelmed by the health crisis. The armed forces have helped with everything from personal protective equipment to vaccines. Military health cooperation can contribute to shared efforts to help countries recover from COVID and prepare for future public health emergencies. Both militaries can also regularize their mechanism for sharing best practices for managing climate change as it impacts operations and increases the burden of humanitarian and disaster relief missions.

Progress in these areas will not just undergird the broad commitments made by the leaders at the Quad Summit. It will also help Washington and New Delhi plan for and overcome potential bumps in the road. Chief among these dangers ahead are sanctions that could be triggered under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. These which loom large as India looks set to take delivery of Russian S-400 missile defense systems as early as October. It is not in the strategic interests of the United States to sanction India, but given the precedent of sanctions being levied against Turkey under the same statute for buying the same system, it cannot be ruled out. That risk must be managed proactively and purposefully. 

Unlike Turkey – a NATO ally whose relationship with the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction – India is a long-time partner of Russia now moving in the right direction. But India’s deep reliance on Russia for its strategic arsenal, and the leverage Moscow maintains given India’s need for everything from spare parts and maintenance to technical assistance, will persist for some time. This reliance will only continue to diminish with positive U.S. engagement. 

On the Indian side, openness to managing the challenges posed by the purchasing of Russian military equipment and continuing to invest in U.S. sourced systems and capabilities will help make a more compelling case against sanctions. U.S. concerns about Russian behavior from the seizure of Crimea to brutal military actions in Syria and extraterritorial assassinations merit an expectation of some degree of solidarity from Indian partners. Managing such challenges is critical to the health of the bilateral relationship but also for sustaining conditions needed for a cooperative and active Quad.

For two decades, the U.S.-India defense relationship has deepened ties between the world's oldest and largest democracies. Shared security concerns ranging from terrorism to Chinese military modernization and aggression remain the strategic basis for the partnership. With foundational defense agreements for deeper cooperation on logistics, secure communications, industrial cooperation and geospatial information sharing now in place, the potential for substantive and concrete action has never been greater. 

Secretary Austin and Minister Singh are well positioned to lead efforts that can deliver on the promise of building even stronger US—India ties and greater Indo-Pacific stability through more robust military cooperation. Beyond these two major defense partners, it is in the interests of all states sharing a similar vision for the region that they succeed. 

Dr. Joe Felter and Vikram J. Singh served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia under the Trump and Obama administrations, respectively.