The dawn of the 21st century in India-US relations was marked by a series of significant events, with the inception of the historic visit by then-President Clinton to the Indian parliament in March 2000 acknowledging the emergence of India as a great leader in the new centennial, which cemented the bilateral relationship of today. Prior to that visit, a set of conversations were facilitated by Strobe Talbott, the then Deputy Secretary of State, during the post-nuclear test of India in 1998, to lift the ban imposed after the nuclear deals and to re-tie diplomatic bonds with the nuclear-powered India and its rising status. Ever since, India-US relations have undergone a positive trajectory, particularly after the signing of the 2008 civil nuclear deal and the relationship has evolved in multiple dimensions, bolstered by burgeoning trade ties.
In 2022, the trade between the two nations reached a record-breaking figure of 191 billion dollars and the United States stood as the third largest source of FDI as India received 84.8 billion USD in 2022. India also supports the economic growth in the US as the Indian investment in the US is 12.7 billion USD supporting 70,000 American jobs. These fortifying economic ties contribute to India’s increasing credibility as a strategic friend and a major defence partner to the US, both from a strategic and commercial standpoint, which is evident in recent years. The recognition by the Obama administration of India as a major defence player signifies a concerted effort to align India’s strategic interests with those of the United States, reinstating India’s pivotal role in American interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond to counter China.
With the designation of India as a major defence partner, India stands on par with America’s closest allies, enabling Indian procurement of sensitive defence technologies and opening avenues for elevated Indo-US defence cooperation through four foundation defence agreements (GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA, BECA). Joint military exercises between Indian and US military personnel have become a customary practice, emphasising the need to enhance interoperability between the current and future military assets of both nations to strengthen India’s military capability to counter China’s military prowess. India’s defence market is poised to grow further, with plans to allocate approximately 26 billion USD by 2025 to bolster its combat capabilities. In line with the Indian government’s focus on in-country manufacturing and technology infusion, it is anticipated that American investments will play a vital role in bidding for future defence acquisitions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit to the US from June 20th to June 24th represents a watershed moment in Indo-US relations, particularly in the domains of defence and critical technology and is expected to start a new accelerated phase in the defence partnership. The groundwork for this momentous visit was initiated much earlier and by the visit of US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, to India from June 4-5 and US National Security Advisor, Mr Jake Sullivan on June 13th it further underscored the strategic and defence priorities of PM Modi’s visit. The purpose of Austin’s visit was to strengthen the major defence partnership and advance cooperation in critical domains. During this visit, an agreement on a roadmap for defence industrial cooperation was secured, which was announced as part of the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) agreement. The roadmap focuses on bolstering defence manufacturing in India through enhanced technological cooperation, aligning with India’s mission of self-reliance and reducing import dependence. While the Biden administration is struggling with the debt ceiling crisis, India offers a huge defence market for the US defence industry and hence the push. However, what is the practical limit to sharing the know-how of sensitive technologies is yet to be figured out over the course of time.
This Roadmap and PM Modi’s state visit is a crucial step that would strengthen the bilateral defence relationship which would promote collaboration in the defence industry, expediting co-development and co-production initiatives and fostering stronger connections between the defence sectors of both countries. Another significant development is the launch of a new initiative called Indus-X, which aims to provide fresh impetus to defence innovation engagement between India and the United States further boosting the U.S.-India bilateral Space Situational Awareness arrangement signed in 2022 to further cement the defence relations.
During PM Modi’s first-of-its-kind state visit to the United States, several significant deals are expected to be finalised, aimed to enhance India’s defence capabilities. One of the anticipated agreements involves the manufacturing of jet-fighter engines in India for advanced light combat aircraft with US collaboration to enable India to develop indigenous capabilities in producing crucial components for its fighter aircraft. There are also plans to purchase high-altitude armed Predator drones from a US firm in a multibillion-dollar agreement which will play a vital role in bolstering surveillance efforts over the Indian Ocean and in the Himalayas. By acquiring these advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), India aims to enhance its monitoring capabilities and maintain a robust presence in these strategic regions which America is cognizant of knowing that India can act as its information centre around China’s movement in the region. Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, the Defence Acquisition Council approved the procurement of 31 armed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, although the final approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security is still pending, and it is expected to be announced during the visit.
While these expected deals highlight the growing trust and cooperation between India and the United States, challenges persist, particularly in India’s six-decade-long defence relationship with Russia and India’s dependence on Russian arms and India’s pursuit of multi-alignment in its defence procurement strategy. However, the visit holds significant promise for advancing India’s defence capabilities. As India’s defence requirements expand and its aspirations for self-reliance intensify, the United States can emerge as Russia with the goal to aid India in becoming self-reliant and sufficient. America’s defence technology and knowledge sharing will be critical for this. The growing alignment of strategic interests, coupled with the surge in defence collaboration, and mutual mistrust towards China positions India and the United States as key stakeholders in shaping regional security dynamics and underscores the enduring nature of their partnership. This state visit would fortify a defence partnership that would not change irrespective of the President that will be selected in 2024.
Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.
Anisree Suresh is Associate, Research and Client Management, at the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). She completed her M.A in International Studies from the School of International and Area Studies, Goa University. She has done a couple of research internships at reputed research institutions of IR. Her master’s dissertation was on BIMSTEC and Indo-Pacific and published a research paper on the same. Her research interests pertain to security studies, South Asia, Indo-Pacific, IR theory and gender.