Indo-US Strategic Partnership: A Force for Cooperative Security in the Indo-Pacific

Meeting the Chinese Challenge

Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs on March 2, 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, called for quadrilateral Australia-India-Japan-US consultations for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. He said, “Together, we can develop a roadmap that leverages our respective efforts to improve the security architecture and strengthen regional dialogues. Together, we can ensure free and open sea lanes of communication that are critical for global trade and prosperity.”

Admiral Harris also announced that the next set of naval exercises in the trilateral annual Malabar series, comprising India, Japan and the US, will be held in the northern Philippine Sea, close to the South China Sea.

The Chinese perceive such efforts as attempts to gang up on them and, therefore, their reaction was fast and furious. Hong Lei, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, said, "We urge the US government to put some restraint on them (US commanders) and stop them from irresponsible sensationalisation and hyping up so as to avoid undermining regional peace and stability."

In this era of strategic uncertainty, the only certainty is that China’s rise is unlikely to be entirely peaceful. China’s brazen violation of international norms in recent years, particularly its construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, and its growing military and economic power pose a strategic challenge to the countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including India, the United States and its allies and strategic partners.

China senses the emergence of a security vacuum in the Indo-pacific and is rushing to fill it. China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy to “hide our capacity and bide our time”. It has also dropped the phrase “peaceful rise” while referring to its military and economic growth.

China’s rapid economic growth has been fairly uneven and non-inclusive. There is a deep sense of resentment against the leadership of the Communist Party for the denial of basic freedoms and rampant corruption. The discontentment simmering below the surface could boil over and lead to an uncontrollable spontaneous implosion. David Shambaugh, a well-known China scholar is the latest to have jumped on to the China-may-implode bandwagon. The recent crash of Chinese stock markets may have provided the first glimpse of impending implosion.

Also, given its recent belligerence, China could behave irresponsibly somewhere in the Indo-Pacific. It could decide to intervene militarily in the South China Sea, or to occupy the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands or to resolve territorial and boundary disputes. Though President Xi Jinping denied plans to ‘militarize’ the South China Sea, surely China is not building air strips there to fly in Japanese tourists.

Both the contingencies have a low probability of occurrence, but will be high impact events with widespread ramifications if either of them comes to pass. The US, which is the leading provider of security in the Indo-Pacific, and India, will need strong partners to deal with the fallout and to manage the consequences. The US-India strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries.

US Support for India as a ‘Net Provider of Security’

Though it will be a gradual and long-drawn process, a cooperative security framework may eventually emerge from the ashes of the ongoing conflicts. Together with the US and its other strategic partners, India must take the lead in establishing a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and for the security of the global commons – air space, space, cyber space and the sea-lanes of communication to enable the freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. If China is willing to join this security architecture, it should be welcomed.

US leaders have expressed their support for India’s emergence as a major power several times in the last ten years. They have used phrases like the US is committed “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century” (briefing by US official after the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 2005); “India is not just a rising power, it has already risen” (President Obama, 2010).

Now the US expects “India to become a net provider of security” in the region, but the expectations have not been stated in specific terms. When asked, US officials normally point to India joining international counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts; sharing intelligence; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy and narcotics trafficking; and, continuing to taking the lead in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region. All of these expectations are unexceptionable and India has been contributing extensively to achieving these common goals.

Force Structure for Military Intervention

India is gradually emerging as a dominant power in the Indo-Pacific and is preparing to discharge its regional responsibilities. In keeping with its rapidly growing strategic interests and regional responsibilities, India is likely to be increasingly willing to join its strategic partners to intervene militarily in its regional neighbourhood when the situation so demands. While India would prefer to do so with a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council and under the UN flag, it may not be averse to joining ‘coalitions of the willing’ when its vital national interests are threatened and consensus in the Security Council proves hard to achieve.

Stemming from the need for contingency planning, particularly in support of its forces deployed for United Nations (UN) peace-keeping and peace-support duties and for limited power projection, India will need to raise and maintain in a permanent state of quick-reaction readiness adequate forces to participate in international coalitions in India’s area of strategic interest.

The late General K. Sundarji, former COAS, had often spoken of converting an existing infantry division to an air assault division by about the year 2000. Though the idea was certainly not ahead of its time, the shoestring budgets of the 1990s did not allow the army to proceed to practically implement the concept. Now the time has come to translate his vision into reality. Lt Gen Vinay Shankar (Retd.) has written, “Some years ago the army had drawn up an approach paper projecting the requirement of two air-mobile divisions… This is now a definite requirement and the proposal ought to be followed up.” Other analysts are also of the view that India needs to put in place a fairly expansive expeditionary capability. Bharat Karnad is of the view: “At the very least, a genuine expeditionary force would have to comprise two division equivalent forces, increasing over time to 5-6 division equivalents for distant employment…”

A key combat requirement for out-of-area contingencies is ‘air assault’ capability. It is also a significant force multiplier in conventional conflict. The present Indian requirement is of at least one air assault brigade group with integral heli-lift capability for offensive employment on India’s periphery. This capability must be in place by the end of the 12th Defence Plan period 2012-17. This brigade should be capable of short-notice deployment in India’s extended neighbourhood by air and sea. Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, integral firepower component and combat service support and logistics support units, the brigade group should be based on Chinook CH-47 and MI-17 transport helicopters. It should have the guaranteed firepower and support of two to three flights of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and one flight of UCAVs.

The air assault brigade group should be armed, equipped and trained to secure threatened islands, seize an air head and capture an important objective inside the adversary’s territory such as a key bridge that is critical to furthering operations in depth. It should also be equipped and trained to operate as part of international coalition forces for speedy military interventions. To make it effective, it will have to be provided air and sealift capability and a high volume of battlefield air support by the IAF and the navy till its deployment area comes within reach of the artillery component of ground forces. Since the raising of such a potent brigade group will be a highly expensive proposition, its components will need to be very carefully structured to get value for money.

Simultaneously, efforts should commence to raise a division-size rapid reaction force, of which the first air assault brigade group mentioned above should be a part, by the end of the 13th Defence Plan period 2017-22. The second brigade group of the Rapid Reaction Division (RRD) should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. One brigade group in Southern Command has been recently designated as an amphibious brigade; this brigade group could be suitably upgraded. The amphibious brigade should be self-contained for 15 days of sustained intervention operations. The third brigade of the RRD should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and the mountains as well as jungle and desert terrain. All the brigade groups and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air.

With the exception of the amphibious brigade, the division should be logistically self-contained for an initial deployment period of 15 to 20 days with limited daily replenishment. The infrastructure for such a division, especially strategic air lift, attack helicopters, heli-lift and landing ship capability, will entail heavy capital expenditure to establish and fairly large recurring costs to maintain. However, it is an inescapable requirement and funds will need to be found for such a force by innovative management of the defence budget and additional budgetary support. The second RRD should be raised over the 14th and 15th Defence Plans by about 2032 when India’s regional responsibilities would have grown considerably. Unless planning for the creation of such capabilities begins now, the formations will not be available when these are required to be employed.

Special Forces support should be available to the RRDs on as required basis, for conventional conflict and intervention operations. The airborne force projection capability that India has at present is that of the independent Parachute Brigade. Since the organisational structure of this brigade is more suitable for conventional operations, this brigade should be retained as an Army HQ reserve for strategic employment behind enemy lines to further the operations of ground forces that are expected to link up with it in an early time frame. However, when necessary, the brigade could be allotted to the RRD for short durations to carry out specific tasks.

A permanent tri-Service headquarters equivalent to a Corps HQ should also be raised under HQ Integrated Defence Staff for continuous threat assessment and operational planning and to provide C4I2SR support to the RRDs and their firepower, combat service and logistics support components. The HQ should also be suitably staffed with a skeleton civilian component comprising diplomats, civic affairs personnel and disaster relief staff. This component should be beefed up when the task force is ordered to be deployed. Unless planning for the creation of the capabilities that are necessary begins now, these potent fighting echelons will not be available when these are likely to be required.

With these capabilities in place, it will be clear to potential adversaries that India will not hesitate to intervene in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened in its area of strategic interest, which extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. Effective deterrence equals victory without a shot being fired. This would be true against state actors. Non-state actors have different motivations and are not easily deterred.

The defence cooperation element of the Indo-US strategic partnership must be taken to the next higher trajectory to enable joint threat assessment; contingency planning for joint operations; sharing of intelligence; simulations and table-top exercises – besides training exercises with troops; coordination of command, control and communications; and, planning for deployment and logistics support.  All of these activities will need to be undertaken in concert with other strategic partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. Only then will the India-US strategic partnership realise its true potential as a force for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.