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India's Strategic Defense Transformation: Expanding Global Relationships

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Brian K. Hedrick. | November 2009

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Following India's independence in 1947, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru embarked on a foreign policy that was based on principles of socialism and remaining noncommittal to the emerging struggle between the Soviet Union and the countries forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the post-World War II period. Eventually, this policy led to India becoming one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1955. In practical terms, it placed India in a position of securing bilateral international commitments only in situations that were clearly neutral in nature or in cases of last-resort. The basic principles of nonalignment also governed the military relationships of the Indian defense establishment, resulting in limited military-to­military contacts, usually through United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions or training at foreign military schools. These practices were generally followed by his successors until the early 1990s when a changing geopolitical structure and an internal economic crisis began to challenge these principles.

India's answer to this challenge is to reach out to as many “friendly foreign countries” as possible to estab- lish a balance of nonalignment with global multi­lateralism. The diversification of its defense supply base from the Soviet Union and later Russia to western suppliers resulted in a series of new agreements supporting its diversification, while also securing agreements with many of its smaller friends. Since 2000, India has increased the number of countries with which it has defense-specific agreements from seven to 26 by the end of 2008. Bilateral and multilateral exercises are also an increasing feature of India's expanding defense relations as it seeks to find new technologies to transform its military from Cold War era weapons to 21st century capabilities through such opportunities.

India's interests have changed over the past decade or more, taking it from a position of nonalignment and noncommitment to having specific strategic interests taking it on a path of “poly-alignment.” This path appears to be following four specific, but intermingled courses:

  • Becoming a regional power across the Indian Ocean basin and securing agreements from partners in this region that support this goal, while building up expeditionary capabilities in its navy and air force. At the same time, it continues to modernize its army to deal with potential threats from its immediate neighbors and internal insurgency groups, and to fulfill its goal of being a global leader in UN peacekeeping.
  • Developing “strategic partnerships” with countries perceived as leaders of a global, multipolar order and seeking modern military capabilities from many of those countries. This includes modern weapon systems as well as the technology and licensed production associated with those weapon systems.
  • Securing or maintaining ties with smaller countries globally, many of which are members of the NAM, that can provide support in international fora as well as provide potential markets for its own emerging defense industry.
  • Maintaining its position of leadership in the NAM and publically presenting itself as “nonaligned” despite its actual alignments in the three above thrust areas.

Many of the recent changes in India's global defense relationships represent a vast departure from past policy and practices. Given that the Congress Party and its United Progressive Alliance coalition received a strong electoral mandate on its reelection in May 2009, these changes are likely to continue and perhaps will see bold moves to further develop and deepen strategic relationships around the world. As India cements its expanding defense relationships through purchase of major defense platforms and the associated technology transfers and co-production agreements, it will define the course of its long-term relationships for the coming decades. This presents both opportunities and challenges for the United States as it expands its military ties with New Delhi.