This maritime partnership is still under construction

It is far from clear whether India-US relations are moving towards a comprehensive partnership in the Indian Ocean littorals

It is far from clear whether India-US relations are moving towards a comprehensive partnership in the Indian Ocean littorals

USNS Docking Charles Drew, a US Navy dry cargo ship, for repairs at an Indian facility in Chennai last week marks a significant first in India-US military relations. Although bilateral strategic ties had progressed considerably over the past decade, reciprocal repair of naval vessels was still a milestone that had not been taken. With the arrival of Charles Drew at the Larsen plant and Toubro (L&T) at the Kattupalli shipyard, India and the United States seem to have moved past a self-imposed restriction.

Signs of a larger pattern

According to some, a renewed optimism is now driving Indo-American relations. During the 2+2 bilateral dialogue held in April this year, the two countries agreed to explore the possibilities of utilizing Indian shipyards for the repair and maintenance of US Military Sealift Command vessels ( MSC). In the weeks following this meeting, the MSC carried out an exhaustive audit of the Indian shipyards and authorized the installation of Kattupalli for the repair of American naval vessels.

The docking of a US military ship in an Indian facility has both functional and geopolitical implications. Functionally, this signals more effective use of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) – the military logistics agreement that India signed with the United States in 2017. So far, the Indo-US cooperation under the pact had been largely limited to the exchange of fuel. and stores during joint exercises and relief operations. With the arrival of an American naval vessel at an Indian shipyard, the model of logistics cooperation seems to have widened. There is a good possibility now that India will seek reciprocal access to repair facilities at US bases in Asia and beyond.

Meanwhile, many in India view the US ship’s docking as a global endorsement of India’s shipbuilding and repair capabilities. In recent years, New Delhi has sought to showcase its private shipyards, particularly L&T, which has developed significant ship design and construction capabilities at its Hazira (Gujarat) and Kattupalli yards. At a time when the Indian Navy took delivery of the INS vikrant, the country’s first locally built aircraft carrier, the spirits of Indian shipbuilders are already in a frenzy. In the eyes of Indian observers, the presence of the USNS Charles Drew in an Indian shipyard is a boost for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Make-in-India’.

The political signal

Politically, too, the development is remarkable, as it signals a consolidation of the Indo-American partnership and of the quadrilateral dialogue (India, Japan, Australia and the United States) on security. Despite its intention to boost logistical exchanges between Quad members, New Delhi has backed away from offering foreign warships access to Indian facilities. Despite the bizarre refueling of foreign warships and aircraft at Indian facilities, India’s military establishment has been wary of any move that gives the impression of an anti-China alliance. Yet Indian policymakers are clearly ready to be more ambitious with India’s strategic relationship with the United States. New Delhi’s decision to open repair facilities for the US military suggests greater Indian readiness to cater to the maritime interests of India’s Quad partners.

For Washington, the strategic implications of docking in India are no less tangible. This is a progressive step forward in the United States’ move to strengthen its military presence in the eastern Indian Ocean. Recent assessments of security developments in the Indian Ocean point to the possibility of China’s military expansion into Asian littorals, putting US and European assets at risk. According to reports, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is preparing to play a more active security role in the region. New Delhi’s offer of repair services for US naval vessels could start a process that would culminate in India opening its naval bases to friendly foreign warships. At a time when New Delhi has been reluctant to support the US position in the Russia-Ukraine war, greater India-US synergy in the Indian Ocean littorals could galvanize supporters of closer bilateral relations. This would revive discussions on the bilateral partnership as a defining partnership in the Indian Ocean and India’s potential to counter China in the Indian Ocean. On the heels of the delivery of the first two US-made MH-60Rs (multi-role helicopters) to India (with a third slated to arrive later this month), the USNS visit Charles Drew has given Indian and American observers cause for optimism.

CMF Cooperation

Meanwhile, the Indian Navy has officially started its cooperation with the Bahrain-based multilateral partnership, Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), as an “associate member”. This comes months after India announced its intention to join the grouping in pursuit of its regional security goals. India’s political and military leaders see this as a demonstration of Indian commitment to collective responsibility to provide security in the commons.

Indian analysts, however, should not overstate developments, as extrapolation from perceived trends can often be misleading. The reality is that the relationship between India and the United States is still far from crossing a critical threshold. Despite all the hype around India joining the CMF, the terms of engagement are still being worked out. The Indian Navy, it seems, has not officially joined the group, of which the Pakistan Navy is a key member. According to the CMF website, “Associate members provide whatever help they can, if they have the time and capacity to do so, while undertaking national tasks”. This is not unlike India’s earlier model of cooperation, in which the Indian Navy worked alongside the CMF and other security forces in the Western Indian Ocean when needed – while operating in a independently and under the broader banner of the United Nations. Despite increased engagement with the US Navy, India’s Liaison Officer within the US Navy Component (NAVCENT, or US Naval Forces Central Command) of US Central Command (CENTCOM) is still the Military Attaché at the Indian Embassy in Bahrain.

Limited range now

Even with the US ship docking at Kattupalli, Indian analysts should acknowledge that the US Military Sealift Command has no warships. The MSC is responsible for supplying US bases and only handles US Navy transport ships. The agreement with India for the repair of American military ships is limited to freighters. American policymakers are unlikely to seek Indian facilities for the repair and resupply of American destroyers and frigates in the near future until New Delhi clearly understands the need for strategic cooperation with the US Navy.

In many ways, the maritime relationship between India and the United States therefore remains a work in progress. There has undoubtedly been some progress, but it is far from clear that the ties between navies are heading towards an extended and comprehensive partnership in the littorals of the Indian Ocean.

Abhijit Singh is a retired Indian naval officer and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi

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