Saturday, January 7, 2012

India A Long-term Strategic Partner: US Defense Strategy


The US recently announced its new defense strategy, taking into account the new geopolitical realities and the fiscal compulsions back home. The new strategy lays particular emphasis in developing a long-term strategic partnership with India. Here are my quick thoughts on the new strategy.

Outlining the challenges, opportunities and priorities, President Obama released the US defence strategy, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, on January 05, 2012. After an overstretch by the US military in the last decade in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is now attempting to rationalise its defence strategy. The changing geopolitical circumstances and fiscal compulsions add new dynamics to this strategy.



The new strategy, however, should not to be mistaken for a retreat. Obama was categorical in stating that while the U.S. military will be downsized, moving towards a smaller and leaner force, they will remain "agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies" with continuing investment in capabilities, including "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; counter-terrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; operating in anti-access environments; and prevailing in all domains, including cyber."

The defence strategy outlined the core US national interests as "defeating al-Qa'ida and its affiliates and succeeding in current conflicts; deterring and defeating aggression by adversaries, including those seeking to deny our power projection; countering weapons of mass destruction; effectively operating in cyberspace, space, and across all domains; maintaining a safe and effective nuclear deterrent; and protecting the homeland."

The document also highlights the US plan to effectively deal with anti-access and area denial (A2AD) strategies. This emphasises a range of capabilities, including developing new stealth bombers, improving missile defences, improving the effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities and submarine technologies. Recognising the importance of information and communication networks in future operations as also the vulnerability that these mediums face, the document attaches special attention to further protection to cyberspace and space assets. International partnerships with allies and partners to develop new capabilities to effectively defend their networks and maintain operational effectiveness in outer space and cyberspace are an important part of efforts to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen defences. U.S. and India have a great deal to cooperate, particularly in this regard, given the kind of threats and attacks that the two countries have witnessed in the recent years.

While the U.S. interests are global, its security and economic interests are intertwined with developments in the regions, from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Therefore, the U.S. presence and influence in the Asia Pacific region is seen as "of necessity rebalancing." Similarly, even though the importance of its traditional allies remains unquestionable, the need to have more friends and partners in the region is undeniable. Accordingly, the U.S. is seeking to build and strengthen partnerships in the region so as to improve "collective capability and capacity".

It is in this context that the US sees India. The U.S. investment "in a long-term partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region" is clearly part of this effort. However, in less than 24 hours after the release of the defense strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an interview to the PBS, has talked about rising powers including India as a challenge. While it is fair that the U.S. is still coming to grapple with the new and fast-changing geopolitical shift from the West to Asia, it is unclear why they see India in somewhat the same light as China, as a challenge.

On the other hand, China's rise as a regional power in the Asia Pacific presents both opportunities and challenges for the U.S. While both countries have interests in seeing a stable East Asian order, the opaqueness of Chinese military objectives and intentions continue to be a factor in U.S. thinking. However, U.S. recognises that issues such as freedom of navigation that ensures smooth flow of cargo and resources and the U.S. influence in the region will depend partly on the kind of U.S. military posturing.

China has already reacted saying that while the U.S. is encircling China, Beijing cannot afford to bend backwards to appease Washington. In this context, 'Freedom of the seas' is an obvious reference to the South China Sea - an area in which there has been greater exchange of minds between India and the U.S. But, Panetta in the interview to the PBS, was of the view that the U.S. will need to work with China on a host of issues, including North Korea, nuclear proliferation and free passage of goods and resources in the international waters.

While Obama has been categorical that the new strategy should not be seen as a drawdown of the U.S. in any manner, the important question is how the proposed budget cuts are going to affect certain weapon platforms such as the F-35. Similarly, it is not clear how the whole budget mess will affect the U.S. capacity to fund this strategy. Equally important, there is the possibility that this new approach might not last very long considering that Obama faces a tough presidential campaign over the next year.

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