USS Nimitz, which participated in this year’s MALABAR naval exercise (Source: US Embassy in India)

Departments of Defense and State Issue Joint Update on US-India Defense Relationship


On July 6, the US Department of Defense and US Department of State issued their annual joint report updating Congress on the progress of the US-India defense partnership. As authorized by the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the report details the initiatives taken by the Pentagon and Department of State over the past year to develop the US-India relationship through security collaboration.

The publication was contextualized by Indian Prime Minister Nerendra Modi’s visit to Washington in late June. On this visit, the Prime Minister met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the President, and other White House staff to discuss India’s role in maintaining order in the region. Since the lifting of sanctions in 2001 and the establishment of an official defense cooperation framework in 2005, the US-India relationship has developed rapidly, with the two countries participating in more than 40 established government-to-government dialogues. United under a “Joint Strategic Vision” for the future of the Indian Ocean, both sides regularly confirm a shared commitment to democratic principles and freedom of navigation.

The congressional report outlines two critical areas for the security partnership—“defense cooperation” and “defense trade and technology cooperation.” While “defense cooperation” highlights the people-to-people partnership between the two militaries, the “defense trade and technology cooperation” section discusses the mutual commitment to non-proliferation as well as technology exchanges and cyber security.

A major goal of this year’s publication was to update Congress on the development of India’s role as a Major Defense Partner, a unique designation earned in June 2016. This exclusive title, championed by Senate India Caucus co-chairs Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), symbolizes an American commitment to “elevate defense trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of our closest allies and partners”. The realization of India’s status as a Major Defense Partner requires involvement from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce in building institutions to streamline communication and trade. The Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), adopted by both militaries in 2012, provides a framework for Major Defense Partner cooperation, aiming to move away from a “buyer-seller” relationship towards one based on mutual exchange. This year's report details recent successes under the DTTI, including technology transfers and the approval of a coproduction deal for Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 fighter jets, which received strong congressional support. Since 2001, the US-Indian defense trade network has increased from $1 billion to $15 billion overall. In December 2016, the two countries signed a M777 Howitzer export deal expected to bring $737 million to the US economy.

A notable area of expansion in people-to-people defense cooperation has been India’s involvement in US-led military exercises. In addition to participating in the annual Army exercise YUDH ABHYAS, India has ratcheted up its involvement in the MALABAR naval exercises, which concluded mid-July. MALABAR 2017 included India, Japan, and the United States, which each contributed their navies’ largest ships for the first time in the exercise’s 25 year history. India has also become more involved in the biennial RIMPAC exercises hosted by US Pacific Command in Honolulu, the biggest naval exercise in the world, transitioning from an observing nation to a full participant in 2014 and 2016. The East-West Center has compiled a list of joint US-India military exercises in our recent India Matters for America publication.

Olive Eisdorfer is an undergraduate at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.