Arming the Elephant

NEW DELHI – The rise in US arms sales to India is being widely cited as evidence of the two countries’ deepening defense relationship. But the long-term sustainability of the relationship, in which India is more a client than a partner, remains a deep concern for Indians. Does the recently issued Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation, which establishes intent to move beyond weapons sales to the co-production of military hardware,mark a turning point, or is it merely a contrivance to placate India?

The factors driving the strategic relationship’s development are obvious. Since 2006, bilateral trade has quadrupled, reaching roughly $100 billion this year. And, over the last decade, US defense exports to India have skyrocketed from just $100 million to billions of dollars annually.

With US military spending slowing and other export markets remaining tight, American defense firms are eager to expand sales to India, which is now the world’s largest arms importer. And the political environment is amenable to their plans: India now conducts more joint military exercises with the US than with any other country.

For the US, displacing Russia as India’s leading arms supplier was a major diplomatic triumph, akin to Egypt’s decision during the Cold War to shift its allegiance – and its arms supplier – from the Soviet Union to America. The difference is that India can actually pay for the weapons that it acquires.