India–United States Maritime Collaboration

Capt Anurag Bisen is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
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  • April 08, 2022

    Summary: The Indian Navy has been playing a maritime leadership role in IOR.  Ensuring maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific region is a key security imperative and one of the key objectives of India’s engagement with the US. Although the US sees India as an important bulwark in its bid to contain China and supports India’s lead role in the IOR, a considerable gap remains between its words and deeds. The US needs to come to terms with India’s strategic compulsions. For realising a free and open Indo-Pacific, the US ought to accord primacy to India in IOR, in exchange for India’s supporting role in Southeast Asia, and beyond. India, on its part, would have to walk the extra mile to shoulder its increased responsibilities in the IOR, within the ambit of its Indo-Pacific strategy.


    The Indian Ocean, spread over an area of 68.56 million square kilometres, is central to India’s maritime interests and concerns. India’s location gives it a vantage point in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India’s size, trade links and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) link its security environment directly with the extended neighbourhood.1 In a globalised world, these strategic economic factors impose an increasingly larger responsibility on India.2 Several extra-regional nations look up to India as the first responder in a calamity, a net provider of security in the region, and seek collaborative partnerships with India in the maritime domain.3

    The Indian Navy (IN) has been a catalyst for peace, tranquillity and stability in the IOR.4 It has been playing a maritime leadership role in the IOR due to its multi-dimensional capabilities and active presence in the region.5 Ensuring maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific region is key security imperative and one of the key objectives of India’s engagement with the United States (US) and other partners.6

    India and the US, the largest democracies of the world, have a strong convergence on bilateral, regional and global issues, resulting in relations that have now evolved into a strategic partnership of global significance. Defence is a major pillar of the India–US strategic partnership. The two countries conduct more bilateral exercises with each other than with any other country.7 The IN and the US Navy (USN) have conducted ‘MALABAR’ since 1992.8 The aggregate worth of India’s defence-related acquisitions from the US is more than US$15 billion. The two countries signed the “New Framework for India–US Defence Relations” in 2005, which was updated and extended for 10 years in 2015. In June 2016, the US recognised India as a "Major Defence Partner", enabling technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners.9 India has since been elevated to Tier I of the Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA) license, an exception that will enable interaction in advanced and sensitive technologies.10

    India has also signed four enabling/foundational agreements for military cooperation with the US–the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) of 2002; Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016; Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018; and, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020, thereby paving the way for seamless flow of information, greater interoperability and enhanced cooperation between the armed forces.

    The IN has been actively working towards capacity building and capability enhancement of navies of friendly countries in IOR. India has been providing hardware and platforms, which includes ships and aircraft for the EEZ surveillance. The IN has also been instrumental in the development of the maritime infrastructure of friendly nations and has contributed towards developing operational and technical skills of personnel of friendly countries. Material assistance in terms of providing spares, automatic identification system (AIS) equipment, ship handling simulators, ammunition, communication equipment, coastal surveillance radars, boats, etc., to navies/maritime forces in the region has gone a long way in strengthening India’s stature and bilateral ties.

    India has also been expanding its outreach in the IOR by improving maritime domain awareness (MDA), and extending the operational reach of the IN through regular mission-based deployments. As part of its foreign cooperation initiatives, the IN presently carries out bilateral naval exercises with 14 navies and coordinated patrols with four, most of which are in the Indo-Pacific. 

    India in US Maritime Vision

    Since the Shangri-La Dialogue of 2009, the US has been an active proponent of India’s role as the “net security provider” (NSP) in IOR.11 It has advocated the NSP status for India in IOR in many of its strategic policy articulations. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review12 and the 2015 Asia–Pacific Maritime Security Strategy13 are two such examples. Washington has also supported India’s role in IOR during its official interactions.14 According to the US’ 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR), the two countries “continue to use their deepening relationship to build new partnerships within and beyond the Indo-Pacific”.15

    The United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific (SFIP), which was approved in February 2018 and declassified in January 2021, provides an insight into the US’ assumption of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific. The document envisions that “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China”. The US also wishes that “India remains preeminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security…”. Towards achieving the abovementioned desired end states, the US objective towards India and South Asia is to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and Major Defense Partner…”.16  

    Specifically relevant to the maritime domain, in the declassified SFIP, are the US actions to “build a stronger foundation for defence cooperation and interoperability; increase cooperation on shared regional security concerns and encourage India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean region; build regional support for US–India common principlesin the Indian Ocean, including unimpeded commerce, transparent infrastructure-debt practices, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes;  partner with India on maritime domain awareness; expand the US–India intelligence sharing and analytic exchanges for creating a more robust intelligence partnership”.17  

    The US sees India as an important bulwark in its bid to impede China in its tracks. It would not be incorrect to assume that India is the lynchpin of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, as a vanguard to counter China’s activities in the IOR. The elevation of the status of Quad, designation of US Pacific Command (PACOM) to INDOPACOM, and broadening the scope of the Malabar naval exercise by including Japan and Australia are some of the obvious pointers to India’s indispensability for the success of US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

    India–US Maritime Dissonance

    India’s intent to be the prime security guarantor in IOR has been widely articulated over the last decade, including by former Defence Minister A.K. Antony in 201118 and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2013.19Later, the IN in its 2015 Maritime Security Strategy pledged to undertake the task of serving as “provider of net security in the region”.20

    More recently, in February 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated India’s role as NSP in IOR.21 In August 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while chairing a UN Security Council session on maritime security, asserted that “India’s role in the Indian Ocean has been as a Net Security Provider”.22

    Even though the US supports India’s lead role in the IOR, a considerable gap remains between its words and deeds. This could be due to several factors, some of which have been discussed below.

    Differing Visions: India has adopted an Indo-Pacific vision that is different from the US’ containment of China approach. As stated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018, India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific “stands for a free, open, inclusive region…It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it”. He further stated that “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”23

    The geographic scope of India’s Indo-Pacific vision too differs from that of the US. The original US vision of the region stretched from the west coast of India to the western shores of the US,24 same as the jurisdiction of the US INDOPACOM. It does not include the Western Indian Ocean and East African littoral, both part of India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific Region.25 These areas fall under the responsibility of the US CENTCOM and AFRICOM, respectively,26 which will require India to engage with three US commands as part of its own security and other initiatives in IOR.

    Pakistan Factor: This division of IOR between three US commands not only prevents a unity of command, control and coordination from the US side, it also dilutes maritime security efforts in the region. The other irritant is that the CENTCOM, always commanded by a US Army General, unlike the INDOPACOM, which is commanded by an Admiral, is perceived to be closer and more aligned to Pakistan, both in geographical as well as relational sense.27 This is illustrated by active Pakistani participation in the US-led multinational military initiatives such as the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) in the Northern Indian Ocean.

    The CMF is a 34-nation multinational maritime partnership, under the command of the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the USN Fifth Fleet, all three co-located at the US Naval Support Activity Bahrain. Its main focus areas are counter-narcotics, counter-smuggling, suppressing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, engaging with regional partners to improve overall security and stability, and promoting a safe maritime environment.28 Three combined task forces (CTFs) operate under the CMF.29

    These CTFs are commanded by officers of constituent nations on a rotational basis for a period of four months. Pakistan is an active participant in CTF 150 and CTF 151 with regular participation of the Pakistan Navy warship and its personnel. Pakistan has held the command of CTF 150 and 151 a record number of 11 and nine times, the maximum among the constituent nations, including the US.30 Although IN is not a member of the CMF, it has been actively involved in combating maritime piracy in the region on its own and in coordination with the navies of other countries. The IN has deployed one warship continuously in the area since October 2008.31 India has also been actively involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa under the UN mandate.32

    Contradictory Posturing: The US has also been undertaking the Freedom of Navigation (FON) Programme,33 consisting of complementary diplomatic and operational efforts since 1979. These assertions mean that the US does not acquiesce to the excessive maritime claims of other nations, and thus prevents such claims from being accepted in international law.

    The FON programme, which comes under the US Department of Defense (DoD), is also known as “FON assertions”, “FON operations” or FONOPs. The US avers that these FONOPs are undertaken in an even-handed, principled and unbiased, equally against allies, partners, and competitors. The US further claims that FONOPs are not focused on any particular claimant, and they are not executed in response to current events34 and that “FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements”.35

    An analysis of the US FONOPs against India since 1979 is illustrative. It lays bare the US claims of undertaking them in an unbiased manner equally against allies, partners, and competitors.

    The US has undertaken FONOPs against India to protest against India’s regulations of: (i) security jurisdiction claimed in the 24 nm contiguous zone, (ii) prior notification/authorisation for foreign warships to enter the territorial sea, and (iii) requirement for prior consent/authorisation for military exercises or manoeuvres in the EEZ.

    India figures at the fifth-highest number (against a total of 65 countries) of mentions (19) in the annual FONOP reports since 1979, at par with China. The only countries that have greater mentions are Iran (25), the Philippines (23), the Maldives (22), Cambodia and Oman (20). India’s neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are at seven each. The US allies Japan (6) and the Republic of Korea (4) figure at the bottom. The US has not undertaken a single FONOP against Australia and Canada since 1979, even though it categorises certain claims made by them as unlawful.36 Similarly, even though Taiwan’s claims are identical to China in the SCS, it appears only in 11 Annual FON reports against 19 for China.

    The above analysis is to demonstrate the dissonance in US’ policy towards India in the maritime domain. On the one hand, it wants to engage with India for “promoting the shared principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific”,37 and on the other, it undertakes FONOPs against India on the same level as that of the foe against which it seeks alignment with India.

    Broadening Scope for Collaboration

    To broaden the scope of collaboration, India and the US will need to include benign aspects of maritime security such as tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, providing advisories to fishermen on potential fishing zones, weather and ocean state forecasting, search and rescue, oil spill response, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), ocean observations, to name a few.

    India and the US have signed an MoU for Technical Cooperation in Earth Observations and Earth Sciences, further extended till November 2030. The collaboration has achieved significant outcomes such as the fundamental understanding of Indian Ocean dynamics and ocean-atmosphere interactions that affect the weather and climate, real-time forecasting of the tropical cyclones over the North Indian Ocean, sub-seasonal and seasonal predictions and improved climate forecasts, 10 days global wave forecast on daily basis and predictive capabilities for fisheries and HABs.38

    Underwater Domain Awareness: Another potential area of cooperation is underwater domain awareness (UDA).39 The US is considered to be the most advanced country in UDA, with respect to expertise and technology, in active as well as passive underwater surveillance and detection systems. It has a global network of sound surveillance system (SOSUS) facilities designated as the Ocean Surveillance Information System (OSIS). Reportedly, the US and Japan have jointly constructed the Fish Hook undersea surveillance system to prevent Chinese ballistic missile submarines to proceed undetected from either the East China Sea (ECS) or the South China Sea (SCS) into the open Pacific Ocean to be in a position to attack the continental US.40

    India’s "Deep Ocean Mission" programme, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), approved by the Union Cabinet’s Committee on Economic Affairs on 16 June 2021, seeks to explore the deep ocean for resources and develop deep sea technologies for sustainable use of ocean resources. Some of the major components of the programme such as the Development of Technologies for Deep Sea Mining, Manned Submersible, and Deep Ocean Survey and Exploration are recommended for collaboration with the US.41

    Intelligence Sharing: The  US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also part of the five-nation Five Eyes (FVEY) network.42 India does not have a formal intelligence sharing agreement with the US. However, with the signing of the four foundational agreements, decks have been cleared for the flow of classified information and intelligence between the two countries.

    First India–US Ocean Dialogue, aimed at promoting sustainable development of the blue economy, was held in 2017.43 The two countries have also held two rounds of Maritime Security Dialogue, last in 2017, in US.44 However, subsequent editions have not been held.

    Collaboration with Littorals: The US Navy also conducts Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series, its oldest and longest-running regional exercise in the South and Southeast Asia.45 Similarly, the USN conducts Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercises that began in 2002 as “Southeast Asia Cooperation against Terrorism”.46 IN participated in the 2021 edition of SEACAT exercises with navies of 20 other Indo-Pacific nations in Singapore.47

    These exercises enhance USN’s presence and familiarity with the operating environment in the region, on the one hand, and benefit the smaller maritime nations from exposure to USN’s planning, command and control and tactical procedures on the other.

    A collaborative effort on the lines of SEACAT and CARAT exercises, involving navies of the IOR littorals, between the US and Indian navies, with the latter in the lead, will not only aid and augment the overall maritime security in the region, but will also cement India’s role as a provider of net security.


    The US’ 2019 IPSR did not refer to India’s role as the net provider of security in IOR. Instead, it clubbed India with the other IOR littorals to state that the US“seeks opportunities to broaden and strengthen partnerships with India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal to respond to shared regional challenges”. Further, the IPSR laid emphasis on trilateral mechanisms to maximise individual contributions to regional peace and security. These included the US, Japan and Australia; US, ROK and Japan; and the US, India and Japan.48 It is felt that restraint by India, to be completely drawn into the US fold, has apparently led to a recalibration of the US strategy.

    It is also surmised that the creation of a new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS),49 focused on the Indo-Pacific region, as much as being a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Alliance (WASP), is also due to maintenance of a strategic autonomous stance by India.

    The US needs to come to terms with India’s strategic compulsions. It is the only country in the Quad that has an unresolved and contested land border with China. Additionally, examples of the US abandonment, such as from Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan, probably do not inspire much confidence. India, therefore, has little option but to follow a balancing strategy vis-à-vis China. The US must be cognisant of these realities. Therefore, for realising a free and open Indo-Pacific, the US ought to accord primacy to India in IOR, in exchange for India’s supporting role in Southeast Asia, and beyond. India, on its part, would have to walk the extra mile to shoulder its increased responsibilities in the IOR, within the ambit of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.