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Panetta’s Prescription for New Directions in US-India Defence Relations: Cyber and Space Security

Dr Cherian Samuel is a Research Fellow (SS) at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 08, 2012

    Visiting US Secretaries of Defense are rarely given to making speeches at New Delhi think tanks; the last such instance seems to have been a speech at the United Service Institution of India by then Defense Secretary William Perry in 1995. On 6 June 2012, the US Defense Secretary Mr. Leon E. Panetta addressed academics, security experts and media at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) at New Delhi. In his speech and the Q&A session that followed, Mr. Panetta dwelt at length on the US administration’s vision of US-India defence relations within the wider context of the developing strategic environment in Asia.

    According to him, the defence relationship has done much for ensuring security and stability in the Asian region; various aspects of cooperation such as joint exercises and the defence dialogue have resulted in closer co-operation and co-ordination in areas ranging from fighting piracy and terrorism, to increased inter-operability between the two forces which would be crucial during natural disasters. With non-conventional threats becoming more the norm than the exception, the US Defense Secretary listed out what he described as “new and ever more complex threats” that the two countries were faced with, in particular, cybersecurity and space security.

    Cooperation in these areas, which revolve around cutting edge technologies, would require a paradigmatic shift in the outlook of both countries which, at present, still suffer from the occasional pangs of mutual suspicion and distrust. A look at past collaboration in these areas will only bear this out.

    Since the mid-1970s, because of India’s nuclear policies, the US has always been cautious in undertaking any technology collaborations or transfers with India. Consequently, collaboration in space technology, which inherently is dual-use in nature, has remained restricted to civilian aspects. Similarly, even though the India-US Cyber Security Forum established in 2002 had a defence component to it, with a Working Group on Defence Cooperation co-chaired by the US Department of Defense and the Indian Ministry of Defence being one of its five Working Groups, it was the least proactive of the Groups, probably because the Armed Forces on both sides took up cybersecurity as a priority only much later.

    Looking to the future, there are a number of potential areas of collaboration within the overall ambit of space and cyber security. Satellite navigation is one area where both the Indian and US militaries could collaborate. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has an ongoing GPS-Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) project, which is expected to yield major benefits for the civil aviation sector. Since the currently used GPS does not guarantee the availability of precision services during conflict situations, it is important for India to invest in space assets. India is actually engaged in developing a seven satellite Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), which is expected to be ready in two to three years time. India and the United States could work on compatibility and interoperability aspects of both these systems.

    Also, as Mr. Panetta pointed out, joint military exercises between the Indian Navy, Army, Air Force and Special Forces and their US counterparts have been a highlight of Indo-US defence cooperation. Presently, the US Defence Services have a Space Command to cater for requirements in space. Even if India does not have a space command, it would be useful for the Indian military wings handling space and cyber issues to gain exposure to the military space and cyber architecture of the US forces as well as participate in tabletop exercises, etc. Missile defence is another arena where the military establishments of the two countries could develop joint programmes.

    The success achieved by US drones in the Afghanistan theatre is noteworthy. In addition to drones, the US has developed or is developing various other robotic technologies that could play a role in intelligence gathering, NBC defence, perimeter defence, management of mining and anti-mining operations, etc. India’s overall threat perceptions and the geographical region where it is likely to engage in future conflicts underscores that such robotic technologies could be useful as force multipliers particularly under high-risk situations. India-US technology and military cooperation could achieve speedy results in this emerging arena of military technology and strengthen the defence industries in the two countries.

    With cyberwarfare set to become a reality insofar as cyber commands are being set up by many countries, and the surreptitious use of cyberweapons coming to light with alarming regularity, the creation of international standards and norms is essential to prevent the coming collapse of the cyberspace from such onslaughts. As in the case of the other technologies, collaborative efforts could accelerate the resolution of vexatious issues on the technological side such as attribution. While deterrence has proved to be effective in the nuclear realm, the nature of cyberspace has rendered it an ineffective doctrine in this new domain. However, the march of technology could turn these circumstances around, and both India and the US should work together to ensure that cyberspace, like the other global commons, remains open, secure and free.

    Given the past experience of what were considered minor irritants, like for instance piracy, mutating into major threats to global security, these new arenas of potential conflict should be addressed with the urgency they deserve. While legacy issues and bureaucratic intransigence have played havoc with defence cooperation in other arenas, the lessons learnt could be used to prevent cooperation in these new arenas from falling prey to those same infirmities. The bottom line is that there is a severe ongoing global competition to gain dominance in these new arenas, and while going it alone might be the best policy, collaboration with clearly laid out guidelines and end-goals is not without its benefits, in both monetary and strategic terms.