As tensions rose in Eastern Ladakh in early May after thousands of Chinese troops were diverted to the border, the Indian Air Force rushed men and vital supplies to the Line of Actual Control on its most trusted steed — the C-130J special operations aircraft. A workhorse that has proved its capabilities to quickly transport goods to the roughest of terrains, the aircraft flew multiple sorties to forward locations to quickly build up forces and match the shockingly fast Chinese escalation, which was on the back of an excellent road network in Aksai Chin.
Later, in a show of resolve, the C-130Js were used for airborne operations involving special forces as a demonstration before the defence minister in Ladakh. The strategic lift operations were a sort of homecoming for the C-130J Super Hercules; its predecessor had performed similar operations during the 1962 India-China war.
Responding to a desperate plea by the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru, the US operated C-130 Hercules aircraft to quickly send troops to Ladakh and Assam — a record 5,000 soldiers in four days — as the Chinese threatened to overwhelm the entire frontier. A detachment of 12 aircraft remained deployed for nine months and served as an air bridge to maintain troops on the border.
Almost six decades later, after going through the worst slump possible, the India-US relationship is stronger than ever before — and the C-130J operations are just a sign of the cooperation during the current crisis which includes realtime sharing of intelligence, regular contact at the topmost levels and even highly symbolic joint naval exercises.
The closeness comes on the back of a sustained two-decade effort by both India and the US to iron out differences and agree on protocols in working together against common threats. The US is currently India’s biggest military training partner, with over two dozen exercises taking place annually. India, once reluctant to purchase US military equipment, is now negotiating to purchase armed drones and an air defence system to protect the national capital itself.
Two defence pacts in particular — the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (2016) for sharing military logistics and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement or COMCASA (2018) for secure communications — have been the foundation for building trust and cooperation. While both agreements had been in discussion for years, the NDA government signed them, greatly enhancing the potential of joint operations.
The pact of secure communications came in handy during the Galwan crisis. While the US had assured and delivered support to India during the Doklam crisis too, the sharing of information was hampered as there were no secure communication lines to support live satellite imagery and other intelligence and a longer, more cumbersome way had to be found.
After the signing of the COMCASA, the US can directly respond to Indian service headquarters’ request for information — from the latest Chinese troop positions on the border to possible build-up in depth and more critical real-time inputs.
The growing India-US ties, however, seem to be in the shadow of another giant that has been New Delhi’s most trusted defence partner: Russia. The hiccups in the India-US ties lately have come from its relationship with Russia — Moscow remains India’s top weapons supplier and has been coming under stronger action by Washington for its arms exports.
India’s decision to buy S-400 air defence systems, for example, has led to threats of sanctions by the US. American financial sanctions now apply to almost all Russian defence entities, a bulk of which works with India and is involved in strategic projects. While action has not yet been taken against India, what happened to Turkey is illustrative — the country was kicked out of the F-35 fifth-generation fighter programme because it purchased the Russian S-400s.
After the Galwan crisis, India has been in talks with Russia for spare parts, ammunition and weapons worth over $ 1 billion — the reason being that a bulk of equipment with the armed forces is of Russian origin, a fact that is unlikely to change soon.
From Su-30MKI fighters to T-90 main battle tanks and the new AK-203 assault rifles, Indian forces are heavily equipped with Russian arms. The dependence is even more critical on the strategic level — the nuclear-armed Arihant submarine could not have been possible without Russian assistance and India even leases a nuclear attack submarine from Moscow.
Even the S-400 — the biggest bone of contention with the US right now – was a system that no one else had on offer for India when it was first negotiated. It is clear that while India can widen its procurement basket, it will remain close to Russia for its strategic programmes and joint development of weapon systems.
Decoupling India’s choice of arms suppliers from the strategic relationship it has forged with the US is the way ahead. More importantly, will the US share technology and engage in joint development of future weapons with India? Beyond the current level of joint training and information sharing, this would be the real test of partnership in the emerging world.