Last month, Ashton Carter died suddenly following a heart attack. He was 68. Carter had served as the 25th secretary of defense in the Obama administration, having held other senior defense appointments in the Obama and Clinton administrations, with a high-profile academic career at Harvard and Stanford universities before and after his tours in government.
Carter’s obituaries have emphasized many contributions in his four decades of research and service, including his work as secretary on “the military campaign against [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIL, an increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region, a new cyber strategy, and a stronger NATO response to Russia,” as the announcement by Harvard Belfer Center emphasized. Others stressed Carter’s formative work encouraging massive aid to the disintegrating Soviet Union to secure its vast nuclear weapons enterprise, and what would eventually be known as cooperative threat reduction.
Yet, in the US press, one aspect of his policy contributions has been largely overlooked: His clear and deep interest in advancing the US-India defense partnership during a period of relative stagnation. For most of the Obama administration, Carter — despite all of his other responsibilities — was the leading “India hand.” Carter stepped into that role despite having little experience on South Asia policy, but instead, out of necessity and conviction of the importance of revitalizing US-India ties. To explain why Carter — and someone with his unique profile — was needed as an India hand requires some historical context.
A RECAP ON THE US-INDIA DEFENSE RELATIONSHIP
US policy toward India has been a bipartisan affair since the Clinton administration looked to re-launch the relationship in 2000. Yet, the transformational strides occurred under Republican appointees after 9/11, and the defense relationship especially, moved under a new framework drafted by the Bush administration in the mid-2000s.
In his obituaries, the US press has largely overlooked Ash Carter’s clear and deep interest in advancing the US-India defense partnership during a period of relative stagnation.
The incoming Obama team was firmly committed to maintaining that vision but lost a step. Some challenges were outside Washington’s control. The Indian coalition government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had bet considerable political capital on negotiating and executing a civil nuclear agreement with the United States that some Indians alleged would constrain India’s future nuclear weapons options. Singh was able to push that civil nuclear deal through but, in its aftermath, had to contend with a wide swath of anti-American skeptics among his coalition partners who were eager not to become further entangled in US global designs.
Other challenges originated from the prior trajectory of US-India ties. Beginning in the 1960s, India favored defense acquisitions from the Soviet Union, which was more generous with financing than Washington and more willing to back India on issues sensitive to New Delhi, like Kashmir. While India never severed defense ties with the West — and, in fact, maintained defense ties with the United States through most of the Cold War — it did acquire large quantities of Soviet-origin equipment by the 1990s. Russia remained eager to find outlets for defense products after 1991, and India was among the most important clients. India supplemented this Russian-origin equipment with hardware from Europe and Israel.
The US government is a large arms merchant fiercely protective of its intellectual property, especially of cutting-edge systems. Washington is wary that its technological advantages might erode if knowledge of those systems makes it back to adversaries, especially Russia and China. Thus Washington is deeply suspicious of partners with broad, enduring ties with Russia and the Russian military-industrial complex in particular, including India.
While the George W. Bush administration managed to break into the Indian defense market in a serious way, it remained challenging to offer India cutting-edge systems when India’s own prior track record of safeguarding US technology was limited by its deeper ties to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It required American trust, and the earliest years of renewed defense cooperation were characterized by modest steps. Defense equipment that was capable but hardly cutting-edge made its way from US manufacturers to Indian military bases: C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft, Chinook helicopters, and an old amphibious warship, among other systems.
Indian elites were happy to have access to these systems but observed that India already received high-end equipment from its existing partners and often at very good prices, too. For example, Israel transferred advanced surface-to-air missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles, France offered capable 4th-generation fighters, while Russia provided not just fighters but hypersonic cruise missile collaboration and even access to nuclear-propelled submarine technology. The US bureaucracy likes to “crawl, walk, and run” when building foreign defense relationships, but India was already running with other partners by the 2000s and 2010s. So why should it go back to crawling just because Washington was hesitant?
FROM CRAWLING TO RUNNING
Carter’s whole career gave him the experience and credibility to help break that cycle. The Pentagon is mammoth and sits atop an even larger bureaucracy that, in turn, seeks to steer a gigantic military-industrial complex. There is a split within that bureaucracy between those seeking to deal with today’s problems using existing resources and those seeking to procure technologies and equipment for the future. Two defense officials are especially important in seeking to translate the administration’s vision into action: an under secretary of defense for policy and another under secretary of defense for acquisition. (The latter position has changed names in recent years but the acquisition emphasis has remained.)
“Under Secretary” is an incredibly boring title, but these Senate-confirmed officials have precedence in the US bureaucracy over every military officer except for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the beginning of the Obama administration, Carter was Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. In 2011, he was promoted to the next highest level, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, a position he retained until 2013.
Carter’s position and experience gave him unparalleled insight into the parts of the bureaucracy and defense industry that had the most difficulty advancing the US-India defense relationship. Once he became deputy, he also had the authority to direct those parts of the bureaucracy hesitant to move forward. Carter’s then-boss, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, announced during a visit to India in June 2012 that he had directed “Carter to lead an effort at the Pentagon to engage with Indian leaders on a new initiative to streamline our bureaucratic processes and make our defense trade more simple, responsive, and effective,” adding Cabinet-rank endorsement to Carter’s task. Carter proposed a new Defense Technology and Trade Initiative to identify promising areas for cooperation and to remove obstacles to achieving them, and India agreed.
Carter briefly left the government at the end of 2013, taking a year off at Stanford University. While away, momentum in the relationship stalled. Some of it was idiosyncratic, such as an incident involving a law enforcement investigation of India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, in December 2013 that strained ties between US and Indian diplomats for many months after. But some of the loss of momentum involved the loss of senior leader attention on India in the United States.
By July 2014, congressional subcommittees were inviting testimony from government officials and nongovernmental experts on how to “re-energize” US-India ties. Longtime India watcher Richard Rossow told the legislators:
“What India would really like to see is somebody at the Cabinet level in the United States that they feel wakes up every day and thinks about India as one of the first few things. I think Ash Carter played that role. India felt that there was somebody in those high-level discussions that would think about India and their interests. But right now I do not know that they could point to somebody and say that that is our person.”
The solution, as it turned out, was to bring Carter back, this time as Secretary of Defense. While Carter was occupied with countless tasks, he did not lose sight of India. He institutionalized India’s importance within the US system by helping to create a new “Major Defense Partner” status that would give India priority within US processes similar to that given to its closest allies. India was among the last foreign trips made by Carter as secretary.
REMEMBERING THE ARCHITECT
Richard Verma was the US ambassador to India from December 2014 to January 2017 and was present in New Delhi during all of Carter’s visits as secretary of defense. Verma also went on to finish a PhD at Georgetown with a dissertation focused on the history of the US-India relationship. When news of Carter’s passing became public, Verma was unequivocal in his eulogium for Carter, describing him as the “architect of the modern US-India security partnership.” “No one on the US side had a bigger impact in shaping the relationship over the past 20 years,” Verma stressed.
Despite the progress of Carter’s years, picked up in bipartisan fashion by the Trump team and continued again by the Biden administration, it should be emphasized that the defense relationship is still in search of flagship cooperation initiatives. A new “emerging defense capability” dialogue seeks to build on the framework Defense Technology and Trade Initiative had created. The Biden administration consciously has avoided a split with India despite New Delhi’s differing policies toward Russia. While the Biden team has engaged in frequent summitry with Indian leaders, concrete accomplishments are harder to identify. Part of the need for someone like Carter is that good vibes can only carry a relationship so far.
Is there an Ash Carter today? Is there, in Rossow’s words from 2014, “somebody at the Cabinet level in the United States that wakes up every day and thinks about India as one of the first few things”? If so, I cannot think of one. And it is certainly difficult to think of one who could do that job as well as Carter.
Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.