The US and India are finally shedding the baggage of the Cold War. The defense cooperation between the two countries is reaching its apogee as India will soon have a hub to repair, refuel, resupply, and maintain US naval warships and aircraft.
Taking the first step in this direction, the US Navy has signed a five-year master shipyard repair agreement (MSRA) with Larson and Toubro (L&T) shipyard in Chennai that will pave the way for repairing US naval warships here.
L&T shipyard in Kattupalli near Chennai on the East Coast has been undertaking voyage repairs of the Military Sealift Command vessels and is now becoming a hub for repairs of US Navy ships.
Under the agreement, the first warship to be repaired is USNS Salvor, which has already arrived at the Shipyard to undergo steel repairs. The warship will return after a comprehensive repair in November.
“Chennai is a good place for repair of ships wherein both port infrastructure in L&T shipyard (due to the large requirement of depths for US Ships) and capable entity (L&T) are available.
The other capable agencies are Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) and Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd (MDL), but both are limited by the depth available,” Vice Admiral AB Singh, a retired Indian Navy officer who commanded Western Naval Command, told the EurAsian Times.
Talking about the other places that can be developed as hubs, Vice Admiral Singh added that CSL and MDL could become viable offers due to the upcoming Vizhinjam International Transhipment Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport being developed in Kerala.
India and the US are long past the ambiguity of the past and are taking concrete measures to cement their strategic partnership. This stems from the discussion between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden during the former’s state visit to the US in June.
The US will be extending support to develop infrastructure in India for logistics support to its naval assets operating in the Indo-Pacific.
There have been news reports that the archipelago of Andamans and Nicobar can be developed as one of the hubs. The islands sit on the mouth of Malacca Strait, an important entry point to the South China Sea. Vice Admiral Singh says this can be more of a signal from the two sides.
“The US Navy requires some aviation logistics hubs and ship repair and maintenance hubs in the region. India may be unwilling to expose the Andamans, but overflight and ‘Gas and Go’ may be possible in the future. The question is, if the US can do the same in Changi (in Singapore) and mainland India then why do it in Andamans? It is more of signaling of the two sides cozying up,” the senior naval officer added.
In 2020 at the peak of India and China tensions, the US Navy’s long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, carried out its maiden refueling from India’s strategic base in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Thereafter, it continued on its onward journey.
The 571 islands serve as India’s launching pad to the Asia Pacific region and are also referred to as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” It is the country’s only operating joint service command, and plans are afoot to upgrade the infrastructure there. Also, its geostrategic location will help the US in increasing its reach in the Indo-Pacific.
The logistics support would include food, water, billeting, transportation, petroleum, oil, lubricants, clothing, medical services, spare parts and components, repair and maintenance services, training services, and other logistical items and services.
Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – The Take-Off For The US-India Bilateral Ties
Following Prime Minister Modi’s visit, the India-US Defense Acceleration Ecosystem, or INDUS-X, was created on June 21, 2023. As per the US Department of Defense, INDUS X would help vitalize “defense industrial cooperation between India and the US.” “[The] aim here is to make India a logistics hub for the US and other partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” the DoD spokesperson said after the INDUS-X was created.
At present, the US has hubs in Japan and Singapore, and having a hub in India will give it greater flexibility in the region. According to the Pentagon’s annual China Military Report, by 2025, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is expected to grow to 400 hulls, up from its fleet of 340. If the US does not expand its operational and naval reach, it could fall behind China in terms of maritime capabilities, thus weakening its deterrence.
“The US has many good bases in Europe and the Middle East but limited numbers in the Indo-Pacific. A unique fact about the Indo-Pacific that is often overlooked is that, unlike Europe, it is only connected by the seas and without any alternate land routes. Therefore, to maintain maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific, it is essential for the US to maintain effective supply chains over thousands of miles, especially during heightened states and emergencies,” Vice Admiral Singh opines.
Presently, Diego Garcia and Western Australia in the Indian Ocean are the operating bases of the US Forces. In addition, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore are vital military hubs for the US in Asia. “So, if we geographically string the existing support bases, we would realize that cooperation with India, Indonesia, and Malaysia will substantially benefit the US Military,” the former Indian naval officer added.
The LEMOA is said to be the end of India’s strategic neutrality and the beginning of strategic cooperation. The LEMOA does not require that India avail itself of US fuel and supplies, but it does create a legal framework that simplifies the exchange of goods when necessary.
“As far as LEMOA is concerned, India should be able to exploit it much more. Unfortunately, the framework is under the green vertical in HQ IDS (Head Quarter Integrated Defense Staff) and is poorly manned in terms of numbers and vision of the future. It can sort out all our supply chain issues with the US, but currently, the Indian Navy is using it in a very limited manner,” Vice Admiral Singh said while adding: “Hopefully, it will also be given due attention and focus by the Chief of Defense Staff and Defence Ministry after the Prime Minister’s visit.”
The Indian government had long vacillated on the Logistics Sharing Agreement (LSA) lest it provokes China. Finally, the Modi government inked the India-specific version of the LSA called LEMOA, shunning the baggage of history and setting the foundation for deeper defense cooperation.
- Ritu Sharma has written on defense and foreign affairs for over a decade. She holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Studies and Management of Peace from the University of Erfurt, Germany. Her areas of interest include Asia-Pacific, the South China Sea, and Aviation history.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com