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Harnessing the Potential for Defence Cooperation through Defence Attachés

Col (Dr) D.P.K. Pillay is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 12, 2024

    As India’s profile as a security partner has improved in concert with its economic and scientific growth and its military stands out as a stabilising factor in the region, the need to engage with the rest of the world on defence issues has become more relevant. Providing a strategic context to defence cooperation efforts in the changing security environment is important.

    Historically, India has used instruments of military power not only to protect its national interests, but also to safeguard, when requested, the interests of friendly countries against internal disturbances and disorders, including in Korea, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. As per the terms of the Indo-Bhutan treaty, India has discharged its obligation to defend the security of Bhutan. It has maintained a key Indian military training establishment in Bhutan since 1969.

    India has extended military expertise and assistance to Mauritius and Seychelles and other countries in restoring order in lesser known operations.  In Central Asia, India has an air force facility and a military hospital. India has provided training and infrastructure development assistance to a large number of countries in Africa, Asia, and Central Asia. India has also been a significant contributor to UN Peacekeeping efforts since independence. On a number of occasions, India has successfully used diplomatic and defence instruments in responding to humanitarian and natural disasters worldwide.

    In the emerging geopolitical environment, defence cooperation is increasingly becoming a dynamic tool for achieving India’s overall diplomatic objectives. India’s diplomatic interactions with other countries have increased significantly over the last two decades.  The joint statements issued at the highest levels invariably include defence and military cooperation. 

    India has defence cooperation agreements of one kind or the other with over 50 countries. The emphasis is on security dialogues, joint military exercises, and cooperation amongst Special Forces, intelligence sharing, maritime domain awareness, co-production and co-development of high technology equipment and defence research and development. With some countries, training and capacity building is given high priority.

    Overall, India's evolving defence diplomacy reflects its growing strategic ambitions. By continuing to effectively address the challenges and capitalising on the opportunities, India can significantly enhance its security and position as a major global player. India can not only safeguard its own interests, but also contribute to global and regional peace and stability, with focused attention to defence diplomacy in the coming years.

    In this context, the decision of the government as reported on 10 April 2024 to increase defence representation in several countries is indeed noteworthy. International defence representation by way of positioning a military officer as a Defence Attaché in missions abroad is an internationally accepted norm for enhancing defence cooperation with other countries. It is an ideal tool to advance a nation’s foreign policy objectives by building bridges of friendship that can be operationalised in times of crises and conflicts.

    It is equally true that many countries have enhanced their international defence representation in India manifold, recognising the utility of the office of Defence Attachés. There are over 120 Defence Attachés from over 70 countries stationed in India, with frequent requests for further enhancements. This shows the importance attached by other countries to enhance defence cooperation with India.

    In contrast, India, for several years had around 50 defence wings abroad. Thus, the announcement of new billets of 16 defence attaches from the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force to be posted to various locations is a significant development that reflects India's growing strategic ambitions and its focus on expanding its military partnerships around the world. Not doing so would have opportunity costs which India can ill afford and is a very positive sign of a pro-active policy in responding to the challenges of a fast evolving geopolitical scenario.

    Evidently, the established international order is under stress and becoming less effective in dealing with the emerging challenges. This move is likely a response to growing geopolitical competition and India's desire to strengthen its strategic ties and military diplomacy with these countries. There are several first-time deployments including several African nations. The focus seems to be on strategically important regions like Africa, Asia (including the Philippines and Armenia), and Europe (Poland).


    A major drawback is that the Defence Attachés are on a one-time assignment with little previous experience in international diplomacy. It is a one-time posting for high performing officers who usually only report to the Service Intelligence Directorates. There is a need to professionalise the training of Defence Attachés to include language skills and attachment with the territorial division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). 

    Defence Attachés are often under conflicting pressure of functioning between their controlling agency (Director General, Defence Intelligence Agency) and the parent service (respective service Intelligence Directorates). The MoD may in consultation with the MEA consider creating a cadre of specialists from the Defence Forces. They will benefit by spending some time in the concerned divisions of the MEA.  MoD and MEA could create a dedicated cadre of area experts including language experts from Armed Forces who can be rotated between missions, service headquarters and the MEA.

    Defence Attaches need to be considered as an extension of the diplomatic missions and there has to be clear objective settings and goals for them other than that which is accorded by the Service Headquarters. Defence Attachés could be called by the MoD to India for an Annual Review where their goals could be evaluated and stipulated pro-actively.

    The officers with experience and the talent could be seconded to regional organisations that are considered essential in furthering India’s national security and foreign policy objectives. There are several regional organisations like the Indian Ocean Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA), ASEAN, African Union (AU), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). India engages significantly with some of these organisations on defence and security matters. The government could identify specific organisations which could have representation for furthering defence cooperation. The Armed Forces may also create a pool of Liaison Officers (LO) based in the service HQ to coordinate and also to undertake visits, if necessary, to the these organisations. Such LOs' can function from the IDS or Service HQs. 

    The Armed Forces could also consider sending on deputation serving and retired armed forces experts for overseeing projects and infrastructure being constructed overseas. Indian missions and Defence Attachés need to be specifically tasked to explore the potential of beneficial defence collaborations, for marketing and co-development and export of defence products. This would not just be to co-develop defence items but to give a fillip to their own defence R&D.

    Transfer of Technology guidelines may be game changers in time to come if the right policies and opportunities are provided and markets are exploited.  Indian Missions abroad should be tasked to identify companies that can be acquired, technology that can be sourced as well as facilitate the entry of Indian private companies into foreign supply chains.

    The Ministry of Defence also conducts two major international defence exhibitions viz., the biennial Air Show and DEFEXPO. In both these events, leading indigenous and foreign defence industries participate showcasing their latest systems and inventories. A large number of delegations, often headed by the Defence Ministers or Chiefs of Armed Forces, participate in these two prestigious events.  These events can continue to be utilised as opportunities to further defence collaborations. India should also continue to actively participate in global expositions and air shows to establish markets for Indian defence exports.

    DRDO, DPSU, new corporatised Ordnance factories should develop capabilities to customise their products for export requirement in concert with the Indian private industry and fully exploiting opportunities available. There is also a need to formalise an export policy.


    Defence cooperation has been an important component of India’s overall defence diplomacy. India has been using its Armed Forces to further the country’s national interests by contributing proactively to achieve international peace and security as well as creating conducive conditions for accelerating India’s ongoing transformation from an importer of defence equipment to an exporter. The decision to increase Defence Attache representation will no doubt help build capacities in furtherance of national interests.

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