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18 July 2019, Gateway House

Benefits of becoming a U.S. Major Non-NATO Ally

The substantive efforts underway in the U.S. to designate India a Major Non-NATO ally reflect the deepening bilateral security and trade cooperation. It will enhance India’s military capabilities and strategic positioning with American allies in the region.

Former Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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Influential American lawmakers in the United States have renewed efforts to draw India closer into the U.S. ambit by designating it a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA).[1] This status for India reflects deepening India-U.S. security cooperation and the unprecedented surge in bilateral defence trade over the last 15 years.

In April 2019, a group of six legislators, led by Congressman Joe Wilson (Republican – South Carolina), reintroduced the U.S.-India Enhanced Cooperation Act in the House of Representatives by amending the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2020 and Arms Export Control Act.[2]  A similar proposal was introduced in June 2019 in the Senate by Senators John Cornyn (Republican – Texas) and Mark Warner (Democrat – Virginia). These efforts have not borne fruit as yet as the final version of the NDAA 2020 was passed without the provision to make India an MNNA.[3] The U.S. lawmakers’ concerns over India’s proposed acquisition of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia may have been a reason why this amendment was not enacted. No one is giving up yet; they will renew these efforts next year.

Attaching this important designation to India reflects the growing closeness of the India-U.S. defence and security partnership. Formalised in 2005, when both sides signed the framework agreement for defence cooperation[4], it  has  continued ever since.

The agreement was renewed for another 10 years in 2015[5], from which point India has been inching up the U.S. ladder. In 2016, the U.S. designated India as the Major Defense Partner (MDP)[6] – a status unique to India as the U.S. has not used this terminology to describe its partnership with any other country. This status was intended to enable India to receive advanced defence technology. Yet, there was much less clarity within the U.S. bureaucracy on how this designation was to be used to treat India on a priority basis – precisely because such a status had no precedent.

In 2018, India received Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status. This  recognises India’s membership of the three export control regimes: Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group, enabling it to receive dual-use high technology items.[7] This was a big step up for India as it  brought it out of international isolation and enabled it to join 36 other countries with similar status.

Defence trade is the most prominent and stable dimension of the bilateral with India’s big-ticket hardware purchases worth $18 billion so far. It includes the C-17 and C-130J transport aircraft, Chinook heavy lift helicopters, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and M777 ultra lightweight Howitzer artillery guns, all under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the U.S.[8] India is expected to buy MQ-9 Sea Guardian drones and MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters in the near future, also under the FMS. These platforms have added considerable value to the Indian military’s power to project capability.

Beyond defence trade, other dimensions like defence technology cooperation and achieving interoperability are receiving a boost.

Under the 2015 framework agreement, India and the U.S. have already kicked off defence technology co-development and co-production through the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) mechanism. While the initial focus was on basic technologies, the approach has evolved into a focus on customised technologies, which are mutually beneficial. At the latest DTTI meeting in March 2019, India and the U.S. have agreed to co-develop air-launched drones and lightweight small arms technology.[9]

Both countries have also been working on enhancing interoperability. After completing operationalisation of all three services and special forces in the military exercises conducted so far, a first-ever tri-service exercise has been planned later this year. There have been discussions, though not formal, on India using the Link 22 and Link 16 data frequencies, utilised by NATO allies for military and tactical communications.

To understand the importance of MNNA status, it is necessary to understand the alliance system, a critical element of U.S. foreign policy. It determines the nature and level of U.S. security cooperation with other countries.

  • Five Eyes is the closest, deepest circle of the U.S.’ allies. It comprises Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. This Anglophonic intelligence alliance collaborates on technical and signal intelligence-sharing in regional security and counter-terrorism.
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), comprising 29 member states (including the U.S.) is the next circle of the U.S. alliance. This organisation has been the anchor of transatlantic security since the end of the Second World War in 1945. The alliance members have mutual defence and security guarantees.
  • The U.S. created the Major Non-NATO Ally category to characterise the relationship with those countries with which it has extensive defence and security cooperation, but which are not NATO members.[10] The MNNAs do not have defence and security guarantees, unless specifically committed through the bilateral agreement. Currently, there are 17 countries designated as MNNA.

These categories may seem like water-tight compartments, but operationally, they are not. For instance, Five Eyes members Australia and New Zealand are also MNNAs, while Israel’s cooperation with the U.S. as an MNNA sometimes rivals the Five Eyes allies. In contrast, there are some allies like Turkey (NATO) or Pakistan (MNNA), with whom the United States’ disagreements resemble those between adversaries.

India’s designation as an MNNA, whenever that happens, will be a symbolically important push within American bureaucratic decision-making to prioritise India. While the senior American leadership has grasped the need to treat India on a priority basis, many mid-level bureaucrats within the U.S. government need to be exhorted to work closely with India.  MNNA terminology and the associated established policies will help make that case.

There are specific benefits for a country designated an MNNA under various American laws. India will be able to get access to advanced defence technologies and commercial space technologies from the U.S. on a priority basis, participate in contracts for the maintenance of the American military equipment overseas and strengthen its domestic defence industrial base and homeland security capabilities. (See Table 1).

Table 1: Specific benefits for a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States

Specific legal provision Benefits Explanation
Foreign Assistance Act of 1961[11] An MNNA is eligible:·
·         to stockpile U.S. defence articles (equipment, weapons and munitions)[12]  on its territory outside the U.S. military facility;· If India is designated an MNNA, it will get preferential access to the U.S.’ advanced military technologies and defence equipment.
  • for a priority delivery (to the maximum extent feasible) of excess defence articles, if it is on the southern or south-eastern flank of NATO;·
·         to receive $3 million on an annual basis (subject to conditions) for a joint counter-terrorism Research and Development project, under the auspices of the Technical Support Working Group of the Department of State; and India can potentially engage in counter-terrorism research, with focus on forensic sciences, surveillance technologies and big data analytics.
·         to buy depleted uranium ammunition. Depleted uranium ammunition is used for armour plating and penetration to make anti-tank weapons.
Arms Export Control Act[13] An MNNA is eligible to:·
  • receive on loan materials, supplies, or equipment for cooperative research, development, testing or evaluation;·
·        enter into standardisation agreements with the U.S. for the cooperative furnishing of training on a bilateral or multilateral basis under reciprocal financial arrangements. Standardisation agreements are critical to ensure inter-operability between the U.S. military and other militaries.[14]
Public Law 106-113[15]
  • Section 528: An MNNA can lease defence articles from the American companies;·
·        Section 1309: An MNNA is eligible for expedited approval of licensing by U.S. companies of commercial satellites and associated systems and technologies. India can get preferential access to the commercial space technologies.
U.S. Code 10 on Armed Forces
  • Section 2349[16]An MNNA is eligible for the Overseas Workload Programme, whereby its companies can bid for certain U.S. military contracts for the maintenance, repair or overhaul of defence equipment outside the U.S.·
Overseas workload programme can potentially open up multi-million dollar business opportunities for Indian defence companies in the maintenance of the U.S. weapons platforms.
·        Section 2350a[17]An MNNA can engage in a joint Research and Development programme with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Source: Gateway House Research

An inhibiting factor for India, though, is that Pakistan is also an MNNA, a privilege it received in 2004 to enable U.S. access and support to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. This enabled Pakistan to receive military and financial assistance from the U.S. on a priority and subsidised basis. It has been profitable: between 2004 and 2018, Islamabad received $29.49 billion in military aid from the U.S., which includes $11.82 billion in Coalition Support Fund reimbursements for providing logistical and operational support.[18] It also received 18 new F-16 fighter jets[19] and an upgrade for 35 F-16 jets from its existing fleet,[20] as part of enhancing its counter-terrorism capabilities.[21]

Since 2017, with the souring of  U.S.-Pakistan relations, U.S. assistance to Pakistan has almost stopped and an effort is on in the U.S. Congress to revoke Pakistan’s MNNA status.

Sameer Patil is Fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House

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[1] Jha, Lalit, ‘US lawmakers introduce legislation seeking strengthening of US-India partnership’, PTI, 12 April 2019, <>

[2] “Congressmen Reintroduce Bipartisan U.S.-India Enhanced Cooperation Act”, 15 April 2019, <>

[3] United States Congress, S.1790 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, 116th Congress, 2 July 2019, <>

[4] United States Department of Defense, “New Framework for the U.S-India Defense Relationship”, 28 June 2005, <

[5] United States Department of Defense, “Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship”, 3 June 2015, <>

[6] United States Department of Defense, “U.S.-India Joint Statement on the visit of Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar to the United States”, 29 August 2016, <>

[7] Bureau of Industry and Security, Commerce, “U.S.-India Major Defense Partners: Implementation Under the Export Administration Regulations of India’s Membership in the Wassenaar Arrangement and Addition of India to Country Group A:5”, 3 August 2018, <>

[8] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “India”, <>

[9] Mehta, Aaron, “US, India collaborating on air-launched drone”, Defense News, 18 March 2019, <>

[10] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “MNNA definition”, <>

[11] “Foreign Assistance and Arms Export Act of 1961 (P.L. 87-195), <>

[12] As per the Arms Export Control Act of 1961, defence articles among others includes, weapon, weapons system, munition, aircraft, vessel, boat, machinery, commodity.

[13] “Arms Export Control Act (P.L. 90-629)”, <>

[14] See Section 814 of Public Law 94-106, 7 October 1975, <>

[15] “Public Law 106-113”, <>

[16] United States Code, Title 10 – Armed Forces, Section 2349, 7 January 2011,

[17] United States Code, Title 10 – Armed Forces, Section 2350a, 7 January 2011, <>

[18] Figures compiled from the Congressional Research Service available at the Federation of American Scientists, <>

[19] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Pakistan – F-16C/D Block 50/52 Aircraft”, Transmittal No. 06-09, 28 June 2006

[20] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Pakistan – F-16A/B Mid-Life Update Modification Kits”, Transmittal No. 06-10, 28 June 2006

[21] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Pakistan – F-16 Engine Modifications and Falcon UP/STAR Structural Upgrades”, Transmittal No. 06-11, 28 June 2006