Building a credible deterrence policy based on global democratic values
It was widely reported in the Bangladeshi media that the American ambassador discussed defense procurement with the foreign minister during a meeting on January 31. The ambassador was quoted: “I discussed good governance, democracy, military sales, and Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
It was an apt comment given that military allies should be bound by common values and strategic vision. Bangladesh and the US do share common values. Both countries were founded through revolutions espousing the cause of liberty and democracy. In terms of strategic vision, both countries desire a free and open Indo-Pacific.
It is interesting to note that East Pakistan was once a part of the now defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was an anti-communist military alliance led by the US. The Awami League premier of Pakistan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, was an ardent supporter of SEATO.
Since independence in 1971, the defense policy of Bangladesh has been overshadowed by the country’s relations with India and China. India, despite being an ally to Bangladesh in 1971, was displaced by a rapidly industrializing China as a source of cost-effective weapons. Bangladesh, however, continued to maintain traditional defense links with the West.
Three ships from the Salisbury and Leopard classes of frigates used by the British Royal Navy were transferred to the Bangladesh Navy during the 1970s and 1980s. The Bangladesh Air Force continues to use the C130 Hercules transport aircraft produced by the American company Lockheed Martin.
A significant milestone took place during the Gulf War. Bangladesh joined the American-led alliance to liberate the emirate of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The US mobilized its troops to assist in relief operations and disaster management in Bangladesh during the aftermath of devastating cyclones in 1991 and 2007.
Bangladesh and the US often hold joint military exercises. The most recent was a joint naval drill in the Bay of Bengal known as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise. Speaking on the occasion of the 24th edition of CARAT, Task Force 73 commander Rear Admiral Joey Tynch remarked: “The long-standing partnership between Bangladesh and the US reflects our shared belief that regional challenges increasingly require cooperative solutions by capable naval forces.”
Other than Bangladesh, CARAT drills are held with the navies of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The Indo-Pacific strategy of the US also includes joint exercises with India, Japan, and Australia.
The US has been a promoter of improving civil-military relations in Bangladesh. For example, the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies -- a think tank affiliated with the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii -- has sponsored a civil-military dialogue between politicians and military officials. Civil-military relations are important to safeguard both sovereignty and democracy.
In light of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar -- coupled with threats from terrorism and territorial disputes among regional neighbours spanning from the Himalayas to the South China Sea -- it is imperative for Bangladesh to synchronize its defense policy with the US and other democratic powers.
The government should bring a paradigm shift in defense procurement and equipment. The country should be more prudent in identifying cost-effective supply sources among democratic countries. While much of the American military hardware remains expensive for the Bangladeshi budget, the government should try harder to find out cheaper options even among the high priced. The country should equip its medium-sized arsenal with cost-effective systems sourced from democratic powers.
Consider the example of light combat aircraft. In Bangladesh’s current arsenal, a large number of Chengdu F7s make up the fleet of light combat aircraft. Could the F7 be replaced with a fleet of Textron Airland Scorpions? The Scorpion is yet to be inducted by the US itself, though it presents the potential of cheaper American hardware for emerging economies like Bangladesh.
Additional options include the Korean Aerospace Industries FA-50 and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Tejas. The Philippines has deployed the FA-50 in counter-insurgency operations. Iraq has also bought the FA-50. Interestingly, the Bangabandhu Aeronautical Centre has been set up to deal with light aircraft. Procuring a fleet of the Tejas would be a boon to relations with neighbouring India.
The air force is often the first resort in modern military operations. Allied countries are capable of mobilizing air forces within a short span of time. Bangladesh would be well placed to contribute to a military alliance with a fleet of aircraft similar to that of its allies.
The government has expressed its intention to procure multi-role combat aircraft as part of Forces Goal 2030. Eastern European countries like Poland and Romania, once reliant on Soviet aircraft, have now inducted American jets. The options for Bangladesh can include the Lockheed Martin F16, the Boeing F/A 18 and F15, the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, and the Eurofighter. The government should prioritize budgetary allocations for inducing multirole combat aircraft.
In terms of choppers, Bangladesh should consider procuring Boeing’s Chinook and Apache helicopters. It should also look at Eurocopter models and the South Korean Surion.
The army can replace its aging tank fleet with American M1 Abrams and second hand M60 Pattons; German Leopard 2s; the French Leclerc; the British Challenger 2; or the Korean K2 Black Panther.
The navy would eventually need to induct submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP).
The government should engage with strategic partners on the future possibility of inducting fifth-generation aircraft and stealth warships.
Bangladesh must build a credible deterrence policy based on global democratic values. The American Indo-Pacific command can be a valuable partner in ensuring the security of the Bay of Bengal. The prime minister should also consider visiting Pearl Harbor. Americans, after all, defended eastern Bengal during the Burma Campaign in World War II.
Bangladesh must also improve defense cooperation with members of the EU, particularly the UK and France, as well as with Asia-Pacific democracies in Japan and Australia.
Umran Chowdhury is a student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.