[Burning Issue] India-US COMCASA Agreement

Context

India and the U.S. signed COMCASA agreement on the side lines of the inaugural 2+2 dialogue.

India & US towards a strategic partnership

The defense relationship between the United States and India, on a steady upward trajectory this decade, crossed an important milestone last week. During the first-ever “two-plus-two” meeting of the two countries’ top defense and diplomatic officials, India and the United States concluded a third so-called foundational agreement to facilitate closer defense cooperation.

What is ‘2+2 dialogue’?

  • A ‘two plus two dialogue’ is a term — adopted in foreign parleys — used for installation of a dialogue mechanism between two countries’ defence and external affairs ministries.
  • To put it simply, ‘two plus two dialogue’ is an expression used to indicate that two appointed ministers from each country, the ministers of defence and external affairs in this case, will meet up to discuss the two countries’ strategic and security interests.
  • The goal is to establish a diplomatic, yet fruitful, conversation between the two countries’ respective heads of defence and external affairs.

What is the COMCASA?

  • The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) is one of the four foundational agreements that a country needs to sign to become a major defence partner of the United States. The agreement comes into effect immediately and has a lifespan of 10 years.

    • The other three agreements are General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMoA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

     COMCASA provides the legal framework for the US to part with its sensitive communication equipment and codes to enable transfer of real time operational information. This equipment is largely used for ground-to-air communication to enable best battle situation awareness.

    • It ensures that the militaries of the US and India can boost their “interoperability” as well as share operational intelligence in real-time in the years ahead.

     For instance, if a US warship or aircraft detects a Chinese submarine in the Indian Ocean, it can convey to India through warships or aircraft equipped with COMCASA-protected equipment in real-time.

    • COMCASA allows the US to transfer high-tech avionics, encrypted communication and electronic systems as well as ensure secrecy of its C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems

  • Previously, India and U.S. signed the “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)”, for mutual logistic assistance between their militaries.

Logistical Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) formerly known as the Logistic Support Agreement (LSA)

  • LEMOA is an agreement for the exchange of logistics support and supplies that are generally required during combined exercises, port calls and cooperative efforts in unforeseen exigencies like in an HADR situation.
  • The agreement is not expected to serve as a mutual defence treaty.

Negotiations on the third agreement, “Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA)”, have not yet begun.

Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)

  • It provides for sharing and data gathering of geospatial information.
  • It is expected to provide access to unclassified geospatial data that improves navigation planning for exercises and geospatial training for coproducing geospatial products; this is an area where India has limited technical/technological expertise.

What are the reasons for the US’s keenness to sign the agreement?

  • India-US trade (in goods) as a percentage of the US total, inched from 1.5 per cent in 2010 to 1.9 per cent in 2017 with Washington having an unfavourable trade balance of more than 30 per cent of the total value of trade.
  • With a weak indigenous military-industrial base, India’s appetite for imported defence equipment is virtually insatiable. It has made India the largest importer of defence equipment with 12 per cent of the world share (2013-17).
  • To take advantage of India’s defence market, the US pushed for the agreement and it was not due to any new vector in the US strategic calculus. And without the agreement, which secures the integrity of US manufactured defence equipment, it cannot sell platforms with the capability that India desires.
  • U.S. officials state that India’s armed forces are currently dependent on less secure, commercially available communication systems for surveillance.
  • These platforms are, therefore a hindrance in real time data sharing with friendly militaries, and seamless interoperability during joint missions.
  • Hence, COMCASA will facilitate the Indian military to use of high-end secured communication equipment from the U.S.
Why it took time for India to sign COMCASA?
  • The United States, since long, have been trying to maintain its position on barring countries including India from doing business with Russia and Iran on which it has imposed sanctions.
  • However, India has been maintaining that purchase of Iranian crude is crucial to its energy security and it is also in the process of purchasing S-400 missile defence system from Russia whose agreement is ready to be signed in the upcoming months.
  • The US, in this respect, said that as of now, no decision has been made for the S-400. It is working to impose sanctions in an appropriate way and will consider waivers only where it makes sense.
  • US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis asserted that the US expects that the purchases of Iranian crude oil shall go down to zero from every country; else, sanctions will be imposed.
  • The pact also raised concerns about data leakage to third parties. However, such concerns were addressed and there was “enough guarantee” that Indian data won’t be shared with its adversaries.

Significance of COMCASA

• The signing of COMCASA will enable India to access advanced technologies from the US and enhance India’s defence preparedness.

 The pact guarantees India access to critical US defence technologies and communication network to help the militaries of the two countries in their interoperability.

  • Outside of interoperability, COMCASA will also open up the possibility of Indian military units gaining access to a secure Common Tactical Picture, which would allow, for instance, Indian Navy and Air Force surveillance aircraft and fighters to receive data from U.S. and friendly counterparts during exercises or operations.
  • Additionally, given India’s access to previously restricted U.S. defense technology exports following its 2016 designation as a Major Defense Partner, COMCASA will open up the possibility of India importing U.S. systems unencumbered by possible limitations on guidance, communication, and sensor technologies.
  • COMCASA will allow India to procure transfer specialised equipment for encrypted communications for US origin military platforms like the C-17, C-130 and P-8Is
  • COMCASA will effectively mean that India shares the real-time American intelligence on military deployments by China and Pakistan
  • COMCASA becomes particularly important as India is set to buy the combat version of Sea Guardian drones from the United States. The US would not have provided India with the weapon systems on the drone without COMCASA
  • However, the signing of agreement does not mean that India would have to necessarily buy American military equipment
  • Before signing the agreement, India made sure that it gets full access to equipment. There is no commitment on acquisition and there will be no disruption as well.
  • As a consequence of COMCASA, India will get access to Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System, or CENTRIXS, which is the secure communication system network of the US.
  • Navy ships with CENTRIXS on board can communicate securely with the U.S. Navy when needed and can benefit from the wider situational picture of the region as they have a large number of ships and aircraft deployed. This will reduce the stress on the assets and allow prioritising the deployments more efficiently.
  • CENTRIXS consists of a collection of coalition wide area networks (WAN) known as enclaves” and is a “great enabler, allowing ship-to-ship operational dialogue between the two nations in text and web-based formats.

Safeguards

  • It is believed that there are persistent concerns that this would allow U.S. Navy access to India’s own secure communication network and also that the information shared with the U.S. will be accessible by Pakistan.
  • Officials brushed aside these fears as specific measures have been incorporated in the agreement to “have full access to the relevant equipment and there will be no disruptions”.
  • Data acquired through such systems cannot be disclosed or transferred to any person or entity without India’s consent.
  • Experts point out that the equipment administered under communications safety pacts does not provide access to onboard systems and databases in ways that compromise classified information.
  • It is an enabling instrument and does not commit India to acquiring U.S. platforms.

ISSUES/ CRITICISM:

  • The agreement will not be a gateway to US technology either. On the other hand, it can kill the fledgling Indian defence industry.
  • The  Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, which the US often prefers, discourages technology transfer and even offsets. In any case, the US does not part with its technology easily.
  • Therefore, unless we aggressively negotiate each import from the US to strengthen our defence base, the 2+2 dialogue will aggregate to minus one.
  • Concerns have also been raised as to how signing COMCASA will “enhance Russia’s fears of compromising its high-value platforms, such as the leased Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine and the Su-30MKI combat aircraft” and that it will cause trouble with Russia.

India as defence partner of the United States 

How Defence Cooperation has been evolved over a period of time:

  • Two parallel tracks of dialogue began in the 1990s. The strategic dialogue covering nuclear issues shifted gears following the nuclear tests of 1998 and imposition of sanctions by the U.S.
  • The over a dozen rounds of talks between both the countries during 1998-2000 marked the most intense dialogue between the two countries. It helped change perceptions leading to the gradual lifting of sanctions.
  • The next phase was the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership steered by the then National Security Advisers, Brajesh Mishra and Condoleezza Rice.
  • The momentum received a new impulse, eventually leading to the conclusion of the India-U.S. bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008.
  • The defence dialogue began in 1995 with the setting up of the Defence Policy Group at the level of the Defence Secretary and his Pentagon counterpart and three Steering Groups to develop exchanges between the Services.
  • A decade later, this was formalised and enlarged into the India-U.S. Defence Framework Agreementwhich was renewed for 10 years in 2015.
  • Today, the U.S. is the country with which India undertakes the largest number of military exercises which have gradually evolved in scale and complexity.
  • During the Cold War, more than three-fourths of India’s defence equipment was of Soviet origin. This gradually began to change, and in recent years, the U.S. and Israel emerged as major suppliers.

Engaging with Indian Air Force, Indian Navy and the Indian Army:

  • The Indian Air Force went in for C-130J Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster aircraft, along with Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
  • The Indian Navy acquired a troop carrier ship and the P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. An agreement for 24 multi-role helicopters for the Indian Navy is expected soon.
  • The Indian Army went in for the M-777 howitzers and artillery radars. From a total of less than $400 million of defence acquisitions during 1947-2005, the U.S. has signed defence contracts of over $15 billion since.
  • During the Obama administration, the US understood that a defence supply relationship needed to be backed by technology sharing and joint development and came up with the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTII).
  • To get around export control licensing and other bureaucratic hurdles, an India Rapid Reaction Cell in the Pentagon was set up. In 2016, India was designated as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ country.
  • Another step forward in the middle of this year was the inclusion of India in the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) category, putting it on a par with allies in terms of technology access.
  • The U.S. proposed its standard logistics support agreement text in 2003 which was finally concluded in 2016, after it was made into an India-specific text.
  • It facilitates logistics supplies during port visits and joint exercises and does not contain any obligations for joint activity or any basing arrangements.
  • The India-specific Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), is likely to be signed.
  • With the possibility of acquiring armed Sea Guardian drones, COMCASA was necessary to ensure optimal use.

Conclusion:

It is important to recognize that Comcasa is an operational imperative for the Indian Armed Forces. Not only is the pact an useful enabler of operations interoperability with the US military, it is a legal instrument that facilitates the optimal exploitation of high-end communication equipment acquired from the US. India sceptics must know that there are no good remedies for imagined fears.

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