India Signs COMCASA with US: Falling into a Deep Pit


INDIA signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US in New Delhi on September 6 during the ‘2+2 Summit’ involving the defence and foreign ministers of both countries. The signing of this Agreement with the US, after considerable delays by both parties, and despite several recent US moves by the Trump administration showing scant regard for Indian concerns, suggests that India under the BJP government has brushed aside all cautionary advice, and has decided to put all its national security and foreign policy in the US basket regardless of costs. 

COMCASA is the second of three “foundational agreements” on military systems signed by India and the US. These Agreements are required by the US to enable transfer of high-tech and sensitive military hardware to other countries, mainly allies, and to promote ‘inter-operability’ as well as sharing and networking of logistics, communications and intelligence.

The first of these was GSOMIA (General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement), an omnibus confidentiality agreement covering weapons and related systems acquired from the US, and signed very early on by the UPA government in 2002. There was a long hiatus after this, with India apparently unable to overcome many doubts and anxieties about potential US intrusion into India’s defence infrastructure and operations, and impacts on India’s sovereignty of what would be tantamount to a US-India military alliance. Prolonged negotiations between the two countries followed on the remaining and main foundational Agreements, supposedly with various India-specific modifications and clauses drafted into the boilerplate documents that the US had previously signed with its NATO and other allies.

LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), a modified version of the Logistics Support Agreement or LSA, was finally signed in 2016 by the present BJP government. LEMOA allows the two countries to use each others’ military facilities as required on credit. While it does not provide for establishment of military bases on each others’ territory, and lists mostly case-by-case non-conflict contexts for such mutual logistics assistance, LEMOA will entail modifications to infrastructure to suit visiting US ships, for instance, and providing for rest and recuperation or other shore leave for visiting naval personnel. Implicitly, however, such sharing of logistics would also be a possibility during conflicts.

COMCASA (originally termed CISMOA or Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) enables far greater and potentially continuing inter-operability between the two militaries. It provides for sharing of secure communications and real-time intelligence through use of advanced US hardware and encryption software, including by connecting with US com-sec (communications and security) networks. The US has been increasingly insistent that India signs this Agreement, without which it would not be able to supply advanced weapons platforms in future or com-sec systems on existing platforms.  For instance, India’s Boeing P8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft currently fly with commercial radar and communications systems rather than more advanced and secure US systems which would enhance their capabilities. Further force multiplication would become possible after signing COMCASA by tapping into continually operational and extensive US military intelligence and communication networks, such as Link 16, currently restricted to NATO allies and, more recently, to South Korea as well. 

It should be emphasized that both LEMOA and COMCASA (LSA, CISMOA) Agreements are usually signed by the US only with its NATO and other military allies.

For all practical purposes, India has now joined their ranks. Now only the third foundational Agreement, namely BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial  Cooperation), for sharing space-based communications and intelligence, remains to be signed. And surely, that is now just a matter of time. The change in nomenclature of these Agreements only provides India a fig leaf to pretend that it has merely entered into an arrangement of convenience for acquiring advanced US technologies, not an alliance. But the advantages of signing these Agreements, as touted by the government and those arguing in support of signing them, can be fully realized only if India is allied with the US.
Sections of the media are gushing about the massive gains that India’s defence forces will supposedly make with the induction of advanced US equipment, and the giant leap upward that India is ostensibly poised to make in the geo-strategic firmament by signing these Agreements. But more thoughtful analysts have long pointed to the dangers of this Agreement and the inherent strategic tie-up with the US. India may indeed reap some short-term benefits linked to specific weapons platforms, but there are many pitfalls which will not only hamper India’s defence preparedness but also undermine its strategic autonomy and sovereignty.

There are of course short-term benefits in relation to US military systems that India has acquired in the recent past. Sale of military equipment by the US to India was opened up by the US-India Defence Framework Agreement of 2005, itself enabled by the then under-negotiation Indo-US Nuclear Deal, which in turn was considered necessary for removing the sanctions barrier, prompted by India’s nuclear weapons programme, that prevented sales of advanced technologies to India. Since 2007, starting from a base of zero US armaments, India has acquired US$17 billion worth of US military equipment. The C-130 J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transporters, and P8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft, as well as the ordered and soon to arrive Apache attack and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, can now be equipped with up-to-date high-performance radars and other US com-sec hardware and more secure, encryption software to go with these platforms, lifting their capability to a much higher level.

India and the US are in an advanced stage of talks on US sale of armed Predator or Sea Guardian drones, with the US insisting that the sale is contingent upon India signing COMCASA, another immediate prompting for India signing the Agreement. If India acquires additional advanced US weapons platforms, such as fighter aircraft under the new tender, they too can be similarly equipped with COMCASA-compliant hardware, ready for “inter-operability” with US forces, similar to the US arrangement with NATO and other allies in West Asia and with Japan or South Korea in East Asia.

More importantly, these could all be linked in real-time with US military systems, potentially enabling sharing of the in-depth and extensive US intelligence and operational command and control including in live operational situations.  However, real-time access to US intelligence will not happen automatically, but will be realized only if and when the US decides to part with such information. And India will surely have to pay a price for that. The US will undoubtedly require India to participate more actively in US military operations or other strategic moves, not just as quid pro quo, but on a more long-term basis where “inter-operability” is a necessity.

Official Indian spokespersons have emphasized that while COMCASA enables acquisition by India of high-tech communications equipment from the US, there is no obligation to do so. But if the benefits are indeed as great as proclaimed, and India experiences these gains in comparison with the many non-US platforms the armed forces now use, it will inexorably pressurise India to buy more US military hardware.

India will also face other serious operational problems in having a vast array of non-US especially Russian military equipment, such as the Sukhois and various MiGs, submarines, tanks, helicopters and missile systems. None of these will be compatible with US communications hardware or software, meaning that the Indian armed forces will have to work with various communications systems in different weapons platforms. This will be yet another factor pushing India to acquire more US hardware. So, while COMCASA will enable “inter-operability” with the US, it will seriously damage “intra-operability” within the Indian armed forces! 

Details of the India-specific provisions in COMCASA have not been made public. However, it is widely believed that the US retains the requirement to conduct intrusive inspections of Indian military facilities to inspect deployment and utilisation of COMCASA-compliant US hardware. The US most probably also retains exclusive rights to repair and maintain such equipment, and to conduct the encryption coding required for security of communications. Pretty close to being a ‘client state!’

The biggest negative is the cementing of a military alliance with the US, with all that entails. No US military ally has been able to escape the loss of strategic autonomy accompanying that. NATO allies had no choice but to join the US war on Iraq, or its war in Afghanistan. Under the Trump administration, the US has had no compunctions in lecturing its allies on their contributions to joint defence arrangements, or even on domestic immigration policies, while also demanding lower tariffs on US goods and threatening sanctions of various kinds.

Indian ministers and spokespersons have prided themselves on winning the US over by signing these Agreements. But they have no explanation for the US giving nothing to India in return. The US has not given up its opposition to India acquiring the Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system, nor has it backed off from opposing Indian oil purchases and other economic relations with Iran. And all the while tempting India to buy even more US military hardware, with COMCASA as bait. The US ministers also pressed India to commit to additional purchases of $10 billion of goods from the US to redress its (temporary) trade deficit with India. Nor has President Trump hesitated in making a series of pronouncements back home, even as the 2+2 Summit was under way here, about forcing India into a more pro-US trade deal.

In India, the 2+2 Summit had clear China-specific language making the US intention evident, with no contradiction or clarification from the Indian side. Slowly but surely, the US is reeling India in to its collection of captive allies. For reasons best known to itself, the BJP government has seemingly committed India to Pax Americana. And that, at a time, when the US is trashing even its oldest trans-atlantic allies, not shying away from being rude to South Korea or Japan, and when other powers are busy constructing a multi-polar world.


Newsletter category: