By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th April 16
On Monday, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will land in Goa for the first leg of a three-day visit to India, his third since assuming office in February 2015.
Widely regarded as a staunch friend of India, Carter might achieve during his visit what all his recent predecessors have failed to do: signing the first of three “foundational agreements” that are billed as a springboard for the US-India defence relationship.
Hectic discussions between the US Department of Defense (DoD, or Pentagon) and India’s defence ministry (MoD) over the last four months have brought two of those agreements close to the point of signature.
The first is a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which provides an accounting mechanism for the two militaries to replenish from each other’s facilities and bases. This has been bogged down in controversy since 2006, when the Left Front parties convinced then defence minister, AK Antony, that the LSA would force India to replenish US military units engaged in operations that India had reservations about.
However, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has ensured that the discretion remains with India. The agreement will be signed under a new name, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), to appear as an India-specific agreement, not a pro-forma LSA.
After Parrikar’s visit to the US in December, the MoD asked the Pentagon to send out a team to address India’s queries on all three foundational agreements. In January 2015, a US legal team travelled to India. In rapid-fire exchanges since then, drafts of the LSA were exchanged, and New Delhi’s concerns addressed.
Earlier, in end-2014, New Delhi had asked the Pentagon for a “Non Paper” on the foundational agreements. This had been provided but, until Parrikar’s visit to the US, discussions had not progressed.
While the LEMOA constitutes low-hanging fruit, the Pentagon is more excited about agreement on the more complex Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), that would allow India to obtain advanced radio and satellite communications equipment from the US.
CISMOA-protected category of communications equipment has been denied to India so far, even in advanced aircraft bought from the US --- like the C-130J Super Hercules special operations transporters, and P8-I Poseidon maritime multi-mission aircraft. India chose to buy these with the original CISMOA-protected equipment replaced by commercially available radios of a lower order.
The US insists on CISMOA as a condition for supplying this equipment because it is afraid its advanced technology may leak out to India’s other defence partners, especially Russia.
Says Ben Schwartz, the aerospace and defence head of the US-India Business Council: “Washington understands that India needs to maintain its defence relationship with Russia, but there needs to be a firewall between the cooperation that India does with Russia and its cooperation with the US. And that firewall doesn't exist at this point.”
In the absence of CISMOA, India has accepted greatly reduced operational capabilities in the aircraft it has bought from the US. For example, when an Indian Navy P8-I detects an enemy submarine, it needs to communicate that intelligence to an Indian submarine that can destroy the enemy vessel. However the advanced radio needed for an aircraft to talk to the submerged submarine is protected by CISMOA.
Similarly, the C-130J, which carry Special Forces into enemy territory and make very precise night landings on tiny airstrips, do not have the encoded radios needed to communicate with the commandos who secure the airstrip. Instead, India has opted for commercially available radios.
New Delhi worries that CISMOA-protected communications might contain a bug that would allow the US (and potentially its allies) to detect and track Indian platforms equipped with those radios.
These apprehensions have been largely assuaged in the latest CISMOA draft. However, MoD officials may choose to sign only the LEMOA during Carter’s visit, as a trial balloon to gauge the political reaction, with CISMOA signed later.
Meanwhile, there is no consensus on the third of the foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation (BECA), which relates to digital mapping --- a key component of military operations, especially accurate targeting with long range missiles.
Government sources say the Pentagon wants digital sensors placed on Indian territory, which New Delhi finds unacceptable as it would allow the US military extremely high-resolution digital imagery of India. Since Washington is not providing the Indian military with imagery of Pakistan of that accuracy, New Delhi is not inclined to sign BECA.
Furthermore, given that India’s own satellite imaging capability is of a very high order, New Delhi believes that we need not rely on US geographical information systems (GIS) that would become available through BECA.
While India’s security agencies have begun digitizing the sub-continental landmass, this has been hampered by a lack of coordination. Government sources say each military service and security agency has been operating on a different GIS protocol, a lapse that is only now being corrected.
Consequently, when Indian military troops were deployed for earthquake relief operations in Nepal, they approached the US for local maps. Technically, the US could only supply digital maps to signatories of BECA. However, since this was a humanitarian aid mission, an exception was made for India.
Carter will also review the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), of which he has been a key driver. Business Standard learns that India set to float a Request for Information (RFI) to US shipbuilders for cooperation in designing the navy’s second indigenous aircraft carrier.
However, there is less progress on the second major partnership under the DTTI --- the co-development of a jet engine for India’s proposed Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. This requires negotiation with a private US company --- General Electric --- rather than a government-to-government negotiation.