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Whither the Indo-US Defence Partnership

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 25, 2018

    The Indo-US defence relationship has been growing since the signing of the New Framework for Defence Cooperation in 2005 and more particularly after the US Congress passed the Hyde Act in December 2006 to enable bilateral cooperation on nuclear issues. However, of late, bilateral ties are seemingly going out of balance to the extent of impinging on India’s sovereign interests. A strong opinion has grown in India that the strategic tilt towards the US has not only grossly upset the country’s geopolitical image but is entailing the high risk of undermining national interests as well.

    The process of forging closer politico-military relations was set in motion with the signing of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012, which was followed by the renewal of the ‘Framework for India-US Defence Relations’ in June 2015. Taking the defence relationship further required India signing the so-called three “foundational accords”. The first of these is the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which the US signs with allies to facilitate each side’s military operations including basing arrangements. The next in line is the Communication Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) – a legal framework that enables the transfer of critical, secure and encrypted communications between weapon platforms to facilitate “interoperability”. And the third is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for sharing sensitive geospatial intelligence gathered from satellites and other space-based platforms. 

    Although discussions on the “foundational accords” had begun during the previous UPA government, talks were stalled due to both political and technical reasons. Politically, it was feared that these agreements will indirectly make India a military ally of America. The trouble is that the LSA, CISMOA and other accords are carefully crafted to mainly achieve the American objective of building military relations with other countries based on the systemic imperatives of harmonising defence strategies and foreign policies. Technically, the signing of the LSA and CISMOA demanded access to each other’s bases and integrating each other’s communications networks. Apprehensions were, therefore, raised that signing the CISMOA would allow America to intrude into Indian military communication systems. Besides, the existing Russian-origin and indigenous Indian military platforms would not be compatible with CISMOA.

    From the US perspective, these accords were not only meant to ensure the protection of US military interests but also create a string of dependency for the client state. If we look at the cases of many client states like Pakistan that have a history of importing high-technology and cutting-edge weapons from the American supply chain, they have had to considerably compromise on an array of sovereign choices. Invariably, these nations get forced into accepting the American diktat in their foreign and defence policies. In other words, the client loses its sovereign authority to wield independent power over its own territory. For example, the intrusion of US Special Forces into Pakistani territory during Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011 and the series of targeted drone strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts are instructive cases of violation of Pakistan’s sovereign airspace.

    Essentially, the intent behind the US insistence on the foundational agreements is to make India dependent and ultimately a client state.

    The India-US Defence Relationship regained its momentum following the signing of “Joint Strategic Vision” between Barack Obama and Narendra Modi in January 2015 for a shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. This also coincided with India’s declaration of its ‘Act East’ policy. In December 2016, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter issued a joint statement finalising India’s designation as a “major defence partner” of the US. Since then the process of strategic convergence has been more scrupulously pursued by the US side while pressing for signing the so-called three “foundational” accords.

    The NDA government went ahead to renegotiate the LSA in 2015 and eventually signed a military logistics agreement called Logistics Exchange Memorandum Of Agreement (LEMOA) on 29 August 2016. LEMOA is a customized version of the LSA to facilitate each other’s operations for purposes of refuelling and replenishment with no obligations on India to provide any basing arrangements. 

    The CISMOA has been re-christened as Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA), in order to reflect its India-specific character. It is meant to facilitate the use of high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms. Currently, India relies on commercially available communication systems for US-sourced platforms like C-130Js and the P8I maritime surveillance aircraft. But COMCASA is necessary for the Sea Guardian drones that India is keen on acquiring from the US since these operate on a secure data and communication system link.

    Surely, there may have been sufficient reasons for accepting these accords; in the main, getting access to cutting-edge defence technologies and other tactical advantages. But, in doing so, India has seemingly failed to consider the geopolitical and foreign policy fallouts from signing of these accords – a euphemism for becoming a US military ally.

    The government has been delaying the signing of the two other pacts, for there have been intense internal resentment and lingering fear among Defence Ministry officials that COMCASA would a) severely compromise India’s military ties with Russia and curtail access to Russian weapon systems, b) once it comes into force, the agreement would demand periodic inspection access of the equipment to US personnel and, c) access to US weapons would remain subjected to various export control regimes, irrespective of these pacts.

    However, despite these red-flags, various allurements may have already drawn India into the American strategic fold, not knowing that the trap door would soon slam shut leaving India with no options but to be guided by the US terms.

    Not surprisingly and in a quick turn of events, the new US law against Russia — Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – started to impact India in terms of preventing it from doing business with Russian defence firms. The Sanction Act notified 39 Russian state-controlled firms including Rosoboronexport with which India does recurring business. According to the Act, any third party conducting transactions with these companies would be liable to be sanctioned.

    In May 2018, Rep. Mac Thornberry, head of the US House Armed Services Committee, asked India to seriously rethink the acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defence system and warned that India purchasing it could set hurdles for building “interoperability” with the US in the future.

    For their part, US officials have indicated that not signing the COMCASA could preclude India from getting high-end US military equipment, like the MQ-9 Reaper, Predator-B armed drones, etc. The US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Tina Kaidanow, recently asked New Delhi to desist from conduct that might invite sanctions. However, US Defense Secretary James Mattis has asked Congress to provide national security exceptions to CAATSA for countries like India. But the issue is not simply limited to getting a ‘waiver’ for buying the S-400 Triumf but about a range of other weapon systems from Russia including stealth frigates, nuclear attack submarines, multirole choppers, etc. worth $12 billion that are in the process of delivery.

    The extreme nature of the CAATSA sanctions regime gives the US a handy and effective pressure point to dismantle the existing Indo-Russian defence relationship and replace Russian weapons systems in the Indian Army, Navy and Air force with systems from the US-controlled supply chain. Potentially, the sanctions under CAATSA could endanger India’s overall defence ties with Russia, and even worse, it could impact spares procurement for weapons of which 70 per cent are of Russian origin. The upshot is that making structural changes in a system that advantages America and compels India to undermine its own interests would damage India's defence preparedness.

    There has been an impression that New Delhi has decided to defy the US diktat prudently and has made it clear that Trump’s “me first approach” is not acceptable and that India would not be guided by any other country on its import of weapons. New Delhi has said it will go ahead with the purchase of the Triumf missile system for Rs 40,000 crore. Further, New Delhi has rightly announced its commitment to follow UN sanctions, not US sanctions on Iran and wants to continue to trade with Iran.

    But the Empire is already striking back to push India to sign the three “foundational” accords through a considerable degree of both incentive and coercion. The Pentagon wants to quickly have in place greater military interoperability including a combined doctrine, joint training and planning, and a joint command and control structure for the “Indo-Pacific”.

    For its part, New Delhi seems all set to do an about-face and sign the second defence foundational pact COMCASA with the US, when the first US-India 2+2 Dialogue will be held in Washington on July 6 between Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman.

    This new dialogue format was agreed to between the two sides during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington D.C. on 25-26 June 2017. The ground work for it has already been done when the Indian foreign and defence secretaries visited Washington on April 18-19, 2018. US Defence officials are now in New Delhi to discuss the nitty-gritty of the pact.

    The US remains upbeat on the upcoming dialogue. In its media note released on June 21, 2018, the Office of the US Spokesperson said that the “meeting will focus on strengthening strategic, security, and defense cooperation as the United States and India jointly confront global challenges”.

    By contrast, the MEA’s press release on June 21 was careful and reticent, suggesting that “the two sides are expected to ‘share perspectives’ on strengthening their strategic and security ties and ‘exchange views’ on a range of bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest”. It said nothing like the US promise to "jointly confront global challenges".

    Whether or not the COMCASA text will be finalised or not in the upcoming 2+2 dialogue in Washington is not clear. But the resumption of talks on the agreement signals a change in political will on the Indian side, which means that previously-held security apprehensions have been allayed.

    In any case, Trump is seemingly using the important Diaspora card by sending Nikki Haley to New Delhi this week to win over Modi and fix the accord. There seems to be considerable divergences between the two countries on several core issues. Clearly, the Indo-US defence partnership will continue to remain a tale of flip-flops.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.