Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 28, 2016
Are technical defence agreements with US beneficial for India?

The recent “in principle” agreement by Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to sign the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the renamed (and slightly tweaked) format of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) has elicited tonnes of articles in the media projecting it as the glowing example of the revitalisation of the Indo-US defence relations. Most of these stress on three aspects. One, it highlights the fact that the treaty does not envisage the stationing of US troops on Indian soil, showing it as a victory of sorts from the Indian perspective. Second, the treaty does not imply that India is drawn into a strategic embrace of the US. Three, somehow India has managed to retain its “strategic autonomy” despite signing this treaty. Other media pundits have explained in detail how the UPA government and the former Defence Minister A.K. Anthony had side-tracked the US and that the Modi Government has turned pragmatic and is ready to warm the defence relations and achieve a significant breakthrough. They argue that in the current situation, with India purchasing large defence equipment from the US, this probably was the best route available.

However, the fact is that the real nuances of the issue have been totally lost and the main agenda often side tracked while superficial issues are highlighted. It must be remembered that in July 2009, India had reluctantly signed the End-User Monitoring (EUM) Agreement, under US pressure, to allay their apprehensions about the usage of the US defence equipment being procured by India. But, this agreement was signed after extended negotiations that eventually ensured that it kept intrusive “monitoring” American inspectors away from Indian military bases.

The US pressure, however, continued for the signing of three so called “foundational” agreements. While two of these were technical agreements, the third was the LSA that would allow the armed forces of the two countries to procure fuel and supplies from each other's facilities. This was to help the Indian and US militaries refuel ships and aircraft in cashless transactions that are balanced at the end of the year. The LSA would require both countries to provide their military bases, fuel and other kinds of logistics support to each others' fighter jets and naval warships.

The LSA would have lowered the operational costs of Indian defence forces. India participates in various multilateral exercises internationally and has to pay for its logistical requirement upfront in scarce foreign exchange. With LSA in place, the issue of physically paying the money could have been avoided. India, instead, would have to provide reciprocal facilities for the US defence forces when requested.

In any case with the enhancement of naval cooperation between the two countries, India has taken advantage of the Fuel Exchange Agreement (FEA) since 2005, which has led to a major reduction in time and cost of operations, with Indian ships refueling from US tankers, especially while on anti-piracy missions around the Gulf of Aden.

The US has very similar tie-ups, called the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSA), formerly known as the NATO Mutual Support Act, with other countries. This Act of 1979 was essentially made to simplify exchanges of logistic support, supplies and services, exclusively between the US and NATO forces, but it was amended and extended in 1986, 1992 and 1994 to permit ACSAs with non-NATO countries as well.

It can be argued that the scales are likely to tilt grossly in favour of the US since far more of their naval ships and aircraft are likely to visit Indian ports and military bases, rather than Indian armed forces visiting US bases and platforms. Thus, it is more of a question of allowing foreign troops on Indian soil frequently, albeit for very short periods (during the time of refuelling/ recharging supplies etc) and not for any extended period – which was never the main issue in any case. The scenario is likely to become more “active” and acute with the US “re-balance strategy towards Asia” and the fact that 60% of the surface force of the US navy is likely to be operating in the Indo Pacific theatre by 2019.

The other two agreements are different and though India is under pressure to sign them, it is not in India’s benefit to do so. The root of this “problem” lies in the US laws that mandate that export / transfer of certain sensitive American electronics necessitates the signature of certain technical agreements like the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMoA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA).

But, since they are not a prerequisite, in the past New Delhi has treated all such defence agreements with apprehension and with a cautionary brush. The common US refrain is that agreements like CISMoA are common for all countries that receive US high technology and are not unique to India. They forcefully argue that the lack of signing these agreements had affected the transfer of satellite navigation aids and secure communications equipment to the eight P8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA) and the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircrafts bought by India.

This argument, however, is only partially true as only five items were “denied“ and deleted from the C-130J supplied to IAF . The items were essentially secure communication equipment that assisted in encoded communication between US platforms and those that were fitted on board their allies. Fortunately, the IAF had rightly concluded that the absence of these equipment was unlikely to hamper the operational capability of these platforms in the generic sense and that they would just ensure that these platforms remained interoperable with US forces with their communication protocol and codes.

Since the Indian forces are unlikely to operate with the US forces in a conflict situation, it is unnecessary to bind Indian forces down to US codes and operating procedures as it is much better to have our own speech secrecy and communication/data transfer equipment than the US ones. Hence, the Indian position on signing the CISMoA and BECA till date has been proved correct notwithstanding the US pressure to bend on this account.

Thus despite the fact that US has emerged as one of the most important defence equipment suppliers for India that is perceived to be a lynchpin in the US strategy of pivot to Asia , India seems to have leveraged its position and withstood the pressure and agreed to sign an agreement which is beneficial to it. Such a clarity of thought by the Indian Defence Ministry has definitely placed India in a strategically advantageous position.

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