2+2 talks: US-India sign COMCASA, agree to do tri-service military exercise

After more than a decade of discussions and negotiations, India and the US on Thursday signed a “communications compatibility and security arrangement” (Comcasa) as part of the first “2+2” dialogue featuring foreign and defence ministers of both nations.

In the absence of a Comcasa, which now binds India to ensure the security and secrecy of cutting-edge US communications equipment, US’ C-130J Super Hercules Special Forces plane and the Boeing P-8I maritime aircraft were bought with their closely guarded communications and navigation kits replaced by less potent, commercially-available equipment.

The two nations also decided to set up hotlines between their defence and foreign ministers and deliberated on thorny issues such as India’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and import of crude oil from Iran. According to a Reuters report, Washington will consider waivers for Iranian oil buyers such as India but they must eventually halt imports as sanctions are imposed on Tehran, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance governments were reluctant to sign Comcasa, fearing it would be seen as bowing down to US pressure. However, the government has now concluded that the operational benefits outweigh the potential political downside.
A senior defence ministry official briefed journalists and claimed Indian interests were not compromised. He said the text of the deal, while classified, was specially negotiated for India, with New Delhi refusing to sign the standard text that many other countries had. He stated that Comcasa did not bind India to buying US weaponry.

The agreement, valid for 10 years, is “platform-specific” and will “enable us to derive optimal use of US weapons platforms,” said the official.

To assuage Indian concerns that Washington might deactivate Comcasa-safeguarded equipment in the event of India undertaking an operation the US did not subscribe to. The agreement specifies that the US will ensure the equipment would remain operational at all times, he said.

Comcasa is the second so-called “foundational agreements” that India has signed, after inking the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016. In the joint statement issued on Thursday, the two sides “announced their readiness to begin negotiations on an Industrial Security Annex that would support closer defence industry cooperation and collaboration”.

With the US military already doing more exercises with the Indian army, navy and air force than with any other country, the two sides “committed to the creation of a new, tri-services exercise and to further increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries and defence organisations.”

So far, India’s military has conducted tri-service exercises only with the Russian military. However, partly due to language constraints, the Indo-Russian exercises have been largely symbolic and — such as the annual Malabar naval exercises that began as a US-India exercise and then evolved into a trilateral exercise that includes Japan — the tri-service Indo-US exercises can be expected to quickly overhaul the India-Russia exercise in sophistication and operational value.

To enhance their joint surveillance over the Indian Ocean, it was agreed that liaison officers would be cross-posted between the Indian Navy and the US Naval Forces Central Command, based in Bahrain.

With co-production and co-development projects already being pursued through the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, the two sides “welcomed the conclusion of a Memorandum of Intent between the US Defense Innovation Unit and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation – Innovation for Defence Excellence.

In the joint statement, both sides noted five major steps recently taken to expand defence ties: India’s designation as a major defence partner of the US, the “rapid growth in bilateral defence trade” (a euphemism for India’s purchase of over $15 billion worth of US defence platforms), American clearance of the export to India of progressively higher levels of technology, India’s inclusion in the top tier of countries entitled to licence free exports under Licence Exemption Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) and the signing of Comcasa.