However, GSOMIA does not cover the exchange of classified information with Indian private companies. Washington wants this covered, given New Delhi’s emphasis on the “strategic partnership” (SP) model of procurement, in which Indian private firms will manufacture defence equipment for the military, using technology transferred by global “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs).
Washington is not demanding a fresh agreement. It is asking New Delhi to sign an annexure to GSOMIA that would cover the Indian private sector.
This, however, remains stuck in the Indian defence ministry’s decision pipeline. “It seems everything in New Delhi must be cleared at the level of defence minister, even prime minister,” complains a former Pentagon official, speaking anonymously.
“US companies are keen to partner Indian private companies designated as SPs, but sharing technical information, which is essential for a technical manufacturing partnership, requires India to extend the GSOMIA to the private sector,” says Ben Schwartz of the US-India Business Council.
Schwartz explains how this works in practice. If New Delhi chooses two private Indian firms to competitively build, say a tank; and they want to partner a US company, the American firm currently cannot share any classified information with them. It could share information with DPSUs like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd of Bharat Electronics, but not with L&T, or the Tatas.
GSOMIA is not a public document. It is one of four agreements – initially termed “foundational agreements” by Washington, but recently toned down to “enabling agreements” – required by US legislation for facilitating deeper defence cooperation. A second agreement, the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that facilitates mutual logistical inter-dependence, was signed in 2016.
Two others are currently being negotiated. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which safeguards secure communications equipment, is at a more advanced stage. There is less progress on the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation (BECA), which lays down protocols for digital mapping and survey.
Washington values the formidable operational advantage its military gains from its advanced weapons technology and has enacted strong legislation to safeguard that. India, in contrast, has not traditionally safeguarded military technology.
In the American security establishment, personnel and entities are accorded security classification – like confidential, secret or top secret – which governs the level of classified information they are cleared to handle. This is strictly observed. When somebody cleared to handle “secret” information communicates with another person or entity that is cleared only to handle “confidential” information (one level lower), he or she must weigh each word to maintain the exchange at the “confidential” level and to ensure no “secret” information is inadvertently passed on.
US defence industry has similar security clearances. For example, an F-16 plant has some sections with a security classification of “confidential”, and others classified “secret”. Access to each section is governed by a visitor’s security classification.
New Delhi officials complain this is just an “American problem”, and that Russia never raises such demands. US officials counter that Russia ignores technology security because it simply does not have the highest-end technology.