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Explained: What is in the India-US defence deals?

At 2+2 meeting next week, the two countries will look to push intelligence sharing pact BECA. With key deals LEMOA and COMCASA already signed, what does it mean for defence, particularly in light of LAC standoff?

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: October 28, 2020 8:45:21 am
India US ties, India US defence deal, India US pact, Mike Pompeo India visit, Mike Pompeo in India, India China news, Indian ExpressAt the first 2+2 in 2018, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (far right) with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then Defence Secretary James Mattis (far left). (Express Archive/Renuka Puri)

India and the US are preparing for the third 2+2 ministerial meeting between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T Esper in New Delhi on October 26-27. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E Biegun visited India last week to lay the groundwork for the high-level visits 2+2 in 2018.

One of the items on the agenda will be the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — a pact with deep military implications. In the last two meetings, agreements known as LEMOA and COMCASA were signed; now, with BECA, these have been dubbed the troika of foundational pacts — essentially laying the foundation for deeper military cooperation.

What is BECA?

The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement largely pertains to geospatial intelligence, and sharing information on maps and satellite images for defence. According to officials, anyone who sails a ship, flies an aircraft, fights wars, locates targets, responds to natural disasters, or even navigates with a cellphone relies on geospatial intelligence.

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Signing BECA will allow India to use the US’s advanced geospatial intelligence and enhance the accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. It will give access to topographical and aeronautical data and products that will aid navigation and targeting.

To use an everyday example, just like an Uber cab needs a good GPS to reach its destination quickly and efficiently, BECA will provide Indian military systems with a high-quality GPS to navigate and missiles with real-time intelligence to precisely target the adversary.

This could be key for Air Force-to-Air Force cooperation. India and the US have stepped up efforts to sign the pact during the upcoming 2+2. This flows from the commitment in the joint statement during US President Donald Trump’s visit in February this year, when the two sides had said they looked forward to an “early conclusion” of BECA.

What are the other two agreements about?

LEMOA: The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed between India and the US in August 2016. It allows the military of each country to replenish from the other’s bases: access supplies, spare parts and services from the other country’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed. This is extremely useful for Navy-to-Navy cooperation, since the US and India are cooperating closely in the Indo-Pacific.

Again, to put this simply, it is like going to a friend’s garage and workshop to refuel one’s car and getting repairs done. But, by doing this, one is also exposing one’s car and technology to the friend, and that requires trust. In military terms, one’s Naval ships are strategic assets and use of another country’s base would expose one’s military asset to the host.

If signing LEMOA needed trust, its application enhances the trust. It took almost a decade to negotiate LEMOA. This, in a sense, has bridged the trust deficit and paved the way for the remaining “foundational pacts”.

Former diplomats say that while India had provided logistics support ad hoc in the past — refuelling of American aircraft in Bombay during the first Gulf War in 1991, visits by US ships to Indian ports during the war against terrorism after 9/11— the signing of LEMOA has made it a smoother process.

COMCASA: The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement was signed in September 2018, after the first 2+2 dialogue in which then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met visiting US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and then Secretary of Defence James Mattis. It allows the US to provide India with its encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US military commanders, aircraft and ships can communicate through secure networks in peace and war.

To explain in lay terms again, it is like WhatsApp or Telegram for the two militaries, which is safe and real-time communication is possible hassle-free.

COMCASA paved the way for transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India to facilitate “interoperability” between their forces — and potentially with other militaries that use US-origin systems for secure data links.

India US ties, India US defence deal, India US pact, Mike Pompeo India visit, Mike Pompeo in India, India China news, Indian Express External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar meets Mike Pompeo, United States Secretary of State, in Washington DC. (ANI Photo/File)

So, what do these three pacts put together mean?

While LEMOA means one partner trusts the other enough to expose its valuable assets, COMCASA means one is confident that it can rely on encrypted systems to connect the two militaries, and BECA means it can share highly classified information in real time without fear of being compromised. All this signals the level of trust that has developed between the two countries and their militaries, faced with an increasingly aggressive China.📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram

So, what does this mean in the context of the ongoing border standoff?

Amid the longest stand-off on the India-China border in three decades, India and the US have intensified under-the-radar intelligence and military cooperation at an unprecedented level, especially since June.

After Pompeo called up Jaishankar in the third week of June, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has been in touch with the US NSA, Robert C O’Brien, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark A Milley has been in touch with Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat. Also, Esper called up Rajnath Singh in July second week.

Also read | Can explore more issues in coming 2+2 talks: US Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun

These conversations have facilitated information-sharing between security, military and intelligence branches of the two countries — almost reminiscent of the Indo-US cooperation of the 1960s, especially after the 1962 war. The cooperation includes sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts, and data sharing of Chinese troops and weapons deployment along the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Sources said New Delhi is watching the Chinese movements in “all sectors” of the LAC.

The Indian defence establishment also has enhanced capability with some American equipment. The armed forces have used at least five American platforms at the LAC— C-17 Globemaster III for military transport, Boeing’s Chinook CH-47 as heavy-lift helicopters, Boeing’s Apache as tank-killers, P-8I Poseidon for overland reconnaissance, and Lockheed Martin’s C-130J for airlifting troops.

Now, with these key defence pacts in place, cooperation can happen in a more structured and efficient way, rather than episodic.

Is there a catch in all this?

The US wants India to move away from Russian equipment and platforms, as it feels this may expose its technology and information to Moscow. So far, India is going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia, and this has been a sticking point for American interlocutors. For its part, India is wary of Pakistan’s deep-rooted ties with Pentagon, and Washington’s dependence on Rawalpindi for access to Afghanistan as well as its exit strategy.

But, because of Chinese belligerence being the clear and present danger, New Delhi’s strategic embrace of Washington is the obvious outcome.

It is important to note that while LEMOA was signed during the Barack Obama regime (August 2016), COMCASA was signed in the middle of Trump administration (September 2018) and efforts are under way to sign or conclude BECA before the US goes to polls on November 3.

Also read | Signal to China: Quad navies to sail together, Indo-US pact on table

As Biegun said on Tuesday, every administration in the last 20 years have left the Indo-US relationship in a better shape than how they inherited it.

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