by Sreemoy Talukdar

It is easy to overlook the importance of the military communications accord that India and the United States signed on Thursday during the inaugural 2+2 ministerial talks. It is a landmark deal, pregnant with implications. In some ways, its import mirrors the breakthrough civil-nuclear deal that both nations signed eight years ago. This move, that underwent similar birth pangs and took years in signing, reinforces the key component of bilateral ties — a strategic defence partnership to balance the rise of an assertive and revisionist power in Asia. To quote Salman Rushdie (albeit in a different context), ‘it is the whole thing, the whole ball game’.

From an Indian point of view, the signing of the deal shows that we may be emerging out of Cold War hangover and finally looking at the larger picture.

The deal bolsters India’s defence and enhances its capacity to project power into the Indo-Pacific region, dovetailing the interests of both nations. It broad-bases the relationship into an area of particular interest for the Donald Trump administration — defence trade. It is also a critical area for India as the world’s largest arms importer. These realities will help the relationship survive disruptions or mutual irritants that will inevitably arise.

One such wrinkle is the threat of US sanctions on India over its close military ties with Russia and energy partnership with Iran. Media focus understandably has been on these sanctions and the likely impact on bilateral ties. What Thursday’s high-level engagement told us is this: Important as these issues are, to define the gamut of the partnership through that prism would be missing the wood for the trees. The structural nature of the relationship goes deeper.

En route to New Delhi via Islamabad, US secretary of state Mike Pompeohad told travelling journalists that though India buying missile defence system from Russia or oil from Iran will be “part of the conversation”, the 2+2 dialogue will be about “things that are big and strategic and will go on for 20, 40, 50 years.” It is evident that the summit participants had done their homework.

But what exactly does this military communications pact help India? The signing of this foundational agreement provides a legal framework for the US to transfer high-end defence equipment to India that features encrypted communications network and enables optimal use of existing US platforms. Encryption is the first and most important line of defence in military equipment. In absence of such a pact, US had held back several key components from the equipment they sold to India in the past.

These were most prominent, as Shiv Aroor points out Livefist, “in the three large military aircraft purchases that India has made in the last decade: Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules special mission transports, Boeing P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine jets and C-17 Globemaster III heavy transport aircraft.” India had no access to, for instance, encrypted radio network, “secure voice module” that ensures interoperability between military aircraft and other vehicles or “a family of radios for military aircraft that provides two-way voice and data communications across modes.”

Since India was denied these high-end gears, we had to fill the gap with indigenous technology that very often fell short of the mark and hampered the effectiveness of these advanced systems. The signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) opens the door for a range of US defence technologies that are part of a more efficient and secure ecosystem.

News agency Reuters quoted Joseph Felter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia, as saying: “It (COMCASA) not only allows us to be more interoperable with India, but it allows India to be more interoperable across its own systems.” He indicated that some Indian weapon systems would see an immediate increase in capabilities, including the C-130 and C-17 aircraft, according to the report.

In other words, a key Indian lacuna in modernisation and technological advancement of its military equipment has now been — at least theoretically — addressed. This has major implications, as Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies senior fellow Abhijit Iyer-Mitra points out in Economic Times.

“Right now, even India’s Western sourced equipment don’t talk to each other. So, India’s Israeli airborne radars don’t talk to its US maritime surveillance aircraft, which, in turn, don’t talk to its French-supplied submarines… This (COMCASA) not only improves India’s ability to fight alongside the US Navy better, but also alongside several other global navies with similar equipment that are major players in the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore.”

To quote Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her comments post the dialogue: “The signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Helicopter Operations from Ships Other Than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) earlier this year were important steps in this direction. The signing of the COMCASA today will enable India to access advanced technologies from the US and enhance India's defence preparedness.”

What exactly do we mean by “defence preparedness”? The jargon associated with the deal might take away from its significance. COMCASA allows us to utilise US communications core that is among the best in the world. During Doklam standoff, for instance, India benefitted from US intelligence on the placement of Chinese troops on the plateau in the high Himalayas. However, in absence of a foundational agreement on sharing of sensitive intelligence such as the COMCASA, US inputs were subject to a time-lag. It wasn’t ‘real-time’, that can often make all the difference.

“The Dokalam face off was the turning point for the Indian position on the Comcasa when it realised the benefit of US intelligence on Chinese troop deployments in calibrating its approach. This sort of intelligence was not available with India”, writes Pranab Dhal Samanta in Economic Times. Given Chinese capabilities in this area, “access to US data will make qualitatively significant impact on Indian military planning against China,” he writes.

A legitimate question may arise on India’s apprehension that this agreement harms India’s strategic autonomy by making its own communication network vulnerable to US spying. Some critics are concerned that the US will retain control over its equipment sold to India under this pact and may manipulate decision-making.

These concerns are not unwarranted, but they undermine the fact that no Indian government would walk into a deal with its eyes closed, given India’s post-colonial experience. According to a report in The Hindu, the 10-year deal features specific “India-related” adjustments to secure our national interests. “While the text of COMCASA is confidential, we have ensured that we have full access to the relevant equipment and there will be no disruptions. Data acquired through such systems cannot be disclosed or transferred to any person or entity without India’s consent,” the report quotes an official as saying.

Whether or not this deal pushed India into an "Asian NATO" also involving Japan and Australia is a peripheral talk point. The real issue is a stark reality. We may beat around the bush and try to manage our risks (mostly by bending backwards) with China but as long as India does not address own capacity constraints, the balance of power will shift increasingly away. This foundational deal may work as an enabler to address that critical lacuna.