This article is written by Shivi Khanna, a student of School of Law, Sushant University, Gurugram. This article is an attempt to understand COMCASA, its intricacies and its functions. The Agreement’s impact on India after its signing in 2018 is also examined.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
Taking into account the complex geopolitical situation with respect to international relations, navigating sensitive sectors such as defence and national security can be challenging. The US had come up with the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) as a measure to meet this challenge of building an efficient defence network with its allies. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement or COMCASA (hence referred to as the Agreement) is the successor of the GSOMIA and is India-specific.
The COMCASA is merely one agreement in the chain of agreements that the US has come up with to build on its interest in the Asia-Pacific region. The BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) and LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), are examples of the other agreements the US uses to tie up with its military partners. The main purpose of COMCASA is to facilitate military relations, communications and the exchange of valuable technologies. When it comes to maintaining diplomatic relations, the intricacies of each partner, such as the culture, history, language, etc. need to be taken into account.
Background of the COMCASA
As the successor to GSOMIA, the COMCASA in its inception was targeted toward India and was signed on September 6th 2018. The signing representatives of India and the US were Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, respectively.
At the time of signing in 2018, the two signatories to the Agreement – India and US – issued a joint statement, that COMCASA would:
- Make India’s access to its US-origin defence systems and platforms more efficient and easier to use.
- Sensitive information with respect to national security would remain confidential and protected.
- Communications between the two countries’ militaries would become more optimised, including the setting up of hotlines between the diplomatic and external affairs departments of both countries.
- Furthermore, any data generated from the processes facilitated by the COMCASA would be sufficiently restricted. Transfer of this sensitive data to any other source would not be permitted without India’s consent.
The Agreement also paved the way for India to purchase certain weapons, such as combat drones, from the US military. The US also gained a certain degree of confidence in selling the defence systems to India after signing the Agreement. At the same time, there was also a guarantee that sensitive information connected to national security would not be leaked out beyond the two parties to the Agreement. The platforms facilitated by COMCASA also allow secure communication with other countries using US-origin platforms and systems.
Factors that delayed the signing of the COMCASA
The following factors led to hesitancy or delays before the signing of the COMCASA in 2018:-
- US restrictions on Iranian crude oil – The US had been imposing sanctions on countries that have dealings with Iran, with the goal of reducing the large number of countries that purchase Iranian crude oil to nil. On the other hand, India had been using Iranian crude oil regularly, and it was one of the primary pillars of India’s energy market. With the unyielding attitude of the US towards Iran, and India’s concerns with respect to its national energy security, there was a significant amount of diplomatic friction. This friction over the Iranian oil issue became one of the obstacles to the signing of the COMCASA. It must be understood that the COMCASA would proceed to tie the two countries for the next ten years, hence, the signing of the COMCASA was definitely not a light matter.
- US restrictions on Russian missiles – The US also imposed sanctions on countries dealing with Russia. Around the time of signing the COMCASA, India was also parallelly in discussion with Russia regarding the purchase of the S 400 defence missile system. Moreover, India had been a long-term ally and partner of Russia since the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ultimately, India had to consider its position in the context of its existing allies and partners, and the demands of the US. Weighing the gains and losses at the time also became a source of hesitancy for India on whether to go ahead and sign the COMCASA with the rigid US.
- Third party access to Indian data – One of the most important concerns and a major obstacle to the COMCASA was the heavy scepticism regarding the guarantee of confidentiality promised by the US. This is because the COMCASA would entail the exchange of sensitive military information and its leakage to a third party or any other unscrupulous source would lead to a threat to national security. The COMCASA had the potential to be both – an opportunity or a pitfall. The COMCASA opened up an incredibly advantageous opportunity for India to expand its global network, update its backward military technology and establish its presence in the global arena as a partner recognised by the US. However, the COMCASA also opened up a backdoor into India’s database, leaving a hidden danger in case the data was leaked to India’s opponents.
Foundational agreements other than COMCASA
The foundational agreements (including COMCASA) form the foundation or rather the bedrock of the US-India defence partnership. These agreements cover different facets of the military cooperation between India and the US, however, they also share many common points, such as the need for confidentiality, and are tailor-made to fit the Indian scenario. In order to understand the role and functions of COMCASA, it is also important to examine the functions and inter-linkages it has with the other foundational agreements.
Now, let us have a look at each of the foundational agreements.
What is GSOMIA
The GSOMIA or the General Security of Military Information Agreement was signed between India and the US on 17th January 2002. The main objective was to regulate and promote the exchange of sensitive military information between the two countries. The COMCASA is the successor to the GSOMIA and contains more in-depth provisions to facilitate and regulate communications between the India and American militaries.
What is LEMOA
The LEMOA or the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement is a version adapted from the original LSA or Logistics Support Agreement. Both, the LEMOA and COMCASA have been adapted from their original templates to fit in with the Indian scenario. The LEMOA was signed on 29th August 2016, two years before COMCASA. The LEMOA was also the first of the foundational agreements to be signed.
Logistical tasks such as refuelling and resupplying are crucial aspects of any military activity or exercise. The LEMOA facilitates the process of providing logistical support from one military ally to another. Supplies include the basics such as food, water, clothing medicine etc. Similar to the COMCASA, the LEMOA caters specifically to India. Therefore, the task of providing logistical support to each other falls to the Indian and US militaries, respectively. Instead of dealing with this exchange of strategic supplies and resources on an ad-hoc or case-by-case basis, the LEMOA has given a formal structure and integrity to the process, which includes the payment aspect. India does have a history of supplying the US military from time to time, therefore, this Agreement is not a deviation or some conspiracy by the US to subtly concert India into a supply base as has been alleged by interest groups. Unlike the airforce and army, the navy has a higher need for refuelling and resupplying. The LEMOA has, therefore, allowed the navy to become relatively more unfettered and stable in fulfilling its objective of protecting national security.
What is BECA
The BECA was signed on October 27, 2020 and became the last agreement to be signed among the 4 foundational agreements. The BECA or Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement is an Agreement between the US Department of Defence and the Indian Ministry of Defence. The BECA focuses on the exchange of unclassified information obtained from satellites, such as nautical maps, aeronautical charts, gravity fields, etc. Moreover, there are also provisions for the exchange of classified information which is used by weapons such as missiles and combat drones. This exchange of classified information is also protected from leakage to a third party. Through the BECA, India can gain access to hardware and software from the US, for instance, the necessary technology and data for controlling certain missile systems.
Similarities between the COMCASA, GSOMIA, LEMOA and BECA
The four foundational agreements – GSOMIA (2002), LEMOA (2016), COMCASA (2018) and BECA (2020) are agreements which are India-specific and regulate the military cooperation between India and the US. The usual trend for the past few decades has been the US preferring to sign military cooperation agreements with North Atlantic Treaty Allies (NATO allies), and major powers in the Asia-Pacific region such as South Korea, Australia, etc.
The four foundational agreements cover a wide array of factors with respect to military cooperation and communication. They cover exchange of information, military technologies, cooperation, communications, logistics, etc. It is due to the existence of these agreements that India and the US can be formally called ‘defence partners.’ These agreements also formally and legally bind the two countries to their obligations to each other as per the terms of the agreements.
Maintaining confidentiality and preventing leakage of intelligence is a universal feature of the agreements. The agreements also lend some legitimacy to allow the US to act more freely in the Asia-Pacific region with the pretext of keeping China in check.
Difference between the COMCASA, GSOMIA, LEMOA and BECA
- The COMCASA is an agreement focused on technology and communication of real-time information, most used in defence and national security sectors.
- The GSOMIA was signed before the COMCASA and was signed between India and the US in 2002. It deals with military intelligence exchange between the US and India.
- The LEMOA is focused on the logistics aspect and cooperation of the countries’ militaries.
- The BECA is focused on the exchange of geographical and satellite information.
What is COMCASA : an overview
The COMCASA is one of the many milestones on the long road to further developing India-US relations as partners and military allies. In a way, the COMCASA has become the bedrock upon which the militaries of the two countries can securely exchange and communicate sensitive information. Improving national security, capturing international criminals, pirates, smugglers, etc. in an efficient way through communication and cooperation, are some of the advantages of the COMCASA. The COMCASA from its date of signing in 2018 is supposed to be valid for a decade, i.e. its term lasts till 2028.
The COMCASA essentially creates a net that makes it easier to capture crucial, sensitive information in real-time by providing a safe and efficient platform for communication between allies (India and US). The applications of COMCASA have been tested through joint military exercises between India and US. The legal implications of COMCASA give the two countries the confidence to share sensitive information and also increase the trust and cohesion between their respective forces. The main advantage of the technology supported by the COMCASA is the fact that it allows real-time transfer of data between parties, improving combat strategies, facilitating strategic and tactical decisions, and improving battle awareness. The key factor in this Agreement is ‘interoperability’ between Indian and US militaries promoted through the use of sensitive communication technology and platforms.
The COMCASA and associated technologies have wide ramifications when examined in light of national security. For instance, if the US was to discover the entry of international war criminals into India through the borders, then the US could effectively pass on this intelligence to the Indian forces through these technologies.
The US platforms for exchanging encrypted information include – C17, C130, and P81. Obtaining real-time intelligence via the US channels is also significant to India, as it allows the latter to monitor and keep in check its neighbours such as China and Pakistan.
Significance of COMCASA
The following aspects highlight the importance of the COMCASA in simple terms :
- With the rapid development of military technology and weapons, it has become essential for India to keep up with the times and foreign competitors. To ensure national security and prevent its defence from crumbling in the face of foreign threats, updating its technical arsenal has also become a necessity for India.
- Promoting appropriate cooperation and communication between India and its defence ally US, especially with respect to joint military endeavours, is one of the main objectives of the COMCASA. Improving the ‘interoperability’ between the two countries’ militaries is conducive toward increasing efficiency and effectiveness.
- The needs for updated technology and systems is especially true when it comes to the significance of sensitive information. The COMCASA is an avenue through which the Indian military can access real-time information on its neighbours (Pakistan and China) through the US platforms. The COMCASA also affords opportunities for India to communicate with partner countries such as Japan, Australia through the US’ platforms.
- The guarantee of confidentiality is accorded legal protection through the COMCASA. Therefore, India does not need to be too reticent in availing the benefits of the technologies and platforms of the US as the latter cannot share this information with a third party without India’s consent. US military platforms available to India under the COMCASA include – C-17, C-130, etc.
- On the other hand, the COMASA also allows the US a degree of security when providing India with access to its military technology and systems. As defence and military are inherently sectors which hold national importance, the US would not have been comfortable with allowing India to avail their technology and know-how without ensuring sufficient security and benefits for itself.
- However, the COMASA does not mandate that India must acquire and buy military equipment only from the US. For instance, if India decides to purchase military equipment from another country in the future, this does not mean that the US can impose restrictions or bans on India with respect to the COMCASA. India had already ensured full access to the available military products from the US before it signed the COMCASA. Therefore, the US cannot hold the COMCASA as leverage over India and avail undue benefits.
Important clauses of the COMCASA
As COMCASA is an important strategic and military agreement between the two countries, in-depth information is not available to the general public. However, like other international agreements, it essentially has to have the following clauses :
- Preamble – talks about the objective of the agreement, a summary of the intentions of the parties in signing the agreement.
- Details of the parties – here the parties are India and the US.
- Date of effect – the date from which the agreement comes into force and becomes binding on the parties.
- Confidentiality clause – any sensitive military information belonging to India that the US comes across during the exchange of information, technology and communication cannot be leaked to a third party without India’s consent.
- Obligations of parties – the specific duties and liabilities of the parties (India and US) with respect to the agreement.
- Effect of the agreement – the intended effect of the agreement on the respective sectors mentioned in the agreement, communication and technology, with respect to the parties.
Effect of COMCASA on India
India has retained a reserved character, often opting for a wait and see approach when confronted with anything controversial or progressive. Indeed, the COMCASA has been a controversial step for the Indian Government and has been the object of criticism from various interest groups. The conservative stance adopted by India is in part also a colonial legacy. A legacy that can also be seen to have influenced India’s choice to opt for non-alignment during the Cold War. The decision to sign the COMCASA is a somewhat bold move, in that India is finally actively and aggressively attempting to carve out its place in the complex international arena. The COMCASA draws India closer to the US in a military alliance but also poses the risk of alienating Russia. The COMCASA – is both indicative of the changing progress of India on its path to becoming a developed nation, and also a sign of the increasing pressure it faces in the highly competitive geopolitical diplomatic scenario.
Besides playing a role in enhancing the defence mechanisms of India, the COMCASA also has other effects which influence major strategic sectors :
- Creating a stronger bond and partnership between India and the US.
- India’s taking on a more progressive, wider outlook with respect to its international relations with other countries, such as those countries also using US-origin platforms (Japan, Australia etc.).
- The initiatives and plans to get into co-production of high-end technologies between the two countries.
- India’s possible advancement in the field of nuclear power through support from the US.
- Keeping neighbours like China and Pakistan in check.
- Establishing India’s presence in the international arena, and developing a wider array of connections through US channels.
The final and overall impact of the COMCASA can only be objectively and holistically judged when the term of the Agreement comes to an end in 2028. However, currently, at the time of writing this article, there seem to be no major problems.
Possible concerns with respect to COMCASA
The following concerns have been raised with respect to the COMCASA between India and the US :
- Various interest groups in India raised objections to the US having such a large influence on India’s defence sector. COMCASA was viewed as an infringement on Indian sovereignty.
- The US has an influence on India’s decisions with respect to nuclear powers. This is also a major concern.
- Due to historical and other considerations, the conservative nature of Indian stakeholders and interest groups led to a lot of protest and scepticism against the signing of the COMCASA. The internal political strife was one of the negative influences of the COMCASA.
- Despite guarantees and assurances, the risk of having sensitive information with respect to India’s military, leaked to third parties has always been a major concern.
- There is also a very real danger of the US secretly infiltrating India’s military systems and gaining access to strategic information.
- Developing such close ties with the US could also impact the military and trade deals that India already has with countries like Russia and Iran, respectively.
Future prospects after signing COMCASA
Since the time of the Obama administration, the US has been focused on stirring up the Asian geopolitical field as a major player. The signing of the GSOMIA or the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2002, and roping in India into the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, the US has step-by-step laid the foundation for further cooperation with India. One of the core reasons behind the 4 foundational agreements – including BECA, LEMOA and COMCASA is to check Chinese expansion and ambition.
However, despite the mutually beneficial agreement, where both India and US draw benefits from COMCASA, there are also undercurrents below the seemingly flawless cooperation. The US has imposed sanctions on India in the past due to the latter’s trade of oil with Iran. There is also the awkward position of India as an important defence partner of Russia while building stronger relations with the US on the side.
This is in a way a gradual process that the US has engaged in to get India more comfortable with such bilateral cooperation. The COMCASA is just one of the milestones on the US road to consolidating the position of its allies and military network, whereas India as a developing country also benefits from the arrangements.
Important developments after signing of the COMCASA
The COMCASA’s main objective is to enhance the ‘interoperability’ between the militaries of both countries. As mentioned before, the COMCASA provides the medium and technology for cooperation and communication between both countries. This cooperation can be seen in the form of joint exercises, combined efforts towards humanitarian aid, etc.
Since the signing of the COMCASA in 2018, the following developments have taken place:
- In September 2019, the 15th iteration of Youth Abhyas was held in Washington, USA.
- In November 2019, the first tri-service bilateral exercise – ‘Tiger Triumph.’
- Increased communications and consultations with armed forces and officials of Japan, Australia, USA.
- Indian navy’s participation as part of UNAFRICOM’s Cutlass Express exercise.
- India and the US have also made efforts towards cooperating in developing joint Africa peacekeeping forces.
Exchanging intelligence, technologies, military hardware and building tacit cooperation between the countries’ militaries is due to the diplomatic policy of the US about increasing its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific. This policy of the US is also in line with India’s needs, as the presence of the US is a significant deterrent to Chinese aggression.
Contrast in the way the US and India approach military technology
The US has always taken a more rigid and strict approach when it comes to safeguarding its military technology, to maintain the strategic and tactical advantage when it comes to its military technology. Toward this end, the US has adopted the method of enacting strict legislation to control the outflow and leakage of classified information. The US assigns a certain level of security classification depending on the nature, strategic importance etc. of the intelligence, establishments and entities under it.
If an official does not possess the corresponding security clearance then it is impossible for them to gain access to restricted information and files. When officials with a higher level of security clearance find it necessary to share information with those people who are at a lower level, the former must be careful about measuring their words and not revealing more information than they are meant to. Overall, the US defence and security sector prioritises the safeguarding of sensitive information. On the other hand, India does not have a history of taking stringent measures when it comes to safeguarding its military technology.
The way forward
In order to deal with the increasingly volatile relations between India and its neighbours (China and Pakistan), the COMCASA has been a key instrument in tightening the bonds between India and the US as ‘defence partners.’ The subsequent signing of the BECA in 2020 was also influenced by the turbulence at Galwan Valley.
However, the US restrictions and scruples when it comes to India’s ties with allies like Iran and Russia continue to be an arena for diplomatic negotiation and compromise. Questions regarding India’s sovereignty and conservative character are very much relevant with respect to the current scenario. Moreover, the signing of the COMCASA in 2018 and the signing of the BECA in 2020 show a positive trend toward India opening up and expanding its avenues with respect to cooperation, as well as solidifying its national security measures.
As a region that can be regarded as a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, trade, commerce and politics, ever since the last few decades, the Indo-Pacific region has grown in strategic importance. The defence partnership between the US and India is also due to the US’ recognition of the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and all the possibilities it holds for the future. The threat of China’s expansion has also led to India and the US jumping on the same bandwagon. Although building deeper ties with the US, especially in a sensitive sector such as that of national security, the Indian government has faced a lot of opposition, the signing of the COMCASA is indeed a sign of progress.
The COMCASA is symbolic of India shifting away, no matter how minutely, from its conservative and closed-off political character. Partnering with the US has also opened the gateway to forging deeper connections with other key players in the international geopolitical arena, such as Australia and Japan. Gaining access to the wide intelligence database of the US and the real-time information has also bolstered India’s defence technology which had been relatively lagging behind the rest of the developed countries. Although leakage of sensitive information outside India and the US is a concern, the COMCASA serves as the greatest guarantee in assuring India that its information is protected. Depending on the policies and development of international relations henceforth, the COMCASA may just be the start to even greater cooperation and partnerships, with a complex and wide scope.
Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skills.
LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals, and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join:
Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more amazing legal content.