India and US face tough negotiations on CISMOA, now called COMCASA - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 6 September 2016

India and US face tough negotiations on CISMOA, now called COMCASA

Non-signature of key “foundational agreement” denies India cutting-edge kit

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th Sept 16

Over the last decade India has made the US its biggest arms suppliers, contracting for $14-15 billion (Rs 93,000-100,000 crore) worth of American weaponry. Yet many US platforms bought have turned out to be less than cutting-edge, after New Delhi’s unwillingness to sign what Washington labels a “foundational agreement” --- the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) --- has forced the replacement of closely-guarded radio, communications security and navigation kits with lower-grade, commercially-available equipment.

One example is the C-130J Super Hercules Special Forces plane, in which the Indian Air Force (IAF) will transport commandos to small landing strips in enemy territory, which would have been pre-secured by a ground team. Such operations need secure communications between the aircraft and the team on the runway, so that the C-130J is not enticed into a trap. America tightly controls the radios used for this, denying it to countries that have not signed CISMOA. So far India has opted for less secure, costlier, commercially available radio kits, rather than signing CISMOA.

Similarly, the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I maritime aircraft is amongst the world’s most effective submarine hunters. But detecting and pinpointing an enemy submarine is only the first step; attacking it requires the P-8I to communicate with naval forces nearby, and with shore-based naval facilities. Since these voice and data channels --- called Data Link-11 and Link-16 --- are guarded under CISMOA, the P-8I has been equipped with older communication links that could be intercepted. The absence of these links also prevents the P-8I from generating a Common Tactical Picture with friendly regional navies, who operate over CISMOA-protected links.

There are other such cases. In a conflict with China, the absence of Link-16 would prevent IAF fighters from generating a Common Air Picture, even if friendly air forces were eager to inform on the activities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Non-signature of CISMOA also denies the military precision Global Positioning System (GPS) gear, and state-of-the-art guidance for the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) that will soon equip IAF fighters.

During Business Standard’s visit in June to the Chinook CH-47F helicopter line in Philadelphia, we learnt that India’s 15 Chinooks would not have navigation and radio equipment of the same sophistication as the US Army choppers being built alongside.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in Delhi in April, argued that American weapon systems were capable even without CISMOA-controlled equipment. But he conceded that India was missing out, saying: “I want to emphasize there’s a lot we can do without the foundational agreements; but there’s much more we can do with them.”

Carter was part-vindicated on August 29, when Washington and New Delhi signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) -- the first of the three foundational agreements. Yet that still leaves two: CISMOA, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation (BECA), which lays down protocols for digital mapping and survey.

CISMOA negotiations have sputtered on sporadically since 2005. On New Delhi’s request, Washington has agreed to rename the agreement COMCASA --- or Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement --- to allow India a country-specific agreement, different from what the US Department of Defense (DoD, or Pentagon) has signed with dozens of other countries. A similar logic was employed in the LEMOA, which was given an India-specific name to differentiate it from the Logistics Support Agreements (LSAs) that US has signed with many other countries.

Even so, merely renaming the agreement would not make it acceptable to Indian public opinion, since the standard CISMOA draft --- the basis of COMCASA negotiations --- is inherently more intrusive than LEMOA. A senior Pentagon official who participated in CISMOA negotiations with India confessed: “When we sat down with the MoD in Delhi and the CISMOA experts explained the draft, even we were taken aback by the intrusiveness. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes [indicating], ‘this is not going to happen’.”

To assess the key hurdles, Business Standard has scrutinised the text of the CISMOA that the Republic of Korea (South Korea, or ROK) Ministry of National Defence (MND) signed with the US DoD on October 27, 2008. That text requires Korea to provide US personnel access to Korean military bases; reserves for US personnel the right to install, maintain and inspect CISMOA-controlled equipment; bans the transfer of CISMOA-controlled equipment to any third party; bans its indigenous production; and stipulates stringent safeguards for securing, storing and accounting for COMSEC (communications security) equipment obtained from the US.

Paragraph V of the agreement requires ROK to pay the full cost of reconfiguring its communication systems to be interoperable with US military systems, and for testing the Korean systems, whenever required.

Paragraph IX of the agreement stipulates: “DoD-provided COMSEC equipment and materials, including keying materials, will be installed and maintained only by authorized US personnel… When authorized by the US, qualified ROK personnel may remove and/or replace US COMSEC equipment previously installed by US personnel.”

Paragraph X mandates that “DoD-provided COMSEC equipment and materials, including keying materials, will not be subject to any cooperative development, co-production, co-assembly or production licensing agreements.”

To be sure, New Delhi will be able to arm-twist Washington into framing a less restrictive COMCASA agreement. The Pentagon has repeatedly offered to address Indian concerns, asking New Delhi to identify objectionable clauses in the standard CISMOA draft. However, New Delhi has not conveyed its Red Lines yet, apparently because the defence ministry has little clarity on its own position.

US officials point out that New Delhi had no qualms signing highly restrictive safeguard agreements for the protective technologies installed on the prime minister’s Boeing Business Jet, which are similar to the ones that protect the US president’s aircraft, Air Force One. Says one official: “India displayed a clear understanding of the need to protect those technologies; because VVIP lives depend on that. Why is there a different standard for safeguarding technologies critical for protecting soldiers, sailors and airmen? That is the logic of CISMOA and COMCASA.”

Ben Schwartz of the US-India Business Council downplays concerns about the increased access to Indian bases that COMCASA requires, terming it “trivial and about as much of a threat to national sovereignty as granting a multinational telecommunications company a license to operate in India.” He argues that both types of activities take place entirely under the laws of the Government of India.”

However, Indian public opinion views the foundational agreements as instruments to tie India into America’s regional military alliances. Left Front parties have always opposed ties with an “imperialist” America. Traditionalists argue that close ties with America would offend Russia. Several opposition parties, particularly the Congress, continue to argue for non-alignment.

Says Ashley Tellis, one of the most highly regarded experts on US-India ties: “The Indian debate about the foundational agreements is deeply misleading, centered on commentators' prejudices rather than on facts. Individuals are entitled to their own opinions, not to their own facts.”

Given the opposition, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is moving cautiously on COMCASA and BECA. After signing LEMOA in Washington last month, he told the media: “After 12-13 years we have managed to get the logistics agreement in place… So let me get this in the public domain properly; explain to the people; then we will definitely go into the other aspects.”

Parrikar has his job cut out for him. 


  1. Nicely written Colonel, what people don't realize when they were commenting on the two ISTAR is this would that much less cutting edge if bought for a billion Dollars without the agreement, however India needs to clearly project it's concerns and then it's about if it's a yes or no.

  2. Why do we want interoperability with the Americans anyway.Are we expecting them to fight China on our behalf.The way this Government is going looks like even our tricolour will be replaced by stars and stripes.

    1. Thinking like this and other communist s has ensured that we were never able to join forces with Japan , US and other civilised nations and forced US to ally with the Pakistanis, who in turn used those resources to threaten our security. Time to wake up

  3. he term ‘Link-11/16’ denote only the encryption standards, & not data-link hardware. The hardware is nothing but an airborne tactical radio operating in UHF or C-band or S-band or Ku-band that has air-to-air, air-to-ground direct line-of-sight connectovoty or via SATCOM uplink & downlink. One only has to upload an encrypted software on to such radios to make them secure & use them as data-links for various purposes (i.e. voice, imagery, data sharing). Thus, the MILDS data-link on the Rafale is like the JTIDS of the US, but since it uses a software-defined radio (SDR), it will be able to function even without Link-11/16. It’s all explained here:

    On aircraft of the IAF & IN, the data-links have 2 components: the hardware, which are HAL-developed SDRs (developed between 2007 & 2011) operating as data-links in conjunction with ECIL-developed secure encryptors, & the encryption software that operate in the national secure mode (NSM). For warships, a similar arrangement called LINK-2 exists. The same protocol applies to software-defined IFF transponders. Therefore, to claim that the IN’s P-8Is or IAF’s C-130H-30s are ‘INFERIOR” due to the absence of Link-11/16 data-links is spectacularly outrageous & totally untrue. In fact, the data-links of the IAF & IN, making use of SDRs, can easily be programme before any mission to enmesh with any multinational tactical network in the air, on ground & at sea.

  4. Had Korea chose to leave the CISMOA classified (as all other CISMOA signatory nations do) the Indian government would have never know the extend of U.S. oversight. This is because most nations CISMOA committees are staffed only with military members who know little of politics.


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