India-US sign Comcasa, set up hotlines, agree to hold tri-service exercise in "2+2 talks” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 6 September 2018

India-US sign Comcasa, set up hotlines, agree to hold tri-service exercise in "2+2 talks”

Signing of Comcasa the highlight of the day, enhances US-India defence interoperability

By Ajai Shukla
(Edited version in Business Standard, 7th Sept 18)

After more than a decade of discussions and negotiations, India and the US on Thursday signed a “communications compatibility and security arrangement” (Comcasa) as part of the first “2+2” dialogue featuring foreign and defence ministers of both nations.

In the absence of a Comcasa, which now binds India to ensure the security and secrecy of cutting-edge US communications equipment, US platforms like the C-130J Super Hercules Special Forces plane and the Boeing P-8I maritime aircraft were bought with their closely guarded communications and navigation kits replaced by less potent, commercially-available equipment.

The two nations also decided to set up hotlines between their defence and foreign ministers and deliberated on thorny issues such as India’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and import of crude oil from Iran. According to a Reuters report, Washington will consider waivers for Iranian oil buyers such as India but they must eventually halt imports as sanctions are imposed on Tehran, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Pompeo and US Defence Secretary James Mattis met Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The two sides also discussed cross-border terrorism, India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the contentious H1B visa issue, and ways to deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Comcasa – a breakthrough

Both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance governments were reluctant to sign Comcasa, fearing it would be seen as bowing down to US pressure. However, the government has now concluded that the operational benefits outweigh the potential political downside.

Take for example 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 single-channel radios used for this, denying it to countries that have not signed Comcasa or its generic version, called CISMOA (communication and interoperability security memorandum of agreement). So far India has opted for less secure, costlier, commercially available radios, rather than signing Comcasa.

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/Comcasa, 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/Comcasa would have also denied India 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 Broadsword’s visit in June 2016 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. The reason – India had not signed CISMOA/Comcasa.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on a visit to New Delhi in April 2016, argued that American weapon systems were capable even without CISMOA/Comcasa-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.” 

Political sensitivity of Comcasa

The potential political pitfalls in Comcasa/CISMOA can be assessed by examining the text of the CISMOA agreement that the Republic of Korea (South Korea, or ROK) signed with the US DoD on October 27, 2008. Clauses in that text requires Korea to provide US personnel access to Korean military bases; reserve 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.”

How much is India insulated against these clauses?

After the signing of Comcasa on Thursday, a top Indian defence ministry official briefed journalists and claimed that Indian interests had not been compromised. He said the text of the deal, while classified, was specially negotiated for India, with New Delhi refusing to sign the standard CISMOA text that many other countries (like ROK) had. 

He stated that Comcasa did not bind India to buying US weaponry. The agreement, valid for 10 years, is “platform-specific” and will “enable us to derive optimal use of US weapons platforms,” said the official.
To assuage Indian concerns that Washington might deactivate Comcasa-safeguarded equipment in the event of India undertaking an operation the US did not subscribe to. The agreement specifies that the US will ensure the equipment would remain operational at all times, he said.
Comcasa is the second so-called “foundational agreements” that India has signed, after inking the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016. In the joint statement issued on Thursday, the two sides “announced their readiness to begin negotiations on an Industrial Security Annex that would support closer defence industry cooperation and collaboration”.
With the US military already doing more exercises with the Indian army, navy and air force than with any other country, the two sides “committed to the creation of a new, tri-services exercise and to further increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries and defence organisations.”
So far, India’s military has conducted tri-service exercises only with the Russian military. However, partly due to language constraints, the Indo-Russian exercises have been largely symbolic and — like the annual Malabar naval exercises that began as a US-India exercise and then evolved into a trilateral exercise that includes Japan — the tri-service Indo-US exercises can be expected to quickly overhaul the India-Russia exercise in sophistication and operational value.
To enhance their joint surveillance over the Indian Ocean, it was agreed that liaison officers would be cross-posted between the Indian Navy and the US Naval Forces Central Command, based in Bahrain.
With co-production and co-development projects already being pursued through the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, the two sides “welcomed the conclusion of a Memorandum of Intent between the US Defense Innovation Unit and the Indian Defence Innovation Organisation – Innovation for Defence Excellence.
In the joint statement, both sides noted five major steps recently taken to expand defence ties: India’s designation as a major defence partner of the US, the “rapid growth in bilateral defence trade” (a euphemism for India’s purchase of over $15 billion worth of US defence platforms), American clearance of the export to India of progressively higher levels of technology, India’s inclusion in the top tier of countries entitled to licence free exports under Licence Exemption Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) and the signing of Comcasa.


  1. The signing of COMCASA has been a huge surprise for me in terms of the pace of conclusion. Now, F-35 or some future version/model of stealth aircraft purchase from the US looks entirely feasible. Would have loved to know the details, notably the differences between COMCASA and template CISMOA. Alas, it is confidential. Clearly, this government runs a tight ship when it comes to deals and negotiations; with virtually no leakage to the media. Either that or the journalists are deliberately writing articles that ignore facts in favour of their personal point of view and ideological leanings.

  2. AMRAAM coming to IAF fighters?


    HYPOCRITICAL.... BUT NEEDS CAREFUL DELIBERATIONS WITH TRUMP GOING BACK ON IRAN. Today they want us to counterbalance China... Japan has been left high and dry...

    What if in future we are dumped a la Japan??

  4. "the C-130J and the P-8I were bought with their communications and navigation kits replaced by less potent, commercially-available equipment"

    This line is absolute whoreshit. Encryption is encryption. It doesn't matter if it was made by the americans or indians. The only way you can decrypt it is by using the bruteforce method. The 128bit encryption is the industry standard. It is used by apple, microsoft and every other tech giant in the field.

    Do you know how many buildings(filled with rows of processors) it would take to decrypt a single packet? Every single packet in unique. Months of processing would hardly yield 5 secs of data. All this is after assuming that you can actually grab a sequential row of packets in the first place.

    The problem with your statement is that the lay person can buy into it because he doesn't understand the technical side of things.

    Indian communication systems are encrypted. The only reason the US wants india to sign the COMCASA is because it creates panic and feelings of distrust in russia. The inter-operatability thing is not happening. No indian ship or bird is going to put that equipment on its deck. At best, the indian generals will install it temporarily to satisfy the americans during one of those mutual exercises.

  5. Ajai,

    USA wants in India ti be its Chockidar against China. Comcasa will allow them to integrate better with the P8I real time and develop a instantaneous operating picture. It is not beyond possibility that real time Sensors and Data integration will allow Americans to have a better / deeper operating picture that what Indians can see or get. That is fine and we have no choice. USA is not a competitor or an Adversary but China is. We cannot contain China Russian Pakistan axis without USA . Comcasa is a necessary compromise ie TINA factor.

    However I am surprised at your support at window dressing by GoI on Comcasa changes being accepted. This claim by GoI is completely bogus as USA cannot change any thing operationally on their significant Communication security Intrastrure that is Global. It is as secure as its weakest link so noting has changed for India other than political platitudes. As per this NDA Govt new Defence Strategy every thing is Govt to Govt and confidential le French Planes. .. so Comcasa will pass and there is not wrong in that. It is simply a political reality.

    The commercial deal for Americans out of this Comcasa signing is their ability to export frequency hopping radios to India ie things needed for Make Program Tactical Communication System (TCS) or SDR for BMS - Battelfiled Management system. In fact about 20 days back a Buy India RFP has been issued by ARMY Signals (AON ₹1190 CR) for 1550+ Radios (in TCS 10 X needed). The RFP has being given to 22 Indian Vendors plus Harris India Private limited a 100% Subsidiary of the USA company with no Defence Production License. The Radio is a Defence licensed item as it is a frequency hopping Military Radio which is Licenced category as per DIPP/MoD/ MHA norms. Without Comcasa Harris could not bid even thru an Indian company as USA export law will not allow Military Radio to be sold. Now they can thru Indian company or their own subsidiary. This is a Rs 25-30 K CR opportunities of export from USA to Balance Trade, a play, on which Trumpet can and will be played. So please bring this out. Saying Comcasa has no implications on Weapons buying is as much a lie as saying Military Communication gear is not a Weapon in this Network Centric World of Military operations.

  6. Sachin,

    All Encryption is not the same and in military domain looking freequency hoping and the Radom Seed for where the hopping randomness generates is not a trivial algorithm. Have heard that Link 16 is 64 KBPS 3000 hop link which is the back bone of USA network centricity in Air and Naval domain. That is not some trivial sophistication ...

    COMCAS can’t be too different that CISMOA but we will never know. For Good or for Bad this agreement firmly put us into the USA camp


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