India has agreed to reopen talks with the US on a pact that will allow high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on platforms being sold to India, signalling a willingness to revisit previously-held security apprehensions.
Highly-placed government sources told ET that a US technical team will be visiting India next month to brief New Delhi on this pact, which is called the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa). It was earlier referred to as the Cismoa (Communication & Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement).
The decision to resume conversations was taken after the joint visit of the defence secretary and foreign secretary to the US earlier this month to set up the 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. The meeting has now been put off until the confirmation of the new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Both sides, however, agreed not to delay the technical discussions aimed at allaying Indian security apprehensions. The idea of having the same communication systems, enabling an ‘interoperable’ environment for militaries on both sides to conduct joint operations was a red flag that former defence minister AK Antony had raised. As a result, the UPA did not firm up any of the defence foundation agreements with the US, which included the Logistics Security Agreement (LSA) and the Comcasa.
While LSA gave both militaries access to each other’s bases, Comcasa would allow them to be the same communication network.
The NDA government signalled the first shift in 2015 when it resumed conversation on the LSA, which eventually got signed with some modifications and a new name — Lemoa (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement).
India has faced problems in fully exploiting the potential of US-sourced platforms because of restrictions in using compatible communication equipment. For this purpose, India has had to depend on commercially available less secure systems on, otherwise, high-end platforms like C-130Js and the P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, among others.
The latest issue has been with obtaining the armed version of the Sea Guardian drones. Washington has made it clear that for it to part with the weapon systems on the drone, India will need to sign the Comcasa so that data and communication systems can be duly installed.
Key stakeholders in the defence establishment in India have held reservations with such an arrangement, saying it’s intrusive in nature. There is concern, as per reliable sources, that the agreement will make it difficult to integrate India’s Russian-origin weapon systems on US platforms. Besides this, the agreement, which is largely operational with traditional US allies, does require granting periodic access to US personnel to inspect the equipment and ensure they remain secure.
This too has been red-flagged and was among the reasons why talks on this agreement were stalled by South Block despite earlier US approaches.