COMCASA - The Bigger Picture
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

In the context of the signing of Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) between US and India on 06 Sep 2018 during the 2+2 dialogue1, this article attempts to analyse the bigger picture. In that, it traces the journey of consolidation of military-to-military (M2M) ties between United States (US) and India as seen in the context of defence procurements and examines the multiple dimensions of the strategic agreements between the two countries.

India and US ink COMCASA

To make a visible presence in an inventory of weapon and support systems with our defence forces that has had a predominant Russian (and erstwhile USSR) presence (up to around 67%), the US had to surmount many an obstacles. This journey of US is briefly chronicled.

The ‘NO-GO’ Stage

In the years around 1990-2010, the basic hurdle which the Americans faced was the incompatibility of their Foreign Military Sales (FMS) methodology for the sale of defence equipment to a foreign country. This procedure, which basically related to Government-to-Government (G2G) mode of sales was not covered in the successive Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) manuals governing India’s defence procurements. Resultantly, in our procurement procedures of initially seeking information (Request for Information or RFI), formulating Services Qualitative Requirements (SQRs), sending out Requests for Proposals (RFP), receiving bids, evaluating them, carrying out trials of selected equipment and going in for price and contract negotiations including offsets for the successfully trial evaluated equipment, kept the Americans out of the game, most of the times from the RFI stage itself.

The FMS had a different route of the buyer country putting in a letter of request (LOR), which upon a long chain of Government level clearances would finally result in a Letter of Acceptance (LOA). Since this was not in synch with the procedure being followed for bulk of the procurement cases, several US major Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) stayed out of many a high value lucrative procurement proposals; Very Short Range Air Defence Systems (VSHORADS) - Short Range/Quick Reaction/Medium Range Surface To Air Missiles (SRSAM/QRSAMs/MRSAMs), to name a few.

Then there was a huge issue of Transfer of Technology (ToT). The FMS system of sales mandated that the sale must be authorised by the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the sales may only be authorised when the US President made a determination that the prospective purchaser was ‘eligible’2. Under such stringent pathways, the most insurmountable hurdle used to be the US’ reluctance to share technology to the extent our defence eco-system was used to with the OEMs like Russia, Israel, France, UK etc.

The First Thaw Happens

Sensing the blank which the US was drawing in the Indian defence procurements largely because of differing bureaucratic processes and legal requirements, the then US Secretary of State, Mr Leon Panetta, directed the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Dr. Aston Charter in Dec 2012 to undertake an initiative with India to provide increased US senior level oversight and engagement to get beyond the obstacles. This initiative was referred to as Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI).

DTTI was not meant to be a treaty or a law; it was to be a flexible mechanism to ensure that senior leaders from both the countries were persistently focussed on the opportunities and challenges associated with growing the defence partnership. DTTI aimed to transform bilateral defence relationship into one that was limited only by independent strategic decisions, strengthen India's defence industrial base, explore new areas of technological collaboration and expand US-India bilateral ties. Later in the day, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister (PM) Modi would express their total support to DTTI in their meeting in Jan 20153.

Top Level Support to DTTI

As successive DTTIs got underway, a feeling of thaw by way of easing out of the erstwhile ‘NO-GO’ stance of the US came to be noticed. They seemed to be more forthcoming as regards the willingness to sell and the willingness to part with technologies (of course with due clearances by the authorities that be) by taking part up-front in the procurement procedures.

One of the initial major deliberations related to the deal for G2G sale of 145 pieces of M 777 155/45 calibre ultra light howitzers. In this, not only the US later selected an Indian Partner (Mahindra Defence) for assembly Integration and Testing (AIT) of the weapon system, but also agreed for the Transfer of Capability ( TOC, i.e ToT plus) to Mahindra4. The deal for Rs, 5000 cr finally got signed in Dec 16.

The DTTI Gets Wings: M2M Ties Bloom

The thaw continued to get warmer as DTTI flourished and embraced more and more defence deals till it got a shot in the arm with the declaration of the Make-in-India initiative of the Indian Government announced on 25 Sep 2014. A new regime of joint development, joint production, buy back, joint ventures (JVs) and memoranda of understanding (MoU) was to take shape and take firm roots in the years to come, duly complemented by gradual coming of age of the private defence industry.

The DTTI took full advantage of the new enabling defence eco system and made the best of it in terms of defence sales, all on G2G basis. It bloomed out into seven joint working groups (JWG) to explore collaborative projects and programmes and two Science and Technology G2G Project agreements, the first one on next generation protective ensembles and the second on mobile hybrid power sources. The core defence deals climbed from $1 bn to over $ 15 bn in a matter of few years. 13 Lockheed Martin C 130 Hercules aircrafts, 10 C -17 Globemaster, 12 P-8 Poseidon aircraft from Boeing, 22 AH 64 Apache helicopters, 15 CH 47 Chinook helicopters, 145 M777 Howitzers, all contributed to push the figures northwards5. As to JVs, way back in 2012, Tata Advanced System Ltd (TASL) and Lockheed Martin established a JV to produce C 130 airframes components (50th empennage delivered in 2016). TASL also established a JV with M/s Sikorsky to produce S-92 helicopter cabins.

TASL-Lockheed Martin JV 2012

(Source: https: =isch&sa=1&ei=iwaVW46qN8ao9QPnzYugDQ&q=TASL+JV+with+Lockheed+Martin)

Besides core defence deals, strategic handshake also took place between India and USA: the latter designated India as a Major Defence Partner (Dec 2016), a new Bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue was launched (Apr 2016), President Obama and PM Modi issued a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) (Jun 2015), annual Exercise Malabar expanded to include Japan as a permanent member, India twice participated in Rim of the Pacific ( RIMPAC) exercises, Indian Air Force (IAF) resumed Exercise Red Flag, and India and US for the first time concluded a joint Peacekeeping Course. It is no wonder therefore that according to a report released by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), US arms exports to India jumped by a whopping 557 percent in the period 2013-17 as compared to the period 2008-12, thus making it India's second largest arms supplier.

It is in this high tide of bilateral relations that the strategic agreements between USA and India should be examined.

A Trio of Strategic Agreements

In order to build the basic ground work and promote interoperability between militaries by creating common standards and systems and to permit the sale and transfer of high-end technologies, US considers a trio of strategic agreements to be gone through with the country concerned. These are Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA)6. A word about each follows.


LEMOA gives access to both countries to the designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refuelling and replenishment. LEMOA essentially covers four areas, namely, port calls, joint exercises, training and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The agreement is not closed-ended, it can include any other requirement as agreeable to the two parties. That is to say, that logistic support for any other cooperative efforts could be provided on a case-to-case basis through mutual consent of parties consistent with their respective laws, regulations and policies. Payments are on cash or reciprocal provision of service basis7. LEMOA however does not include basing facilities of stationing/deploying assets or troops on each other's soil.

What are the fall outs of LEMOA? It gives a tremendous range and reach enhancement to the Indian Navy. For instance, its vessels operating anywhere in the international waters could get every logistic support from any of the US bases spread across the globe. The possible list for such a support is very comprehensive- food, billeting, water, medical services, transportation, petroleum, oils, lubricants, clothing, communication services, storage services, training services, spare parts, component repair and maintenance services, calibration services and port services. Not only for the Indian Navy, but also, for the entire Indian armed forces, LEMOA will significantly enhance their operational capacity in their response to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and more. Take for instance, the multinational naval Exercise Malabar 2018 which was conducted in the Guam island in the Western Pacific. The US naval base at Guam stood as a firm base under LEMOA for all the above support for the Indian vessels since LEMOA based support is applicable for joint training, joint exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

While the LEMOA got signed in Aug 2016, a major fallout of this happened in Feb 2017 when Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) led Reliance Defence and Engineering Ltd (RDEL) signed a Master Ship Repair Agreement ( MSRA) with US Navy to provide repair and alteration service for the ships of the US Seventh Fleet consisting of some 100 vessels operating in the Western Pacific and IOR region at its Pipavav Shipyard. This was made possible under LEMOA. The magnitude of the deal can be assessed from the fact that the same is likely to generate in excess of 10,000 cr in revenue to RDEL in the next five years8.

RDEL signs warship repair deal with US Navy

(Source: USA)

It is not that the logistic cooperation arrangements were not in place earlier. For instance, US was using Indian military bases for logistics during joint exercises but those arrangements were ad hoc and managed on case-to-case basis. In one-on-one terms, India will stand to gain more from LEMOA simply because of the fact that while US has bases spread all over the world, India's outreach in far seas is limited for want of any bases and agreements. LEMOA opens up new opportunities to extend our outreach not only in alien international waters, but also, in the indo pacific region itself (reference is to a possibility of use of US bases at Djibouti or Diego Garcia)9.


COMCASA is the India adapted version of standard strategic agreement called Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA; Egypt is a signatory of CISMOA with US10). The signing of this foundational agreement provides a legal framework for the US to transfer high-end defence equipment to India that features encrypted communication network and enables optimal use of platforms employing such equipment.

As chronicled earlier, India in the recent past has procured large military platforms such as C 130J Super Hercules special mission transport aircraft, P 81 long range maritime reconnaissance and anti submarine jets and C 17 Globe Master III heavy transport aircrafts. All these high-end platforms use encrypted radio and other equipment to which India had no access. To fill this critical equipment void indigenous technology/equipment was being fielded, which was suboptimal. With COMCASA on board, these platforms would be able to use the high-end equipment designed for them in an uninhibited way realising their true potential11. Take for instance the ongoing dialogue between US and India for the procurement of Sea Guardian armed drones. US had made it clear that to be able to use the encrypted communication equipment on board the said drone, COMCASA will be a prerequisite12. In another hypothetical interpretation, if India was to buy the F-16 versions of aircrafts in future, the same will now come duly equipped with highly secure systems which will allow Indian pilots to access and operate on a larger intelligence picture which will include high resolution imagery among other things permitting far greater operational flexibility and paradigm enhancement in levels of inter-operability13.

Signing of COMCASA

(Source:// vATt6pnAAg&q=comcasa&oq=COMCASA)

Effective for 10 years from the date of signing (06 Sep 18) COMCASA will further boost interoperability, as well as, share operational intelligence in real time in the years ahead. In specifics, if a US warship or aircraft detects a Chinese submarine in the IOR, the intelligence can be shared in real time over COMCASA protected equipment14. Basically, with COMCASA done, India will get an access to US Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS). This system is a collection of huge wide area networks (WAN) spread across the coalition known as enclaves. CENTRIXs permit secure exchange of dialogues between nations in text and web-based formats.

On the flip side, all is not positive with COMCASA. Experts have called this agreement as intrusive since it will work both ways. In that, while India will receive real-time intelligence over the COMCASA protected links, it will also mean a free access to US on our intelligence gathered over such equipment which for any reason whatsoever, we would not like to share with any country (in this case, US will become an unstoppable exception). What about the confidentiality of intelligence gained – but a casualty. One can also imagine the difficulty and apprehensions in integrating Russian origin equipment across dissimilar platforms featuring COMCASA protected equipment. We might be opening a communication and intelligence highway over systems and connections which may not be in the best interest of our right to privacy and confidentiality of certain matters at the national level. In some previous joint exercises with US, the sensors on board the Russian based equipment were to be switched off. Will we be able to prevent an unsolicited "US snoop". Also COMCASA protected equipment may have to be opened up for periodic inspection. Are we ready? Times of India queries, "India joins NATO - well almost"15. The reference is to COMCASA enabled link 16 communication system originally designed for NATO. This link allows near real time exchange of data among various security systems which militaries use on the NATO grid.

Another fall out of COMCASA will be that India will now be slowly drawn into the US defence industry net where major OEMs will be far too willing to sell sophisticated defence equipment complete with the lure of COMCASA enabled equipment on board. There are reports of M/s Lockheed Martin already offering the next generation F 18 while the others are lining up for drones and artillery. To facilitate this process, another less famous and less known agreement than COMCASA also got signed. It relates to licence exception for strategically designated countries in terms of defence licensing and exports.

China has actually echoed its ‘worry and concern’ in antonym terms. In that, while it has couched its reaction in diplomatic niceties and welcome terms at one end, it has never failed to add the bottom line of concern at the other. In regard to COMCASA, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has said, "As to2+2 consultations between India and US, we have seen the report...we are happy to see the normal bilateral relations between the two sides and we also hope that in this process, they will do more to promote regional peace and stability.” This is reminiscent of Chinese reaction to Malabar 2018, when they said, "We have no objection to the normal bilateral relations and cooperation among relevant countries, but we hope that this kind of relationship and cooperation will not be directed at any third party and will be conducive to the regional peace and stability"16.

Though the open source does not report a specific reaction from Russia, its unease to the rapidly intensifying western (read US) order in India is well known. It is reported that Russia, China and Mangolia are preparing for Vostok 2018 a tri-service 300,000 troops exercise involving two naval fleets and an airborne division17. The chessboard of weights and counter weights thus continues to be in play posing great challenges and demanding tight- rope walking for India.

In any case, the changing dynamics over the years from the US perspective comes out loud and clear. The same is summarised below.

Way back in 2010 or thereabouts (post signing of the civil nuclear deal), it dawned on US that there was no point standing out with the banner of FMS complete with all its crippling restrictions on ToT while the largest arms exporter of the world continues to process multiple big ticket procurement cases, all minus US. That realisation ushered in the idea of DTTI, which was rolled out very cautiously initially, causing minimum big change and gradually fanning out in a huge sway of seven JWGs each focussed to its own vertical. As the DTTIs were making a slow but sure progress, Make-in-India happened (Sep 2014) bringing with it a new defence eco-system of JVs, co-development, co-production with buy back and MoUs on specific verticals. Not only the DTTI got a shot in the arm, there was no looking back as the glare of top of the line technology and combat platforms coupled with a definitive easing in intent to share the technologies under the new regime of Make-in -India, made India look towards US. The above win-win vehicle was given regular push by US to keep it in high momentum; declaring India as a major defence partner, expanding the scope and quantum of Malabar, increasing M2M ties through deliberate joint endeavours, issuance of vision statements by US President and its reciprocity by the Indian PM are all cases in point.

It was time to start rolling out the strategic agreement trio to ensure Indian residency in the US led regional, diplomatic and military initiatives. LEMOA happened which was indeed seen as win-win for both the parties. This was followed by COMCASA (along with lesser known STA-1) two years later, complete with all its plusses and minuses as discussed in this work

The next on the line is Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation. BECA is likely to facilitate exchange of geospatial information between the two countries for civilian and military use18.

Way ahead for India

In regard to the strategic agreements stated above, while maximum advantage must be reaped from each and every agreement, due caution must be exercised as regards COMCASA in the context of several pitfalls, as stated in this work.

End Notes:
  1. "What is COMCASA," at (Accessed 07 Sep 2018).
  2. "Foreign military sales procedure and policy," at ( Accessed 08 Sep 2018).
  3. "US India defence technology and trade initiative," at (Accessed 08 Sep 2018).
  4. "India signs 5000cr deal with US for 145 M777 Howitzer guns," at (Accessed
    08 Sep 2018).
  5. "US India defence relations fact sheet," at (Accessed 08 Sep 2018).
  6. ”What is LEMOA?" at (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  7. "India and UN," at (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  8. ibid
  9. "LEMOA" at (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  10. "Egypt signs cismoa," at>id=51147. (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  11. "Make no mistakes signing of comcasa is no less important than the 2008 civil nuclear deal," at ( Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  12. "India US to re-open talks on comcasa," at (Accessed 09 Sep
  13. "2+2 dialogue India US step up defence ties with comcasa," at www. (Accessed 09 Sep
  14. "Comcasa agreement will pave way for-...," at (Accessed 09 Sep
  15. " India joins NATO? well almost," at (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).
  16. " Malabar navy exercise : China expresses concern" at (Accessed 09 Sep
  17. ibid
  18. " LEMOA CISMOA BECA," at (Accessed 09 Sep 2018).

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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