Likely to merely announce an in-principle agreement
At the 2+2 dialogue between India and the U.S. here on September 6, an announcement could be made about an in-principle agreement between the two sides on the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), but its signing is doubtful, say officials on both sides.
“Work is still on. Some form of announcement is expected. Lawyers on both sides are looking into the draft. In the week prior, they did some adjustments in the text,” an official familiar with the process said.
While the contours of the agreement have been agreed upon, last-minute deliberations are under way to address specific concerns in the language. “As of now, it is difficult to say if it would be signed during the 2+2,” another official said.
Diplomatic sources, too, while expressing the hope that the agreement would be signed, said realistically it was not clear yet. This is a similar trajectory followed when India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding. The two sides announced an “in-principle” decision to conclude it during the then U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter’s visit to Delhi in April 2016. However, it was concluded only when the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visited the U.S. in August that year.
The US which has designated India a Major Defence Partner (MDP) has repeatedly stated that the foundational agreements were essential critical for India to gain access to cutting edge technology.
The COMCASA will facilitate exchange of secure communications between the two militaries and allow the sale of encrypted communication systems to India. For a long time there have been concerns that this would allow US to listen into Indian secure communication channels. But these have been gradually overcome and India agreed to move forward with the agreement.
However, signing the COMCASA “will override objections by the Indian military which fears that it will enable seamless penetration horizontally and vertically of the official Indian communications grid, including the most sensitive strategic communications network” writes strategic analyst Bharat Karnad in his latest book Staggering Forward.
Apart from COMCASA, another major announcement likely to be made is for cross posting of officials at the US Defence Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and India’s recently created Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) to work on joint development projects. The proposal for this was made by the US and intends to take forward the co-development and co-production efforts under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).
Other announcements expected from the dialogue include likely US sale of MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters and armed drones through the Foreign Military Sales programme. The US has already cleared the legislative hurdles to sell armed drones to India. A joint tri-service amphibious Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise which has been in the works is also expected to be announced.
As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and their US counterparts Secretary of State Mike R Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis meet for the first 2+2 dialogue, the issue of India’s defence cooperation with Russia and the looming sanctions under CAATSA will be a major issue for discussion.
India has already stated that it would go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 long range air defence system from Russia and the deal is expected to be concluded later this year.