LEMOA pact constrains India

LEMOA pact constrains India

The agreement will provide much greater opportunities for the US than it will for India.

In 2001, then defence minister George Fernandes denied charges in Parliament that a helicopter flying from destroyer USS John Young had violated Indian airspace over the nuclear facility in Kalpakkam. That episode was probably one of the reasons why successive Indian governments stalled on inking the Logistics Exchange Memor-andum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US which facilitates reciprocal access to each other’s bases for logistics support.

However, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gove-rnment has chosen to finally embrace LEMOA, this agreement constrains India more than the opportunities it supposedly affords, which have been rather oversold by its proponents.

Moreover, if LEMOA is used to pave the way for the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA), all three of which taken together are dub-bed ‘foundational’ agreements by the Americans, the Indian military’s operational security could end up being undermined.

The Kalpakkam incident serves to highlight the increased risk of exposure to India’s nuclear infrastructure if the US military movement along its coastline and airspace becomes regularised. Though satellites can reveal the broad nature of a facility, airborne radiation surveillance reveals more.

Regularised access will certainly increase opportunities for heightened electronic and human intelligence gathering by the US. While Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has stressed that there will be no permanent stationing of US personnel, some of the services agreed upon, such as ‘repair and maintenance’, cannot be achieved without pre-positioning spares and dedicated personnel.

India, in any case, is the fifth most spied upon country by the National Security Agency’s ‘PRISM’ cyber-surveillance programme as has been disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Recently, New Delhi reiterated its concerns about PRISM and India’s intelligence community remains wary of reviving a 2003 defence intelligence sharing pact with Washington.

Even if snooping concerns were deemed manageable given the ‘reciprocal’ nature of the agreement, the fact remains that LEMOA will provide much greater opportunities for the US than it will for India. Given its platform strength, the Indian Navy (IN) is unlikely to project substantive force into the Pacific theatre anytime soon.

The IN will have to stay focused on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for the next decade or so, where the Indian peninsula and the two island chains straddling that landmass give it a major advantage anyway.

For the US, that geographic reality is precisely why it has unilaterally pushed for LEMOA all these years. India lies between West Asia and South-East Asia, two active theatres of major geo-political competition where the US Navy (USN) wants to maintain its force posture at a cheaper cost than it does at the moment. LEMOA is well-suited to helping the US accomplish that goal at a time when it is down to a mere 30 combat logistics ships to support global operations. 

While Parrikar may emphasise that LEMOA is not a ‘war pact’ (though war is mostly logistics), the possibility that it will significantly help sustain America’s superior force projection in maritime Asia is undeniable. And since the US military is involved in a war without end in West Asia, pan-Islamist groups are likely to take note of its future logistics trail in India.

The LEMOA will also stren-gthen the China leaning groups in Moscow and the hawks within China itself. These groups will complicate India’s Eurasian relationships by raising suspicion about LEMOA’s potential for being used by the US to project power into the Eurasian heartland directly.

The China factor
But isn’t LEMOA meant to deepen an India-US techno-economic relationship that can balance those groups in China? Unfortunately, the United States of today is not the one which conferred the most favoured nation status upon China in 1980. Sta-tements from the US polity attest to the fact that India is seen as a geo-economic competitor.

This is further reflected in India’s increasingly troubled trade relationship with America peppered with protectionist disputes. Despite the hype about FDI, India is still unwilling to conclude a bilateral investment treaty with the US. As such, substantive technology sharing remains a mirage.

But what about the image of the US and Indian navies sailing proudly together to ensure freedom of navigation in Eastern seas? That can only happen if the two navies became ‘interoperable’, a pre-requisite for which is CISMOA. Unfortunately, CISMOA requires the installation of communication security equipment with US proprietary encryption on Indian platforms, something that is a fraught proposition to say the least, and could well be used to compromise Indian military networks.

The BECA will involve the installation of US ground-based sensors for digital area mapping to enable military operations. As the Scorpene leak shows, data with friendly countries can and does end up elsewhere.

Together, LEMOA, CISMOA and BECA are not the innocuous agreements that some have made out to be but are ‘foundational’ to joint operations. In a world characterised by simultaneous cooperation and competition, embracing a declining superpower looking to maintain hegemony on the cheap, may not be the wisest policy.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)

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