LEMOA: What about nuclear platforms?

There is ongoing debate in India over the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed the agreement in Washington amid mixed reactions by the Indian political establishment and strategic community. 

The naysayers argue that India has nearly surrendered its most preserved tool of statecraft, ‘strategic autonomy’ to the US, a global power that had in the past imposed economic and military sanctions on India on a number of occasions. The supporters of the LEMOA are quite excited and see the agreement pave the way for more opportunities for operational cooperation and joint activities between the two militaries. The ‘middle-path’ constituency takes enormous solace that there is an inbuilt system of checks and balances in the agreement and India can, without hesitation, ‘walk out’ of the agreement in any contentious proposal suggested by the US.
In essence, there is no particular constituency in India, which has been able to dominate the discourse on LEMOA and the debate is expected to continue for some more time. It can potentially get more heated in case other similar agreements i.e. Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) come up for active consideration in the coming months by the government. 

Yet, the LEMOA debate has been largely silent on the US nuclear propelled ships and platforms carrying nuclear weapons availing logistic support at Indian civilian and naval facilities. In fact this issue has eluded both the proponents and the naysayers of the agreement. The matter gains further salience given that the United States military has an unambiguous policy of ‘neither confirm, nor deny’ (NCND) regarding the presence of nuclear materials onboard their ships, submarines and aircraft when they make port calls, or use military facilities for logistics to support operations in other regions. US civilian and military personnel have been advised that inquiries concerning the presence or absence of nuclear weapons or components onboard US military platforms shall be in accordance with instructions issued by the Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

The US’ NCND policy has its genesis in the US Presidential directive of 27 September 1991, which led to the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. surface ships, attack submarines, and naval aircraft; but a caveat ‘some remaining tactical nuclear weapons [be placed] in secured central areas’ was to be available in a future crisis. It appears that this clause enables carriage of nuclear weapons by naval and air platforms. The above operational directive further states that the NCND serves two essential purposes; (a) deterrence; and (b) security of the weapons complicates an adversary’s military planning and reduces his chances of successful attack thereby increasing the deterrent value of our forces and the security of the weapons.  In essence, the US policy on carriage of nuclear weapons onboard platforms is non-negotiable. 

Before addressing the NCND in the Indian context, it is useful to mention the politico-diplomatic fallout over this issue between New Zealand and the US following domestic legislation by New Zealand in 1986, which prohibited nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships to enter New Zealand waters. This prompted the United States to announce sanctions against New Zealand, which altered the nature of the ANZUS treaty.

In the Indian context, the Indian Navy has institutionalized naval exercises with the US (Malabar exercises), France (Varuna series), Russia (Indra series) and the UK (Konkan series) and during these exercises, the visiting forces have deployed nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. These have added to the sophistication and complexity of naval operations and benefitted the Indian Navy. A few of these country’s vessels have made port calls at Indian ports and much of this information may have remained non-public.  

In the past, there were sharp reactions to the presence of US nuclear naval platforms entering Indian waters for goodwill or for operational visits. In 2007, a political party and some environmental groups protested against the visit of USS Nimitz over concerns of possible radiation hazards. Rear Admiral John Terence Blake, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 11 of USS Nimitz clarified that “We can neither confirm nor deny the presence of weapons on board the ship. The general US policy is that we do not routinely deploy nuclear weapons on any of our ships, attack submarines or aircraft.” Apparently, the activists had fears about possible nuclear leakage given that in one instance, the USS Houston, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, had made port calls while leaking contaminated fluid. The US authorities conceded that the submarine had been leaking for much longer and had also made port calls to Japanese bases at Sasebo, Yokosuka and Okinawa, ports in Malaysia and Singapore, and Guam and Hawaii in the US. 

As per the information available in the public domain, the LEMOA is silent on US’ NCND policy. Further, it is a contentious issue and has so far remained unaddressed.  However, the issue needs amplification to ensure that LEMOA does not invite further opposition from the naysayers.

The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja is Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. A former navy officer, Sakhuja has published several books, edited volumes and monographs on international relations, geopolitics, maritime security, maritime history and the Arctic. He is author of ‘Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century: Strategic Transactions - China, India, Southeast Asia’; ‘Confidence Building from the Sea: An Indian Initiative’; co-author of ‘Climate Change and the Bay of Bengal: Evolving Geographies of Fear and Hope’; His latest academic work is titled Asia and the Arctic: Narratives, Perspectives and Policies (ed) is published by Springer.