COMCASA-Driving the US-India Strategic Partnership Ahead

The much awaited 2+2 Dialogue between the US and India that took place on September 6th was successful in generating positivity about the US-India Strategic Partnership. While many trade issues still remain unresolved, the signing of COMCASA served as a landmark event that affirmed two things: first, the United States’ commitment towards building ‘collective’ and ‘equal’ strategic synergy in the Indo-Pacific, and second, a shift in India’s reluctant approach towards raising levels of strategic cooperation with the US.

The COMCASA is not a recent development. Originally known as CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement), the revised protocols were proposed after the renewal of the ‘Framework for India-US Defense Relations’ in 2015 that required the two countries to sign three foundational accords, one of which was the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). While LEMOA was signed in the year 2016, the signing of CISMOA was delayed due to some objections from the Indian side. One of the issues was that
“CISMOA” was the general name of the agreement used by the US with its other strategic partners. India wanted the agreement to reflect a more India-specific character and therefore negotiated that it be renamed ‘COMCASA.’
The third agreement, BECA, is yet to be finalized and signed.

COMCASA, or the Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement, essentially serves as a framework that facilitates the sharing of sensitive information and the administration of US built encrypted communications equipment. Until now, several US built Indian military platforms such as the Lockheed Martin C-130 Super Hercules, Boeing P-81 and C-17 Globemaster III were bereft of important encrypted communications equipment and data links such as Link-16 and  Link-22. These would have enhanced situational awareness and allowed the Indian Navy and Air force to communicate a common air and naval picture with other friendly forces. Another important technology that was absent from US- built military platforms in India was the precision Global Positioning System with enhanced encryption. Although to compensate for these missing systems, the Indian military installed Indian-built communication and navigation systems on US platforms, the signing of COMCASA will mean that all future US built military equipment purchased by India, such as Apache and Chinook helicopters, will contain US encrypted communication and navigation systems. Not only will this give the Indian Military a technological edge, but it will also strengthen interoperability and strategic communication between the US and India in their efforts to contain China in the Indo-Pacific.

COMCASA also includes guidelines on the use of the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS). This system allows secure voice and data communication between the US, its allies and India in the Indo-Pacific. Previously, Indian warships could plug into the CENTRIXS’s Cooperative Maritime Forces Pacific to communicate with the US, Australian, Japanese, Singaporean and South Korean navies only during multilateral exercises like Malabar. Now, Indian military assets can plug into the CENTRIXS grid permanently, which will make it easier for the Indian military to work in synergy with other regional militaries.

While the signing of COMCASA signals sustained momentum in the India-US strategic partnership, many Indian analysts remain skeptical and worry about the accompanying risks. There is also some anxiety over the loss of military independence and compromising electronic intelligence. While some of the demands made by India related to a clause that would prevent the US from sharing Indian information obtained through COMCASA with any other country without Indian clearance, the US expressed concerns about issues such as the S-400 deal and Indo-Iranian economic cooperation. Political friction and disagreements like these could have direct and indirect impacts on the level, frequency and quality of cooperation and interoperability between the two countries. However, these are risks that can be mitigated and overall, COMCASA seems to have put the US-India strategic partnership on a positive trajectory.