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    Categories: Policy

COMCASA – Should India Sign?


Over the past decade, India has been steadily purchasing military platforms from the United States that typically come with secure communication systems of US-origin. However, since India has thus far refused to sign the so-called Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), usually known as the  Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) in US parlance, it has been forced to use lower-grade commercially available equipment in lieu of US-origin radio, communications security (COMSEC) and navigation equipment that apparently give American platforms an operational edge over similar systems available from elsewhere. By extension, it is claimed that the regional superiority that India was expecting via such procurement has been somewhat diminished. So, the question is: ‘Should India just sign COMCASA?’

In this piece, we argue that there are very good reasons for India to not rush into something like COMCASA.

What is COMCASA?

COMCASA essentially provides a legal framework for the transfer of COMSEC equipment from the US to India that would facilitate ‘interoperability’ between Indian and US forces, and potentially with other militaries as well that use US-origin systems for secure tactical data links. The US, however, tightly controls COMSEC technology and provides access to only those countries that have signed a CISMOA / COMCASA with it. Obviously, the current denial of this COMSEC equipment to Indian military forces means that they cannot really exchange tactical information with even friendly regional forces that might use CISMOA/COMCASA covered communication systems. Furthermore, not signing COMCASA also means that certain things such as high-precision GPS or the latest guidance packages for US-origin air to air missiles will not be available to India. Indeed, if a US origin fighter plane is selected for the recently announced ‘Make in India’ single-engine fighter aircraft procurement project, the pressure on India to sign COMCASA will likely increase, since the Indian Air force (IAF) will be hard put to integrate cutting edge non-US origin weapons with an American fighter platform.

However…

Having said that, even though the US maintains that COMCASA is only ‘foundational’ in nature and ‘innocuous’ in import, there are genuine reasons for India to be concerned about the implications of this agreement. For instance, from an Indian perspective, it is worth considering whether COMCASA has the potential to compromise India’s operational security while protecting that of the US. COMCASA may also increase pressure on India to source all of its COMSEC equipment from US vendors in the future.

At the end of day, secure communications require high-grade encryption algorithms and encryption-key management. An encryption algorithm operates the key over messages to produce an encrypted message that any intruder is supposed to find difficult to break, if he has no access to the keys. This also implies that all communication devices in a network need to be compatible with one another by incorporating the same encryption algorithms. Now COMCASA requires that US operators perform functions such as keying for the encryption. Indian operators will not be allowed to even participate in the maintenance of these systems. So, will India be comfortable with the presence of US designated personnel on Indian-procured US platforms for long durations of their operational life? In the COMCASA scheme of things, the US will basically end up controlling the entire communications and message flow for the sake of ‘interoperability’. Long term analysis of the message flow could end up revealing tactical doctrines adopted by Indian forces in combat.

Since communication devices and links currently in use with Indian Forces cannot interact with US-provided systems, it implies that any attempt to establish interoperability between a part of India’s inventory and participating US forces could actually lead to reduced ‘intra-operability’ within India’s own military. This is on account of the fact that COMCASA-covered equipment/platforms will become ‘incompatible’ with the rest of India’s inventory. This could lead to calls to ‘overhaul’ the Indian military’s entire network to COMCASA-compliant standards through wholesale import of US systems.  Short of which India would have to willfully acquiesce to the creation of a divide in its inventory, thereby reducing the flexibility of field commanders to deploy available resources during action. Obviously, neither prospect is a particularly happy one for Indian military planners.  The fact that COMCASA could lead to the secrecy of tactical doctrines getting compromised besides imposing greater complexity costs on India’s communication systems demands that a detailed study of the ground realities and practical implications of signing COMCASA be made prior to deciding on a course of action.

Captain Ramaprasad is a veteran Indian Navy submariner and is a recipient of the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) for his contributions towards the development of an indigenous combat management system for undersea applications. 


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" Captain Ramaprasad : ."

View Comments (7)

  • Excellent article Rama! I hope you will it up with an idea of a practical solution to this problem ! Maybe an interface device indigenously developed,which can be used in case of need to communicate with COMCASA compatible equipment of friendly forces. Very well researched and written. Proud to be your Naval Academy course
    mate.

    • Thank you, Commodore Iyer. You will agree that the idea of the article is to make the educated and intelligent to think and contribute constructively. I am also aware that people at the helm in India will not jump into signing any such agreement. That is probably the reason for delay in concluding the agreement. - Ramaprasad

  • Excellent read giving a perfect perspective to an issue that has been in discussion for about a decade or even more. It has convincingly brought out as to why India needs to be extra cautious about signing an agreement that would compromise secrecy. However, today the US is the biggest supplier of defence equipment to India; and as such if we are not able to use them to their full potential is painful, considering the high cost we pay for these. We have moved much closer to the US in the last decade; and with the new Trump team, we may find better understanding from the US,-"true friend". Our negotiators need to put in their best efforts to get a India specific COMCASA agreement, different from the template one that has been signed by other countries. We have signed such a India specific agreement recently in the case of Logistics Exchange Agreement. The author has rightly cautioned against hurrying with the agreement, though US maintains that it's just "foundational". Great article that has focussed my interest on to this important topic. Look forward to more updates.

  • An important and thoughtful contribution...

    Sir, I would like you to consider the cost of systems already acquired - P-8I, C-17, C-130J, Harpoon, etc which might have cost India close to $15 billions...
    All of these systems comes with sophisticated electronics, avionics, communication, interoperability, etc subsystems..
    But India is only getting stripped down systems and one C-130J is already lost...
    Also every system in all these weapons are continuously improved so India must sign a spiral agreement so they can be upgraded to fix software bugs, performance bugs, interface bugs, etc

    So the prudent way is to go forward with India specific pacts like COMCASA instead of COMSEC so that India will get sophisticated technology...
    One of the most pressing need to get magnetic anomaly detector for P-8I as it will detect Pakistani and Chinese submarines...

    India is an emerging super power and it must start diversifying its armaments so no one can bleed it while...

    The best way is to come up

    • Thank you very much for an intelligent observation. I am aware that our defence services and the learned people in the government are wise enough to take a considered decision. The intent of this article is to set the thought process rolling so that even the veterans or anyone else could constructively contribute. - Ramaprasad

  • Very well written Sir.The government must consult committee of experts before signing such agreements and making such big deals which are of tremendous importance to national security.

  • Thanks Ramaprasad Sir for a beautiful article about a topic that was totally Greek to me. Now I have understood a bit. I am not in a position to give my views whether to sign or not. There are pros and cons for both the scenarios. I have full faith in our senior leadership in the three armed forces and I am sure they shall take the decision keeping the interests of our country foremost.