The latest strategic accomplishment between India and the US has been the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), a typified bilateral variant of one of the three foundational agreements that the US signs with its military partners; Communications, Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). The other two being; Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). LEMOA is a country specific variant of the standard US agreement Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) which has already been agreed to between India and the US. This leaves both sides with the BECA to be signed, possibly again with India specific modulations.
Both LEMOA and CISMOA together are expected to bolster bilateral cooperation in security matters with enhanced interoperability, communications, joint training, refuelling, resupplies and other logistical coordination. However, in relative assessment to the LEMOA, CISMOA is being seen as more strategically consequential vis-à-vis technology sharing, especially in its capacity to promote tactical communications systems interoperability between the Armed Forces of the US and India and the implications of high-end technology transfer on the maritime expanse of the larger Indo-Pacific.
Towards Technological Compatibility
Manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-submarine warfare and aircraft carrier technologies are specifically the areas for India slated to benefit with high-end technology transfer from the US under COMCASA. Compared to other defence manufacturers, not only is the US unequivocally a leader of technologies in all the three aforementioned military domains but also has established relations with India in all the three sub areas, making technology transfer easy and useful for both sides. In the past, lack of COMCASA agreement has led to the denial of specific high-end components for US platforms that have been sold to India or being built jointly. In the absence of these capability enhancement add-ons, especially on three imported systems; Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules special mission transports, Boeing P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine jets and C-17 Globemaster III heavy transport aircraft, lack of optimal performance and effectiveness of these systems was being risked.
With the signing of COMCASA, the first major step towards making technologies available for India for performance enhancement of its specific military systems has been taken. Theoretically, if these technologies are provided to India its three current US-imported systems and quite a few future ones stand to gain significantly.
Among the primary motives following the signing of COMCASA would be to define policies relating to Configuration Management (CM) of interoperable communications systems between the two sides. CM is one of the key ways in which systems are handled when they undergo change so that the integrity of the system is not compromised. It is the implementation of various tools, techniques and procedures to effectively sustain the process of change in a complex defense system. As such, the retrofits that some of the Indian defence platforms will undergo will require a technological vetting through CM. Although specifics regarding the ways and means likely to be employed to reach technological compatibility between both sides are largely elusive from the public domain, a similar agreement between South Korea (ROK) and the US does provide some early leads.
One of the key consequences of the COMCASA on India-US partnership will be in the subdomain of handling secure communications. The other step towards reaching technological compatibility will be through ensuring the protection of classified and sensitive national security information and data. One of the ways to do this will be through Spread Spectrum communications systems. Spread Spectrum refers to a system essentially developed for military applications, to provide secure communications by spreading the signal over a large frequency band. The idea behind spread spectrum is to use more bandwidth than the original message while maintaining the same signal power. A spread spectrum signal does not have a clearly distinguishable peak in the spectrum. This makes the signal more difficult to distinguish from the noise and therefore more difficult to jam or intercept, making communication interception more difficult. The Spread Spectrum technology will be useful for the Indian Navy and Air Force as it will allow it to share information, threat assessments and other data like White Shipping with the US and its counterparts like Japan more freely and especially without the threat of being compromised. For instance, communications interoperability will become a lot easier and useful with access to more information for India, particularly in the Indian Ocean region and the Indo-Pacific.
On another front, the ARC-222 radio systems are currently used by US and its close military partners only to ensure interoperable jam-resistant tactical voice communications. The Air Force Airborne Single-channel (SC) Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) compatible radio (AN/ARC-222) allows critical Very High Frequency (VHF) two-way communications for voice and data over single channels and frequency-hopping modes among Air Force, Army, Special Operations Forces (SOF), and Marine units. The frequency-hopping mode hops more than 100 times a second making interception and jamming extremely difficult. The AN/ARC-222 is manufactured by Raytheon for a host of Air Force platforms including the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and COMCASA agreement is likely to see a communication upgrade with the SINCGARS radio systems on Indian platforms.
India had bought the first batch of six C-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the US for close to US $1 billion in 2011. These were inducted in the Indian Air Force at the Hindon airbase in 2014 and two have been lost to accidents since. The other batch of six C130Js is earmarked for the second C-130J squadron to be based at Panagarh in West Bengal for the eastern front with China.
Although the C-130J is primarily held as a cargo transport, it can perform a range of missions includes special operations, aerial refuelling, search and rescue, paradrop, electronic surveillance and even weather reconnaissance. Due to the myriad yet complex utility of the machine, clear and timely communication between the operators and ground command and control units should be a priority. That India has already lost two C-130Js under largely inexplicable circumstances which are being probed, should serve as a reminder in future operations. In times of crises, any mishap owing to miscommunication could severely damage the position and advantage of the country’s frontline forces and mountain corps due to lack of strategic reinforcement and timely supplies by way of tactical cargo and personnel.
Among other platforms that are possibly lined up to receive technological face-lift, the P8I Poseidon maritime aircraft sits right at the helm. The Indian Navy is the first international customer for the P-8. Boeing signed a contract worth $2.1 billion in January 2009, to deliver eight long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft to the Indian Navy. This was followed by another deal worth over $1 billion for the purchase of four additional Poseidon-8Is. These would boost the Indian Navy’s capabilities in long-range maritime reconnaissance, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
The Indian Navy signed an agreement worth US $ 2.1 billion in 2009 for eight aircraft. All eight aircraft have been inducted into the Indian Navy and are fully integrated into its operations. The aircraft are based at INS Rajali and are operated by Indian Naval Air Squadron 312A under the Eastern Command.
A Center for Naval Analyses document points out that, “In the case of the P-8Is, the absence of secure voice, Link-11, and Link 16 prevented Indian aircraft from participating in secure voice networks or having a common tactical picture during exercises or other operations with U.S. forces or other regional forces that that operate over these voice and data links.” In the absence of COMCASA these specific technologies-gap on the P-8Is were filled by Indian systems. For instance, the IFF interrogator technology was provided by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), transponder by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and speech secrecy kit by India’s state-owned Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL). Post-COMCASA, critical technology access for India after COMCASA could potentially enhance operations capability of the P-8Is by making alternate technological compatibility in Raytheon Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder (Mode IV Crypto), SINCGARS radio, TACTERM/ADVT secure voice (HF) terminals and Rockwell-Collins SATCOM transceivers.
Access to these technologies also means that US companies could engage with Indian companies more freely and over a wider range of equipment in helping India develop a strong defence manufacturing base. The alternate US technologies available from the US provide for better battlespace management systems and enhanced interoperability. For instance, technology like IFF is ‘critical to aircraft as they positively identify friendly forces, reduce potential for fratricide and increase situation awareness’, and is tremendously useful in interoperability, a growing area of convergence between US and Indian militaries. The KV-119 is a highly evolved Identify Friend/Foe transponder. IFF is a tool within the broader military action of Combat Identification (CID). Navies require secure, jam-resistant Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems for battle group air defense management and air traffic control. It is important that India has the best IFF technology especially on board the P-81s which run reconnaissance missions over the vast Indian Ocean region – possibly the most diverse melange of military and civilian aerial routes. The IFF transponders would be crucial for unmanned aerial systems, an emerging area of US-India defence cooperation. Also, for a country that prepares for a two-front war, increasingly so with growing proximity between Islamabad and Beijing and a falling air force squadron strength, better aircraft identification technology could reduce strategic deficit in times of crises.
Among other technologies that India will have access to are the Advanced Narrowband Digital Voice Terminal (ANDVT), TACTERM (Tactical Terminal) TACTERM ANDVT which provides a full duplex connection ship-to-shore via satellite, the VINSON KY-58 Secure Voice (UHF/VHF) module and the AN/ARC-210(V) SATCOM Transceiver. The ANDVT group provides joint between Service components of US command elements and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. ANDVT units are primarily used to satisfy tactical secure voice requirements on high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite and line-of-sight (LOS) communications. In a broad sense, the ANVT technologies provide protection from exploitation by unauthorized intercept. The KY-58 is a tactical secure voice equipment. The KY-58 is the airborne/shipborne version, for UHF/VHF tactical radios that will intercommunicate with other crypto equipment such as KYV-2A, BANCROFT and SINCGARS radios. The AN/ARC-210(V) multimode integrated communications system is designed to provide multimode voice and data communications in either normal or jam-resistant modes in line-of-sight or satellite communications modes. The system is capable of establishing 2-way communication links over the 30 to 400 MHz frequency range within tactical aircraft environments. The AN/ARC-210(V) multimode integrated communications system is the new United States Navy Standard VHF/UHF Airborne Communications System. As the majority of these radios have been installed in US Navy tactical aircraft, a similar use is expected for these radios in Indian platforms boosting maritime awareness and insight through effective and secure communications.
The COMCASA has bolstered India-US defence relationship by promising to advance tactical systems interoperability to a new level. The caution with which India has approached the deal, given several years of negotiations, doubts about data and communications breach by other US allies also seem to have settled – especially by allowing the US Department of Defense to provide Communications Security (COMSEC) Equipment to protect sensitive data during communications. As such, Indian systems like the C-130J, P-8I, C-17 Globemaster and unmanned aerial systems will provide India with a better regional picture and tactical information crucial to either side in seeking common objectives. Besides these technological advantages, some have argued by some that flow of data and communication apropos domain awareness, tactical and strategic information from the US to the Indian military would lower the operational cost for India too.
The US and India are expected to test the successful application of these technologies in the first joint tri-services exercise agreed to by both the sides at the inaugural 2+2 dialogue in September 2018. This will be a step further in the direction of institutionalization of US-India defence ties. This would also be only second such exercise that India is conducting with any other country apart from Russia and is likely to test the limits of interoperability, not only between familiar systems across common legs of the two militaries but across three different legs of two distinct militaries. The tri-services joint exercise between India and the US will take place off the eastern coast of India in 2019 and therefore becomes central to the joint Indo-Pacific vision enunciated by both countries in January 2015.
Vivek Mishra is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He is also Assistant Professor (on leave) in International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata and Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, Bhubaneswar. He has been 2019 South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C. and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace, School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University, NY for the academic year 2015-16. Vivek has completed his PhD in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. His broad research discipline is international relations and his areas of research concern probing American and Chinese security role in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions, including Indo-U.S. defense relations and the Indian defence sector.