21 April 2016

** What is holding up India-US foundational agreements - Part 2

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra | Apr 20, 2016 
In part 1, I had explained why the Logistics Support Agreement between India and the US is held up due to turf battles within the Indian government, CISMOA & BECA are a different cup of tea. The grouse here is that they somehow “compromise” our existing tactical and strategic information sharing datalinks. That’s jargon for “if we sign this the Americans will snoop in on our most secret communications, divert our missiles mid flight, and worst case scenario pass on our shortcomings to the Pakistanis”. Some have even suggested that Russia will cancel its lease of nuclear submarines to us based on the signing of such a deal. These arguments are something of a sad, pathetic joke.

Consider this – India’s Air Force One – the Boeing 737 business jet that our Prime Minister flies in – equipped as it is to launch a nuclear attack and the crown jewel of our “sovereignty” is already subject to CISMOA like provisions. Should the Americans have any doubts as to a security breach, they have to be allowed access to the plane. There is also equipment on that plane that Indian technicians are not allowed to touch. Also consider this – our prize electronic snooping capabilities – be it the airborne AWACS or more recently electronic intelligence gather aircraft are sourced from Israel a close US ally and virtually every product in our defence and space line-up has a compromised supply chain. As we now know from revelations in Yediot Ahronoth, Israel’s secret communications systems have been thoroughly compromised by a joint Anglo-American effort – to such an extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu feels exposed and insecure in his own office – an office that US technicians have no access to unlike our Air Force 1. Our cyber abilities are on display for everyone to see given how the Chinese hacked into every single computer in every single Indian embassy abroad, turning on the cameras and microphones at will. And guess what? Our own counter intelligence couldn’t detect the intrusion – it was an American commercial data security company that detected the bug in our computers. All this begs the question what exact capability do we have that isn’t already compromised to the Americans? 

In any case even if we go with the counterfactual delusion that we have capabilities that even the Israelis and Americans can only dream of then a cursory reading of CISMOA and BECA agreements with Sweden and Norway respectively should lay doubts to rest. Sweden has its own highly classified datalink – one of only 4 countries to do so (the US, Russia and Israel to a very limited extent being the 3 others). The Swedes configure a part of their fleet to be interoperable with NATO and US forces – thereby only requiring those parts of the fleet or geospatial capabilities to be exposed, and still allowing the rest of their capabilities to be shielded from prying eyes. In order to secure the Indian Akula submarine fleet and protect Russian equipment from spying all India has to do is to deny the Akula home base to the Americans, or clearly identify which months in the year US ships can visit base – when the Akula’s are not berthed. At any rate the alleged Russian “objections” are outright bogus. Interviews for this essay with high Russian defence officials in Moscow brought angry rebukes “when have we ever asked India not to sign this agreement? At any rate you have been using Russian equipment like the Kilos (submarines) & Talwars (frigates) in exercises with the Americans … Please don't blame us for your incompetence”. 

For those of you unfamiliar with datalinks – they are the single most important element of modern warfare and technologically the most difficult to master. To explain this is lay terms – do you remember how difficult it used to be to direct a friend to your house before google maps, smart phones and mobile phones arrived? In the 1980s you would have a hand drawn map, and once you left home no proper means of communication. In the 90s you could direct your friend using his/her mobile. Now all you have to do is mark the location on google maps, share it with your friend over WhatsApp and provide last minute over the phone guidance if at all necessary. In effect buying a fighter aircraft without the datalink is like buying a box of chocolates without the chocolates. Even though it accounts for a mere 10-15% of a new equipment’s wiring, the data and sensor equipment can account for upto 60% of cost and 80% of combat capability (in your smart phone it accounts for 90% of the cost price – excluding the camera, speakers and brand value). Consider this – in our near 70 year old friendship with the Russians, they actively denied us this critical technology. America on the other hand is offering you these capabilities – the use of them, but not the technology – at least initially. The fact that India cannot understand the importance of acquiring these systems is an indicator of how obsolete and out of touch with reality our military education system has become..

If you go by the media reports, you’d think the foundational agreement negotiations are about avoiding a repeat of the Dronacharya - Ekalavya situation. The reality is far from that – America is a bit like the Harvard professor of quantum physics, trying to teach Schrödinger’s Cat to a 2nd class pass from the Meerut municipal school convinced that the professor is out to get him. What is worrying though is that mature people who formulate the so called “debate” in this country revel in the counterfactual, and can’t even do basic Google searches. As long as these severe institutional conflicts, and educational deficiencies continue, our fact free public “debate” will only muddy the waters with signing of the LSA, CISMOA & BECA nowhere in sight. 

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is an independent defence analyst. He has coordinated the National Security at the Observer Research Foundation & been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre. He writes about defence policy, technology & defence cooperation on his blog, Tarkash, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.

Abhijit tweets as @abhijit_iyer

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