Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion: The imaginary fears around Comcasa

For India, the more damaging prospect is that of the absence of a pact, depriving the Indian military of high-tech equipment from the US

The US recently elevated India’s status as a trading partner to the level of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) allies, ostensibly to speed up the sale of high-tech defence products, subjected otherwise to strict controls and licensing. This is in apparent preparation for the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa)—a bilateral pact for secure military communications—at the inaugural “2+2" meeting to be held in September.

While the Narendra Modi government has indicated its willingness to conclude the agreement, not everyone in New Delhi’s strategic establishment seems to be on board. Some observers say Comcasa could compromise encrypted Indian communications by enabling the US military to listen into Indian systems. More worryingly, they add, it could render incompatible India’s Russian- origin military platforms with high-end assets acquired from the US. Some believe that the US insistence on Comcasa stems from Washington’s growing discomfort with the India-Russia defence relationship. New Delhi’s continuing dependence on Russian weaponry, they point out, has even led wary US officials to call for a “firewall between India’s cooperation with Russia and its cooperation with the US".

To objectively evaluate Comcasa, an interesting case study would be the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (Centrixs), the mainstay of allied communications, and a system that the Indian Navy has used on more than a few occasions since 2008. A key facilitator of encrypted exchanges between networked platforms, Centrixs has played an important role in enhancing secure communications between India and the US. During the India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercises in the Western Pacific in recent years, for instance, the system has helped Indian fleet officials communicate freely with their US and Japanese counterparts. Some Indian military planners, however, believe Centrixs remains vulnerable to manipulation. The sceptics fear that the Pakistan military, a key US partner in the global counterterrorism force (under the US central command umbrella), could exploit the system to gain access to some operationally valuable information about Indian military deployments.

The problem apparently is that Centrixs isn’t one communications complex but a collection of many wide area networks (called “enclaves") which shares information between several partners in multiple locations. Of the eight standard enclaves, at least three are known to have often been expanded to include other navies, linked through portable communication kits. Experts say chats between members of one US-led allied network are frequently shared with other members on sister nets, with exercising units listening into exchanges between members from another enclave. Not everyone, of course, agrees with this characterization. US officials say their military takes adequate precaution in the handling of operational communications, ensuring that information is exchanged only on a need to know basis. If New Delhi accepts Comcasa, they suggest, the US military could be legally obliged to maintain information confidentiality.

US officials also emphasize the tactical nature of information shared between Comcasa-protected communications equipment. The pact’s purpose, they insist, is only to generate a common operations picture for shared missions. While the US does have a system of integrating sensors, weapon systems and support capabilities with its Nato partners, the focus in India’s case is likely to be on the efficient sharing of tactical communications.

But New Delhi is seeking a solemn pledge from Washington that the US military won’t misuse the communications system for spying on India. Indian officials want guarantees that the US will not order a shutting down of the military network as part of a policy decision and that the system won’t be used in a manner that hurts Indian interests. India also wants a reliability assurance that the secured equipment covered in the pact would be “made available to India and kept operational at all times". That is certainly a tall ask, and the US military may be in no position to furnish any assurance. But it does underscore the fact that New Delhi’s approach to Comcasa has been a tad too cautious. Experts point out that the equipment administered under communications safety pacts does not provide access to onboard systems and databases in ways that compromise classified information. For India, in fact, the more damaging prospect is that of the absence of a pact, depriving its military of high-tech equipment from the US.

Even so, Washington must know that its inability to resolve the impasse over equipment inspections in Indian facilities could prove to be a deal-breaker. The “end user monitoring agreement" New Delhi signed a few years ago does not include any provision for unilateral military inspections. Even if the US were to make the process less intrusive, the Indian military would be deeply uncomfortable with American defence personnel entering Indian facilities to scrutinize military communications systems.

It is important to recognize that Comcasa is an operational imperative for the Indian Armed Forces. Not only is the pact an useful enabler of operations interoperability with the US military, it is a legal instrument that facilitates the optimal exploitation of high-end communication equipment acquired from the US. India sceptics must know that there are no good remedies for imagined fears.

Abhijit Singh is senior fellow and head, maritime security project, at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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