The US just cut a deal with a major ally that will put China's submarines in their crosshairs

(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, second right, and Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman before a meeting in New Delhi, India, September 6, 2018.
  • The US and India strengthened ties this month by signing COMCASA, a major communications agreement.
  • It will allow the two sides to share secure information and will help military operations, such as sub-hunting expeditions.
  • But hurdles remain for India, which has been working to increase the size and sophistication of its military.

The US and India have grown closer over the past decade, and they took another major step forward this month with the signing of a communications agreement that will improve their ability to coordinate military operations – like hunting down submarines.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with their Indian counterparts, Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj, respectively, on September 6 for the long-delayed inaugural 2+2 ministerial dialogue.

The meeting produced a raft of agreements. Perhaps the most important was the Communications, Compatibility, and Security Agreement, or COMCASA, which “will facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms,” according to a joint statement.

Helicopter rescue kerala indiaRaj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty ImagesIndia navy helicopters drop food to people stranded after floods in Chengannur Taluk in Alappuzha, India, August 19, 2018.

The deal – one of several foundational agreements the US and India have been discussing for nearly two decades – took years to negotiate, delayed by political factors in India and concerns about opening Indian communications to the US.

The US wants to ensure sensitive equipment isn’t leaked to other countries – like Russia, with which India has longstanding defence ties – while India wants to ensure its classified information isn’t shared without consent.

But the lack of an agreement limited what the US could share.

“The case that the US has been making to India is that some of the more advanced military platforms that we’ve been selling them, we actually have to remove the advanced communications” systems on them because they can’t be sold to countries that haven’t signed a COMCASA agreement, said Jeff Smith, a research fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation, in an interview in late August.

“So that even when we’re doing joint exercises together, we have to use older, more outdated communications channels when our two militaries are communicating with one another, and it just makes things more difficult,” Smith added.

And it wasn’t just the US. A Japanese official said last year that communications between that country’s navy and the Indian navy were limited to voice transmissions, and there was no satellite link that would allow them to share monitor displays in on-board command centres.

India navy Boeing P-8I Neptune anti-submarine maritime aircraftIndian navyOne of India’s P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, dedicated on November 13, 2015.

With COMCASA in place, India can now work toward greater interoperability with the US and other partners.

“COMCASA is a legal technology enabler that will facilitate our access to advanced defence systems and enable us to optimally utilise our existing US-origin platforms like C-130J Super Hercules and P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft,” an official told The Times of India.

Importantly for India, the agreement opens access to new technology and weapons that use secure military communications – like the armed Sea Guardian drone, which India will be the first non-NATO country to get. Sea Guardians come with advanced GPS, an Identification Friend or Foe system, and a VHF radio system, which can thwart jamming or spoofing.

The deal also facilitates information sharing via secure data links and Common Tactical Picture, which would allow Indian forces to share data with the US and other friendly countries during exercises and operations.

Expanding interoperability is particularly important for India in the Indian Ocean region, where increasing Chinese naval activity – especially that of submarines – has worried New Delhi.

“If a US warship or aircraft detects a Chinese submarine in the Indian Ocean, for instance, it can tell us through COMCASA-protected equipment in real-time, and vice-versa,” a source told The Times of India.

‘The bells and whistles … didn’t necessary come with it’

Signing COMCASA has been cast as part of a broader strategic advance by India, binding it closer to the US and facilitating more exchanges with other partner forces. (Some have suggested the deal lowers the likelihood the US will sanction India for purchasing the Russian-made S-400 air-defence system.)

The agreement itself will facilitate more secure communications and data exchanges and opens a path for future improvements, but there are other issues hanging over India’s ability to work with its partners.

Among the US-made hardware India has bought in recent years are variants of the P-8 Poseidon, one of the world’s best maritime patrol aircraft.

India purchased the aircraft through direct commercial sales rather than through foreign military sales, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an interview at the end of August.

Boeing P 8 Poseidon US NavyUS Navy crew members on board a P-8A Poseidon assisting in search-and-rescue operations for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean, March 16, 2014.

“As a result a lot of the bells and whistles, the extra stuff that goes with a new aeroplane – the mission systems, like the radio systems, and the radars and the sonobuoys and all the equipment that you’d get with an aeroplane like that – didn’t necessary come with it, and they’re going to have to buy that separately,” Clark said.

“Signing this agreement means there’s an opportunity to share the same data-transfer protocols or to use the same communications systems,” Clark said. But both sides would need to already have the systems in question in order to take advantage of the new access.

“So the Indians would still have to buy the systems that would enable them to be interoperable,” Clark said.

Smith said a “fundamental change” in the US-India defence-sales relationship was unlikely, but having COMCASA in place would make US-made systems more attractive and allow India to purchase a broader range of gear.

“At least now India can get the full suite of whatever platforms they’re looking at,” he said.

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