After 12 exasperating years of “….letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, like the poor cat i’ th’ adage”, the Narendra Modi government has demonstrated geopolitical acumen to finally ink a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US.
(For readers of more contemporary education, the adage is that the cat loves and wants the fish, but does not want to wet her paws!)
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar completed the formality of signing this agreement during his visit to the US from August 29 to 31.
The Congress, now in the Opposition, has made all the expected outraged noises, but one rather suspects that this is only to gain whatever little mileage it can from its Left-leaning domestic audience.
Amid the media hype in the immediate aftermath of Parrikar’s visit, it may be useful to take an overview of this foundational agreement that forms an important cornerstone of the India-US defence relationship.
With the decadal percentage value of India’s openness ratio (the ratio of India’s external merchandise trade to her GDP) hovering at close to 40 per cent, the dominance of the maritime relationship - and in particular, maintaining freedom of navigation and the world’s international shipping lanes (ISLs) - is greater than ever before.
Although the term “maritime” encompasses far more that merely the Navy, the India-US maritime relationship is overwhelmingly dominated by the “Navy-to-Navy” relationship.
What is LEMOA all about? It is actually nothing more than a repackaged, India-specific “ACSA”.
To facilitate its foreign engagement with militaries and defence establishments across the world, the US routinely concludes what are called “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs).
In its generic form, ACSA is an enabling agreement that allows the US military to acquire logistic - support, supplies, and services (such as food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment), either “from” or “to” a foreign government, or, organisations such as NATO, the UN, etc.
These agreements are used for contingencies, peacekeeping operations, unforeseen emergencies, or exercises, to correct logistic deficiencies that cannot be adequately corrected by national means. The support received or given is reimbursed under the conditions of the ACSA.
As the tempo of the defence and security engagement between India and the US increased through the first decade of the current century, US representatives in the Defence Policy Group (DPG) proposed that an ACSA be signed between the two countries, as had been done with some 76 countries.
|Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, along with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, completed the formality of signing the agreement. [Photo: Agencies]|
However, in the 2005 DPG, sensitivity to the imperatives of coalition politics - especially the increasingly shrill opposition of the Left bloc - were in strong evidence as the Indian side stated that ACSA in its generic form presented certain difficulties.
The Indian side proposed a change of nomenclature to a “Logistic Supply Agreement” (LSA) and promised to present a revised draft of the original ACSA agreement.
This is how the LSA was hived from the ACSA and made into an India-specific logistic agreement.
Addressing US concerns, the Indian side agreed to ensure the draft LSA was comprehensive enough to include activities other than merely exercises (disaster-relief and anti-piracy operations being illustrative cases-in-point).
US domestic law dictates that until such an agreement is signed, logistic-support, supplies, and services, may be acquired from the nation (or NATO entity), but may not be transferred to it.
It is important to recognise that ACSA is a US construct, and, as such, is designed to “benefit the interest of DoD (Department of Defense) forward deployed commands and forces; they are not a grant program. Acquisitions or transfers must be either in cash, replacement-in-kind, or exchange of supplies or services of equal value in support of the operational needs of forward deployed forces. They may not be used to increase inventories, nor can the DoD use them when the desired materiel or service is reasonably available from US commercial sources. Most importantly, DoD acquisition personnel must ensure ACSAs are not used as a routine source of supply for a foreign country”.
It is precisely to make the agreement more even-handed, serving the national military interests of India as well as those of the US that the ACSA was redrafted and converted into an India-specific LSA.
And yet, for over a decade, the LSA remained unsigned - once again demonstrating (as in the case of the Communications Interoperability Security Memorandum of Agreement, CISMOA) a most peculiar trend of the Indian defence establishment eventually ending-up disagreeing with its own draft! The LSA was then repackaged as LEMOA and has finally passed muster - and not a moment too soon!
In the absence of LEMOA, there was no umbrella arrangement for the provision of mutual logistic-support for combined exercises, training, port-calls, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations, etc.
As a consequence, the Indian Navy and the US Navy had no option but to support their bilateral maritime engagement through a series of “ad-hoc” arrangements, such as the Fuel Exchange Agreement (FEA) that permitted, inter-alia, Indian warships deployed on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere off the coast of Somalia to embark fuel from US Navy replenishment-tankers whilst underway, thereby obviating the need to break patrol and go into a foreign port to refuel.
Such ad-hoc agreements (based essentially upon personal liaison - what in colloquial Hindi is known as “bhai-bandhi”) are subject to delays and legal challenge within the US and, as such, are far from being optimal.
The utility of the LEMOA lies in the comprehensiveness of mutual logistic-support, in terms of supplies and services and includes food, water, transportation, medical services, communications, etc.
It may be readily seen that the LEMOA would be of particularly significant utility in enhancing the reach and sustenance of forces operating together at sea during unforeseen situations such as those occasioned by natural disasters. The lack of broad understanding of the LEMOA among the various echelons of the Indian bureaucracy has had some odd manifestations.
At one point in time, the Indian home ministry contested the inclusion of provisions related to disaster relief efforts in the scope of the LEMOA, asserting that disaster management was a home ministry function and it was for it to initiate any bilateral support agreement relating to disaster-relief!
This highlighted once again, the disproportionate effects of linguistic infirmity (in both “comprehension” and “articulation”). The fact, of course, is that the LSA pertains to logistics-support to units participating in the HADR mission and not to the relief material to be provided to the affected region and do not, in any way impact the management of disasters at the national level (which would continue to remain under the home ministry/ National Disaster Management Authority).
In any event, the Indian home ministry could hardly be involved in a “combined” IN-USN effort to provide HADR support to a third country.
The provision of logistic support at sea itself will obviate the need for costly and time-consuming operational turnarounds (OTRs), which may not be readily available in the vicinity of the disaster area.
The attendant savings of cost and time that such an agreement would enable are quite evident. The agreement obviates the tedious process of seeking case-by-case approvals for logistic support and enables us to respond faster and more efficiently.
Since the LEMOA is an enabling agreement, rather than being “binding” on any given specifics, and since its scope is clearly defined, India is still free to invoke any or all (or none) of the provisions of this agreement on a “case-by-case” basis.
This provides the government of India with the desired flexibility and the discretion to either accept or refuse US requests.
It is this central freedom that needs to be understood and grasped by the protagonists in the debate on the other pending “enabling” agreements such as CISMOA and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement).
India needs to demonstrate the self-confidence to be able to invoke such provisions as are relevant to a given case or situation and are in consonance with India’s own national interests - whether within the maritime sphere or otherwise.
So what needs to be done from here on? According to some segments of the Left, too much has already been done that ought never have been done and so the short answer is nothing. However, ideological leanings aside, the recently generated impetus must now be capitalised so as to maintain momentum and achieve strategic results.
However, apex-level exchanges by the political leadership are not enough and both, India and the US, are far too big (literally and militarily) to be satisfied with a short-term tactical relationship.
Bilateral institutional structures need to be rejigged to reflect the seriousness of the relationship and focus maintained on developing the Navy-to-Navy relationship - not just in operational terms, but right across the engagement spectrum.
Perhaps the most important maritime features at the operational level are to understand, discuss and take strong and persistent actions to deliberately blur the wholly artificial seams between India, PACOM, CENTCOM and AFRICOM (US Pacific Command, US Central Command and US Africa Command), and, to simultaneously sign the remaining enabling instruments of CISMOA and BECA, without which operational acceleration cannot be fully achieved.