Last week, India and the United States quietly signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The agreement had been under discussion since 2002. NDA I and the UPA government, especially the Ministry of Defence under Mr A K Antony, were not in favour. The Congress party too had reservations. The Left parties stoutly opposed the proposal. The discussions dragged on.

The US laid stress on the fact that it had signed the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) with a hundred countries. What has been signed between India and the US is not LSA but a modified version called LEMOA. Obviously, both sides have yielded to each other’s concerns.

The agreement has not been made public. We only have a press release and some comments made by the Minister of Defence, Mr Manohar Parrikar, and his counterpart, Mr Ashton Carter. Both were at pains to emphasise that the agreement was not a ‘military pact’.

Who Needs Whom More

At present, we can draw our conclusions, preliminary of course, only on the basis of the press release. The agreement is in two parts: one part deals with obligations that have been agreed upon and the other part deals with obligations that may be undertaken on a case-by-case basis.

There are five situations in which both sides are obliged to provide logistics support. They are:
* authorised port visits;
* joint exercises;
* joint training;
* humanitarian assistance; and
* disaster relief

The question is how likely is it that India will call upon the US to provide logistics support? How often is an Indian long-range vessel (we have one aircraft carrier) likely to visit a US port? How often is an IAF aircraft likely to operate far beyond Indian bases, and why would they do so? As far as humanitarian assistance or disaster relief is concerned, are Indian personnel likely to be deployed in the Americas or Europe? In my view, Indian defence forces are not likely to be deployed in any theatre, even in peace time, beyond our borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar — at best they may go near Sri Lanka or Maldives. In any of those situations, there is little or nothing that the US can offer in terms of logistics support under the agreement.

On the other hand, the US is more likely to need India’s port services and logistics support. The US’s theatres of operation are all over the world, including the Middle East, Asia-Pacific region and the South China Sea. US vessels and aircraft are routinely deployed in these theatres for reconnaissance, surveillance and sometimes even as a deterrent operation.

Only time will tell which side calls upon the other side to provide logistics support and how often. That the US has entered into one hundred such agreements and India has signed its first such agreement is sufficient indication of who needs it more!

A Significant Shift?

The definition of logistics support is unexceptionable, but it is the unexceptionable that sometimes becomes the unthinkable. ‘Logistics Support, Supplies and Services’ is defined to include food, water, billeting, transportation, petroleum, oils, lubricants, clothing, communication services, medical services, storage services, training services, spare parts and components, repair and maintenance services, calibration services, and port services. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that list. How will it be applied in practice is the million dollar question.

Take, for example, ‘billeting’. The dictionary meaning of the word is “a place where troops are lodged”. Then there are services like communication services, storage services, training services, repair and maintenance services and calibration services. Will US troops be lodged in India? Is it likely that the logistics services will be allowed to be provided by Indians to US defence services such as warships, combat aircraft, US Marines or Navy Seals? Will not the US demand that Americans (usually defence personnel) be allowed to enter India to provide these services to their men and equipment? If that happens, will it not be the first time that India would have allowed foreign defence personnel to be stationed on Indian soil (maybe temporarily)?

The other part of the agreement is the ‘may be undertaken’ part. According to the press release, “logistics support for any other cooperative efforts shall only be provided on a case-by-case basis”. So far, so good, but the two countries appear to have tacitly agreed to enlarge the cooperation between the defence forces of the two countries.

More Then Handshake

Sure, LEMOA is not a military pact. Nevertheless, it is a fair conclusion that it is more than a handshake between the two countries, they have embraced each other! The world is watching, especially Russia, which has been our main supplier so far, and China. LEMOA will certainly be seen as an Indian endorsement of the US policy of ‘pivot to Asia’.

That is why editorials and commentators have cautioned that enhanced defence cooperation — following the designation of India by the US as a ‘major defence partner’ — should not affect India’s strategic military neutrality or ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. The exhortations are valid because the US is keen to sign two more ‘foundational agreements’ — the Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement.

If the government believes that LEMOA is indeed reciprocal — not merely in its words but in the benefits that will accrue to both countries — it should make the document public and invite a public debate.