India's Expanding Strategic Footprint, China's growing assertiveness


naval bases of different countries in Indian ocean

After the breakup of the USSR and with the emergence of a multipolar world, India has been gradually seeking partnership with like-minded democracies for logistic cooperation for the armed forces. This is done by signing a host of logistic support agreements (LSAs). Basically, LSAs are mutual agreements between two nations that permit a host of activities between them. While the nature of each agreement is essentially bilateral, a country may enter into LSAs with multiple nations each on a one-on-one format. For instance, India has LSAs with six different countries, namely United States, France, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and now Russia A similar agreement is also reported to be in the pipeline with United Kingdom (UK).

Logistic Support Agtrrments (LSAs) are great facilitators, under their large umbrella of reciprocal access to each other’s facilities, several activities get included. Some of these could be:-

  1. Access to each other’s ports to include facilities like berthing, fuelling, repairs, spare support etc.

  2. Reciprocal logistic support to include food, water, rest, recuperate etc.

  3. Reciprocal logistic support for the conduct of training activities in each other’s areas.

  4. The facilitation achieved through LSA has both direct, as well as, implied effect.

  5. As to the direct facilitation, LSA could permit the following:-

  6. Permit greater interoperability between nations.

  7. Permit smooth and seamless conduct of long duration complex and joint military exercises without the burden of logistic sustainment of forces in the foreign land by the guest country.

  8. Reciprocal facilitation of forces when engaged in activities such as peacekeeping operations, humanitarian aid, disaster relief and during joint deployment of forces under an international mandate (UN).

  9. However, the more important facilitation is ‘implied’ and in fact, is the real takeaway from the LSA. Some points related to implied effect could be as under:-

  10. It permits a country to project power away from its borders in international waters without having to carry its own sustenance and logistic tail, all the way across.

  11. The above becomes possible due to extended ranges of warships, maritime surveillance and strike aircrafts utilizing port facilities of the contracting nation (implying the nation(s) entering into LSA).

  12. This extends the strategic reach and footprint of the country in far off waters and enhances its sustainability therein manifold.

  13. It permits round the clock and the year presence in areas of interest (through shared responsibilities).

  14. This not only increases the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) manifold for security reasons but also helps in tracking vessels of interests continuously or become the first responder in a crises situation.

  15. Most importantly, it helps to send a ‘strategic message’ to the ‘target country’. The content and purport of this message is implied in the DNA of the LSA and is unique in their own way.

  16. Each LSA also helps to guard some security interests of the contracting parties in its own specific way.

  17. As a result of the strategic message mentioned above, the ‘target country’ tends to perceive the contracting parties as a sort of combined/joint front for what it is worth.

Logistic Support Agreements signed by India with various countries:

United States of America


LEMOA, which is an acronym for Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement is actually a part of a trio of three separate agreements between India and US aimed to build deep bilateral ties between the two nations. Each of these covers a specific ground. Very briefly, these are as under:-

  1. LEMOA. Signed in 2016, it permits the use of each other’s military logistic facilities for a variety of reasons (covered in detail later).

  2. COMCASA COMCASA stands for Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement. Signed in 2018, this enabling agreement provides a legal framework that authorizes the US authorities to transfer such high-end defence equipment to India which may feature an encrypted communication network. COMCASA will enable India to make optimal use of platforms employing such sensitive equipment.

  3. BECA Standing for Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement is likely to be signed in the upcoming 2+2 dialogue between India and US on 26-27 October 2020. BECA aims at enhancing geospatial cooperation between the two nations. With BECA done, India will have an access to the US geospatial intelligence database which will prove to be a great enabler on many counts, military situational awareness, paradigm increase in the accuracy of long-range hi-tech automated weapons, to name a few.

Larger Implications of LEMOA

  1. LEMOA will increase the range and reach capability of the Indian Navy world over. This is since our vessels operating anywhere in the international waters could get every type of logistic support from any of the US bases which are spread right across the globe.

  2. The range of above support could be really comprehensive to include birthing, billeting, port services, food, water, communications, storage, fuel, maintenance, spare support.

  3. Take for instance the Multinational Naval exercise Malabar, which in the year 2018 was held in the Guam island in far western Pacific. The impact of LEMOA was immediately felt like the US naval base in Guam acted as our firm base.

  4. In addition to reciprocal naval activity, LEMOA will also prove its worth in areas like UN peacekeeping operations, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations and more.

  5. Another indirect fallout of LEMOA within a year of its signing was the massive Master Ship Repair Agreement (MSRA) signed between Reliance Defence and Engineering Ltd (RDEL) and the US Navy for providing repair and alteration services to some 100 vessels of the US 7th Fleet operating in the western Pacific4.

The implied advantages of such agreements always lie in the message these convey overtly and covertly. With the US, not LEMOA alone, but the full body of the trio of agreements comes into play. The increased range and reach of our vessels and the access to heretofore prohibited high-end defence equipment that feature encrypted communication networks gets duly noted.

France


In March 2018, open sources reported about the signing of a strategic pact between India and France that permitted the reciprocal use of each other’s military facilities and naval bases. Some salient details in this context are enumerated:-

  1. The pact will promote cooperation for the promotion of peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions to unprecedented levels.

  2. In that, while the Navies of the two nations will share maritime intelligence, their respective space agencies will develop joint monitoring mechanism for keeping a watch on the maritime developments in the region.

  3. In the 2+2 spirit, the pact is also backed with an agreement to develop a ministerial-level defence dialogue aimed at further deepening defence ties between the two countries.

  4. The footprint of the logistic agreement will of course extend to other activities like joint training, peacekeeping, HADR operations and more.

  5. This pact fits naturally in the expanding defence relations between the two nations (Rafael, Scorpene to name a few).

Australia


On 04 June this year, India and Australia entered into a comprehensive Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA), the first-ever to be signed in a virtual bilateral summit. Some salient points in this regard are enumerated:

  1. It will prove to be a major facilitator to improve military interoperability between the two nations.

  2. Along with MSLA, the two nations also unveiled a ‘shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’. This vision is anchored on supporting a rule-based maritime order as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with due respect for the sovereignty of each nation.

  3. Also giving strength to the MSLA was the decision to upgrade the 2009 agreement on Bilateral Strategic Partnership to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) Agreement elevating the 2+2 arrangement to ministerial level.

  4. The above is not semantics; it is the will of two nations to take their defence cooperation to the next level and a commitment to stand by each other in dealing with shared security challenges. The paradigm shift is intended to send the requisite message.

  5. Following on the heels of MSLA and CSP and duly facilitated by the same, a mega two-day exercise took place with the Australian Navy in September 2020 in the Indo-Pacific region. The exercise involved complex naval manoeuvres and air defence operations aimed at addressing the shared security challenges in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

  6. It is worthwhile to mention here that this was the fourth exercise that India conducted in a row ever since June 2020 when tensions with China flared up in eastern Laddakh. These include naval exercise with Japan in Jun 2020, with the US in July 2020 and with Russia in September 2020.

South Korea


It was in September 2019, when India signed the MLSA with South Korea. Some salient details in this context are stated:-

  1. While the MSLA extends the ‘logistic support suit’ between the navies of the two countries in the manner described above, it also comes along with an agreement to take the cooperation in the defence industrial field to the next level by including such areas as land systems, aero systems, naval system, cooperation in defence R&D and the fields of quality assurance and testing etc.

  2. Interesting to note that the South Korean Hanwa Defence which has signed a contract in 2017 with India to supply 100 K9 artillery guns ( 10 from Hanwa, 90 in India by L&T), has provided such technical assistance that L&T is clocking deliveries, three months ahead of schedule. Living up the agreement?

  3. Other advantages of the MLSA are on similar lines as for other MLSAs described earlier except that with this agreement and counting Indian Navy’s support base got extended all the way to the North of South China Sea.

Singapore


On 01 June 2020, during PM’s visit to Singapore, the two countries inked eight MOUs one of which was the Logistic Support Agreement. Some salient points:

This agreement will cover naval ships, submarines, naval aircraft and other ship-borne aviation assets.

  1. The type of mutual facilitation by the MSLA will be of a similar nature as described above.

  2. Ever since 1993 India and Singapore are holding bilateral naval exercise called SIMBEX or Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise. Over the years the scope and reach of this exercise have increased. Future SIMBEXs will be additionally facilitated with MSLA which is now a reality between the two countries. Relevant to note here that SIMBEX 2019 was held in the South China Sea with its sea phase from 19-22 May 2019.

  3. Following on the heels of SIMBEX 2019, was a trilateral naval exercise in September 2019 with Thailand joining India and Singapore (SITMEX). The naval drills were focused on ensuring unhindered shipping through the Malacca Straits.

Japan


On 09 Sep 2020, when the Eastern Ladakh was on the hot boil, India entered into a logistic facilitation arrangement with Japan called the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA):

  1. The signing of ACSA is on similar lines as the other MLSAs except that the text of ACSA (unlike the LEMOA and others where some of the text is classified) is publically available on Japan’s Foreign Ministry’s website. The experts have termed it as a ‘bland agreement’ in comparison to the others where the ‘real punch’ lies in the classified text.

  2. Japan India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) which commenced in 2012 saw its fourth iteration in the Arabian Sea from 26-28 September 2020. The focus of JIMEX is on maritime security.

Russia


It is reported that in the annual bilateral summit between India and Russia slated in November 2020, the Agreement on Reciprocal Logistic Support or ARLS

Besides the obvious, i.e. facilitation in terms of supplies, food, water, repairs, maintenance, spare support, HADR and more, the real worth of MSLA lies in enhancing operability through the enhanced range and reach of naval vessels in international waters. The location of the country entering into MSLA decides where will be the impact of ‘enhanced strategic influence’ of the parties to the agreement.

For India, some of these could be the Malacca Straits or the strategic spaces in the Andaman Sea or the sea lines of communications in the IOR etc.


Seen in the above context MSLAs with the US to France, to Russia, to Japan, to Australia, to Singapore and Thailand (SITMEX) actually spans the high seas from the Atlantic to the Indian and on to the Pacific. This surely conveys a subtle but clear message to China in the face of its growing assertiveness in military and maritime objectives.