After 12 years of back and forth, India and the US have agreed on a logistics exchange memorandum of understanding (LEMOA). This is a watered down version of the standard logisitics cooperation agreement that the US military has with dozens of countries .
The core of both agreements is a regularisation of the ability of naval ships and aircraft of both countries to dock in each others bases for taking on supplies like fuel. Indian and US naval ships and aircraft have often used each other’s naval and air bases before, but in the past this has been an ad hoc, complex action in which clearances have to be obtained for each individual case. Base usage and taking on supplies will now be much easier for naval ships and aircraft under both flags.
India will be the main beneficiary. While Indian naval ships and aircraft increasingly venture further away from their home, India has no bases and in some cases not even agreements with foreign governments along the Atlantic and Pacific. The US navy and air force, on the other hand, has a global network which is now accessible to Indian ships and aircraft . Of course, US warships and aircraft now have additional sites to use in India, but they already have many bases around the region at their disposal.
Critics in India have claimed LEMOA draws India into a nascent alliance with the US. This is untrue. Buying diesel and food supplies is hardly the stuff of strategic alignment. In any case, the text says, this “agreement does not create any obligations on either Party to carry out any joint activity. It does not provide for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements.” The claims this would allow US troops to be based on Indian soil are also false.
That New Delhi has been so sensitive about what amounts to the military equivalent of buying groceries on credit, looks absurd when the US is emerging as India’s number one source of high end arms, its key overseas source for counterterrorism intelligence and its most common military exercise partner. LEMOA will largely be used, incidentally, to help carry out the last.
What should be recognised is an underlining geopolitical reality. Far from expanding its influence, the US has been shrinking its global security footprints. It has been pushing agreements like LEMOA with India in large part because US military presence in this region is rapidly shrinking and it would like India to step up to the global plate. India should now be looking to sign the sister defence agreement on communication and information security with the US as well.
Much of this is also innocuous: Largely about promises that technology and data will not be stolen or given to third parties. But without this, for example, India is buying US reconnaissance planes minus much of their best technical capabilities. Signing LEMOA should be the first step in rationalising an India-US defence relationship that still tries to hide behind veils.