India and the United States have just signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The agreement formalises an ad-hoc arrangement already in practice and furthers India-US military-to-military cooperation. The agreement, put simply, provides access to each other’s military facilities for fuelling and logistic support on a reimbursable basis.
LEMOA, sometimes called a Logistics Services Agreement (LSA), was debated by previous governments as well, but it could not be finalised because of Indian domestic political opposition, which were themselves based on several misperceptions about LSA. But China’s growing military strength and increasing belligerence has led to a conscious strategic choice by New Delhi to get closer to Washington. This has made India a lot more comfortable with the US, which also worries about China’s behaviour and power.
LEMOA permits the US and India to use each other’s facilities and provides for easier access to supplies and services for the military forces of the two countries when they are engaged in specific types of activities. These activities are limited to joint military exercises, training, port calls and humanitarian missions and other military activities that both sides mutually agree to undertake. It does not give the US automatic access to Indian military bases or to logistical support, but simply smoothens existing practices.
The advantage over the current situation is precisely this: Though the US does currently use Indian military bases and logistics — for example, during joint military exercises — this is managed on a case-by-case basis, which is simply more cumbersome. LEMOA does not necessarily give anything that the US does not already get, but it makes the process more regularised.
A big part of the domestic political opposition to LEMOA was based on the misperception that this was an agreement signed by US allies and signing this would therefore make India one too. Nothing could be farther from the truth: In reality, LSA has been signed by around 100 countries, many of which are not US allies.
Another misperception about the LSA has been that signing it will make India a party to America’s conflicts and policies, especially in West Asia and East Asia. But this is not true either: Indeed, even most countries formally allied with the US have not been dragged into these wars, let alone those simply signing the LSA.
Moreover, India does stand to gain a lot more than lose in practical terms. In one of the more concrete benefits, LEMOA strengthens India’s outreach to areas that were not typically within its reach. With one aircraft carrier in operations, India’s capacity to undertake far sea operations has been fairly limited. Signing LEMOA opens up opportunities such as gaining access to US military bases in Djibouti and Diego Garcia — these are, by no means, insignificant.
Indian arrangements with the US for such access open up new options in beefing up India’s logistics capacity for missions in the Indian Ocean. Though India can access such facilities and logistics even now, again, this has to be done on a case-by-case basis, which LEMOA does away with.
Lastly, it is politically symbolic — a sign signifying the state of India-US strategic ties. This too worries some commentators, who argue that India should remain independent of both lest China take a more antagonistic line with India. But China’s behaviour has been antagonistic even before, and its behaviour is part of the reason why LEMOA is symbolically important.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is senior fellow and head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.