The strategic clinch with the US is set to get even tighter, with India signalling its readiness to ink two more bilateral military pacts, procure helicopters worth $3 billion and participate in a joint tri-Service amphibious exercise for the first time. Top government sources say “substantial progress” has now been made towards finalising the Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) between the two countries. The previous UPA regime had stonewalled all attempts by the US to push for the inking of the three so-called “foundational military agreements” during its 10-year tenure on the ground that it would “compromise the strategic autonomy” of India. But the NDA government went ahead and inked the first one on reciprocal logistics support — Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) — with India-specific safeguards in 2016. Now, the stage is being set for the other two, COMCASA and BECA, which the US contends will allow India more access to advanced military technologies and platforms with encrypted communications like Predator-B and MQ-9 Reaper drones, as was earlier reported by TOI. “The broad contours of COMCASA have been finalised…only some text-based negotiations are left. The BECA draft is also under discussion. We have insisted on India-specific assurances, much like what was done in LEMOA, and a status on par with its closest allies,” said a source. This comes ahead of the first India-US “two-plus-two” dialogue between foreign minister Ms Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman with their American counterparts, Mr Mike Pompeo and Mr Jim Mattis, in Washington. Sources say the two countries have also decided to hold their first-ever mega tri-Service amphibious exercise to supplement the flurry of war games they already hold every year from the top-notch naval Malabar (with Japan as the third participant) to the counter-terror Vajra Prahar and Yudh Abhyas between their armies. This will be only the second time India will deploy assets and manpower from its Army, Navy and IAF together for an exercise with a foreign country, after the Indra war games were held with Russia at Vladivostok last year. The US, of course, remains keen to make further inroads into the lucrative Indian arms market, having already bagged deals worth $15 billion over the last decade. While the US hard-sell to set up a F/A-18 “Super Hornet” or a F-16 fighter production line in India in still in a preliminary stage, India has virtually finalised the acquisition of six more Boeing Apache attack helicopters for $930 million and 24 Sikorsky S-70B multi-role naval choppers with potent anti-submarine warfare capabilities for around $2 billion. The IAF, incidentally, is slated to induct 12 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers in the 2019-2020 time frame under the contracts inked for them, worth Rs 13,952 crore and Rs 8,048 crore respectively, in September 2015. India, however, remains miffed about the new US sanctions regime called CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanction Act) that targets countries buying weapon systems from Russia. As reported earlier by TOI, India and Russia are working to get around CAATSA because they have new defence projects worth over $12 billion hanging in the balance as well as the operational need to maintain the huge inventory of Russian-origin equipment held by the Indian armed forces.
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