The India-US LEMOA: Turning From Non-Alignment?

20 April 2016 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


After a decade of bilateral discussions and negotiations, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter have reportedly reached a consensus on one of the three so-called “foundational agreements” that Washington has sought to implement with India. Parrikar and Carter have announced an in-principle agreement to enter into a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) for their military interoperability. According to this incipient agreement, the two countries will permit their militaries to use each other’s bases to re-fuel, replenish their supplies and provide logistical support and other services. This has significant implications for both countries.


The LEMOA is a revised version of the version of Logistics Support Agreement that was first put to the Manmohan Singh government by the US a decade ago. That administration, influenced by its Defence Minister, Mr A.K. Antony and the left-leaning members in its coalition, opposed the agreement on the grounds that it could compromise India’s non-aligned stance and leave regional powers (read China) with the perception that India was gradually becoming a member, albeit an informal one at this stage, of a coalition that sought to contain China.

Given the nationalistic stance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and New Delhi’s increasing purchases of US military technology, it is hardly surprising that this agreement was signed. Indian officials have been at pains to point out, however, that this does not imply that US troops, naval ships or military aircraft could use Indian bases in the process of prosecuting a war against “friendly countries”. According to them, this agreement will come into force only when the two sides conduct joint exercises and is not to be seen as an intention to forge an alliance against China.

The “friendly countries” caveat can, and probably will, be read by Chinese strategists, nevertheless, as posing a threat to that country. They will undoubtedly see it as an implicit warning that should China carry out any action that India perceives as inimical, India will have no compunction in permitting the agreement to come into force. They will, likely, also see it as further proof that India is gradually moving into the US camp, just as the opposition Indian Congress Party alleges. There is some justification for this perception.

By 2014, India’s acquisition of military equipment had surged from virtually nothing in 2008 to become second-largest. In 2014, India accounted for 11.2 per cent of all US military sales, second only to Saudi Arabia at 11.8 per cent. In September last year, Modi signed an agreement with the US for the purchase of twenty-two Apache attack helicopters and fifteen Chinook cargo helicopters, together with missiles for the attack helicopters, in a deal estimated at around US$3 billion and the biggest since Modi took office. It was also reported that Washington backed India’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime on 22 September and India’s Air Force sent a letter to San Diego-based General Atomics saying it wanted to purchase the Avenger just two days later. These drones will likely complement the surveillance-only drones that India has acquired from Israel, thus giving it the capability to remotely bomb any region of Pakistan and also southern China. It must be noted that, in order to purchase the drones, India must become a member of the thirty-four country Missile Technology Control Regime. Its application was blocked by Italy, however, no doubt because of the ongoing legal dispute between the two countries over the two Italian marines who have been accused of shooting Indian fishermen. The Missile Technology group’s annual meeting concluded on 9 October without India being nominated as a member. This is, however, unlikely to prove to be anything more than a stumbling block.

Top Buyers of US Arms

Apart from the LEMOA, Carter and Parrikar also announced two more projects under which the US and India would jointly develop digital helmet-mounted displays and a Joint Biological Tactical Detection System under the previously-signed Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. India wishes to acquire the US’s electro-magnetic aircraft launch system for the aircraft carriers that it is building and Boeing has offered to licence India to manufacture F-18 fighter aircraft, which could also be used on those carriers. These aside, the two sides have agreed to establish a maritime defence dialogue that would include officials from their navies and foreign affairs departments, renew their combined pursuit of the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement for Geo-spatial Co-operation and agreed to start navy-to-navy talks on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare, no doubt with the increased presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.

These initiatives could be an indication that India is shifting its stance on non-alignment. India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, one aimed at creating a third way and remaining aloof from falling into the Western or Communist (USSR) camps of the Cold War era. After the collapse of the USSR, India continued to look to Russia as a strategic ally and its main source of military equipment. The LEMOA could, however, well presage New Delhi’s shift away from those views.

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