NEW DELHI: The US-India military alliance is all set to get a major boost with the expected arrival here of US Defence Secretary James Mattis later this year, perhaps end September.

Preparations are reportedly afoot to use his visit for the ‘ operationalisation’ of the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that allows the militaries of the two countries access to each other’s facilities for supplies, refuelling and repairs.

Mattis, according to sources, is expected to fly into Kolkata from Indonesia if this plan crystallises. His aircraft will be re-fuelled under the provisions of LEMOA, before he comes into Delhi, in what will be the first operationalisation of the controversial agreement that has taken India-US military ties to another new level.

The then suggested Logistics Agreement had been vehemently criticised by the Opposition when considered earlier by the UPA government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had thus not been able to rush into signing this pact. The BJP was opposed to strengthening military ties with the US as well.

However, last year,the agreement was signed by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Obama’s Defence Secretary Ash Carter. The US usually signs four foundational agreements with its defence partners. India has signed two of these, the first one being the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, Hower New Delhi was a little wary of signing the other three subsequently, as these agreements essentially lock India into a tight military and security embrace with the US.

The two agreements pending are Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) that was discussed during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as well and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

The refuelling of the Defence Secretary’s aircraft could now become the first step towards operationalising LEMOA. Both countries insist that this does not necessarily allow setting up of bases, but it does give the military access to the others military bases with all the facilities. It allows easier access to supplies and services when the militaries are engaged in specific activities. These could be joint military exercises where such access is being given on case to case clearnances, or it could be training, port calls, what both refer to as humanitiarian missions and other “mutual” military activities of unspecified nature.

As the term indicates it means LEMOA “facilitates the provision of logistical support, supplies, and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis, and provides a framework to govern them.” And it helps “both countries in governing the use of each other's land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply.” This as experts have pointed out brings that them much closer to countering the maritime “assertiveness” of China with the US interest in the South China Seas causing considerable friction between Washington and Beijing.

Earlier, when the UPA was looking at LEMOA seriously, the BJP had joined the other Opposition parties to oppose this move with the argument that Indian military facilities could well be used by the US in its wars in this region. LEMOA allowing refuelling, servicing aircraft as well as access to supplies and services would be hugely advantagous for the US military currently involved in operations in Afghanistan and into West Asia where the stakes remain high.

Besides, the close military alliance is also intended by both Washington, and now increasingly so New Delhi, to send a message to China that the US strategy is aimed at containing. The Indian Navy, the most professional force on this side of the world, will under LEMOA allow the US ships access to its services, and its bases in the high seas. Re-fuelling and servicing in itself will be a major facility for the American war ships, as the sources pointed out.

Mattis’ visit thus, important in the wake of the Doklam stand off with China will acquire a larger strategic dimension if indeed the plan to fuel and service his aircraft under LEMOA succeeds. It will be a US season for the Modi government now as Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to visit as well, with US President Donald Trump’s powerful daughter Ivanka expected here in November. She was invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Washington and she is expected to now attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad in what will be a high profile visit.