India and the United States finally signed (27 October) the ‘Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence’ (BECA-GI) during the recently concluded 2+2 ministerial meeting. This agreement, which comes amidst escalated tensions with China on the LAC, was preceded by the US welcoming Australia to the ‘Malabar’ exercise (to be held next month near India). The two sides also reviewed the existing bilateral defence cooperation and ways to deepen it.
BECA-GI is one of the three foundational agreements that the US usually transacts with close military allies.
The other two are: (i) the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows the military of either country to use each other's bases for logistics support; and (ii) Communications Compatibility & Security Agreement (COMCASA); this enables allies to use the US’ secure communications equipment and systems, as also receive US’ communication security equipment to facilitate interoperability.
India had signed Indian-specific versions of the LEMOA in 2016, and COMCASA in 2018. Earlier, in 2002, India-US had inked the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA); focused on greater intelligence sharing, the GSOMIA was extended in 2019 through the Industrial Security Annex. Together, these agreements facilitate exchange of classified information/real-time intelligence through secure systems, logistic sourcing, and interoperability of military forces.
The signing of BECA-GI however is not a sudden development. India, partly at the request of its armed forces, had resisted signing LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA-GI for years.
Some of India’s concerns were centred around the need to maintain strategic autonomy; protection of its secret communications and operating information including hydrological and magnetic data (the hydrology of the Indian Ocean is distinct from other seas, and the Indian Navy has the best hydrological data of this area; magnetic data is used in missile guidance); access to classified laboratories in India; and information leakage to third-party (read: other allies/NATO partners of the USA like Pakistan, Turkey). Evidently, India-US were able to whittle down mutual concerns over time.
Understanding BECA-GI & How India Can Gain From It
To understand the contours of the BECA-GI, one needs to look at what the US’ National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) does. The US Intelligence Community (USIC) consists of 17 agencies including the NGA; these work independently and collaboratively to gather and analyse the intelligence necessary to allow the US to conduct foreign relations and national security activities. The NGA, a unique combination of an intelligence agency and combat support agency, collects and collates all-source intelligence including multi-sensor Geospatial Information (stereo and mono-orthorectified imagery of land; hydrographic data of seas; aeronautical data; gravity/geodetic records, elevation data; and human geography).
It then coalesces available inputs, particularly imagery, imagery intelligence, human geography, and geospatial information to generate Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), which is utilised as:
- Strategic Intelligence on counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, global political crises, etc
- Foundation Data, in the form of topographic, elevation and terrain, land cover, and geodetic information
- Warfighter Support, for improving awareness of the operating environment, planning and precision targeting
- Predictive Intelligence / Indications & Warning, to warn national decision-makers of emerging global hot spots and imminent threats. For this, it also coalesces inputs from social media
- For safe navigation, and Humanitarian & Disaster Relief
- Special Event Planning, such as presidential inaugurations, state visits by foreign leaders, international conferences and major public events, etc
- Homeland Defence – against counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and border and transportation security efforts
BECA-GI thus potentially allows India to:
- Access the huge amount and range of data available at NGA’s ‘geospatial information bank’
- Receive advanced navigational aids and avionics on US-supplied aircraft (C-17, C-130J, P8-I aircraft), whose navigational and flight management systems depend on such data
- Engage in subject matter expert exchanges at the US’ National Geospatial-Intelligence College, as also receive training there
- Periodically seek subsidiary arrangements on a one-time or semi-permanent basis for exchanges of specific types of data and data feeds
Implications for the Indian Armed Forces
If the US provides access to all that BECA-GI envisages, it will be a game-changer for the Indian Armed Forces. It would substantially:
- increase the lead time on intelligence on imminent threats
- enhance our domain awareness about adversarial territories
- improve the accuracy of almost all long-range weapon systems including artillery, armed drones, guided bombs, missiles, etc, through access to military-grade GPS data
- improve the sensor-to-shooter link through streaming of real-time intelligence on secure systems
In the short-term, these will significantly enhance our capabilities associated with predictive intelligence, response, targeting, degradation, covert operations etc on all fronts. Most importantly, in the short-to-medium term, these will allow the Armed Forces to increase their reliance on precision munitions and autonomous weapons as they are inducted, and downsize manpower and legacy equipment holdings while preserving, or even increasing the probabilities for military success.
Are All Segments Of Indian Armed Forces Ready To Gain From ‘Data-Centric Warfare’?
However, it is not clear whether all segments of the Indian Armed Forces are geared to take advantage of such advanced, informatised, data-centric kill-chains.
We have a preponderance of Russian equipment, and many current concepts and doctrines aren’t compatible with data-centric warfare.
While concepts and doctrines can be progressively modified, the Russian-origin equipment particularly will require major retro-fitting, and in many cases, replacement with compatible systems. Even if India finds the technology to integrate American and Russian systems, it is doubtful the US would countenance that.
The storm over Turkey’s (a NATO member) acquisition of the Russian S-400 strategic SAM system is a case in point. In addition would be the need for new support platforms such as satellites.
Thus, the acquisition and exploitation of such capabilities will require major transformation, a shift from Russian equipment and perhaps a deepened reliance on US weapon platforms.
Further: the capital and sustenance costs of modern military platforms are much higher than legacy systems – hence, as we acquire modern systems, not only will the ‘bang per buck’ spent on defence reduce, but we may be faced with a dilemma on future budgets – at a time when the Indian economy is adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of negative/low growth.
Contemporary intelligence-sharing arrangements are also double-edged weapons. For example, cyber-cooperation, or shared access to secure/classified communications reveals its own vulnerabilities.
Thus, COMCASA and BECA-GI together could render India’s future kill-chain networks susceptible to US’ cyber capabilities when the strategic interests of both nations don’t overlap.
US Has Always Struck Down Rising Powers & Peer Challengers – What This Implies
The US has a patchy record on information/intelligence-sharing – even within NATO; a fair amount of what it shares is aimed at furthering its own national interests, or enhancing the threat perception in the minds of nations it is seeking as an ally.
This is because to retain its global pre-eminence, the US has always struck down rising hegemons and peer challengers – and to do so, has invariably built a coalition.
In WW-II, the US partnered with the Chinese (the PRC-KMT combine) in Asia-Pacific and with USSR in Europe to defeat the Axis – and at the end of WW-II, turned on both China and USSR. In 1972, the US commenced a rapprochement with China through Pakistan, and even allowed discrete transfers of technology to China through Pakistan, the UK, etc, to prop up Chinese capabilities against the USSR. The USSR broke up in 1991 – and the consequent loss of interest of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, the decline of the Japanese economy, the economic boom in the US and rest of Asia, increase in consumerism, and the fall in commodity prices, together created a geopolitical opening for China's economy and its ‘rise’.
Who Is US ‘Targeting’? A ‘Common Enemy’? Or Indian Americans?
A decade later, the US began focusing on trimming China after the downing of its EP-3 SIGINT aircraft in April 2001. However, 9/11 re-directed the US’s focus to Afghanistan and later, also to Iraq. This confined the US’ military power and geopolitical attention to an area between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. All this allowed China to continue its economic and military ‘rise’. And with the US thus pre-occupied, China, now with a modernised military and an economy bigger than the US’ on PPP terms, has emerged as a peer challenger.
The recent statements by Mike Pompeo likely seem aimed at egging-on India to consider a war with China – even as the Indian leadership emphasises diplomacy along with a resolute military steadfastness to resolve the crisis.
The timing of the agreement, and Pompeo’s statements and visit to the National War memorial – just days prior to the outcome of the US presidential election – also raise questions. Are these aimed at ‘a common enemy’? Or, at the Indian diaspora now voting in the US?
A final thought: let’s assume that the QUAD is finally able to really downsize China. Considering heft and reach, the next to rise in Asia-Pacific will be India. Will it then be the turn of India to be downsized by the US – as it has always struck down rising powers?
(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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