India has finally signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with the US after years of discussion and US insistence. The BECA agreement is the last of the four foundational agreements the US signs with its allies to promote defence and military relations. The signing of the agreement is meant to enhance intelligence gathering and sharing between the two countries. The US efforts to strengthen intelligence sharing are mainly aimed at China, and for India, Pakistan also factors in its growing acquisition of military intelligence gathering and hardware procurement.
What is BECA?
As mentioned earlier, BECA is the last of the four foundational agreements the US wanted to sign with India for closer military cooperation and working. The signing of these agreements is also required to exploit the full potential of platforms sold by the US through data sharing and increased interoperability such as P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.
India and the US signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, which provides provision for sharing and protecting military intelligence between the two countries. After the gap of fourteen years, they signed the second agreement the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016. As the name suggests, using each other’s bases for logistics is the main feature of this agreement. Next, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed in 2018. This agreement provides secure communication and exchange of information means between the two countries during exercises and operations.
The latest agreement BECA provides India access to the US geospatial data and equipment for military purposes.
Indian access to advanced data
India’s access to the US geospatial data includes satellite and topographic data, geophysical, geomagnetic, and geodetic data, and nautical and aeronautical charts. India will also get access to real-time information on the adversary’s movement from the US military satellites. More information remains classified.
Access to the latest and advanced date will increase the accuracy of Indian ballistic and cruise missiles by feeding them precise target information and location. It will also enhance the efficiency of Indian armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for which it has shown interest in the procurement of these platforms from the US. The US is also interested and paving ways to sell armed drones to its partners. Delivery of the US drones and access to sensitive data will increase Indian targeting capacity and capability. It also enables the US to install advanced avionics and navigational tools on the US provided aircraft to India and install digital sensors on Indian soil.
Is everything not so good for India?
With the signing of these strategic agreements, India is getting the status of a US ally fighting against a common enemy. They raise the US expectations from India to act for promoting and protecting the US strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The US administrations want to make India a balancer to China in its Indo-Pacific strategy. However, they have also concerns about the outcome of such efforts due to Indian shortcomings as net security provider when it comes to delivering on the US expectations.
On the Indian side, the long-held Indian policy of strategic autonomy seems a relic of the past now due to the Indian apparent tilt towards the US, especially under the Modi government. India has been historically closer to Russia, but now it is under pressure to limit its defence procurements from it and turn to the US wholeheartedly.
People in India have raised their concerns on the increasing penetration of the US in the Indian sensitive command centre through the datasets under the COMCASA and BECA. Indian military expert Pravin Sawhney writes that the data coming from the US sensors through equipment installed under COMCASA has given the US leverage to perform cyber activities to compromise or corrupt the Indian systems just like the Israelis did it through Stuxnet in Iran. But his concerns may provide an extreme picture of one side. The US having a capability does not mean it will exploit it, as corrupting and playing with information will setback the US efforts to counter China. Raising his concerns over Indian tilt towards the US, Former Indian Defence Minister AK Antony has said that the US wants a stronghold and monopoly over the Indian defence market. However, it is also true that India is getting S-400 and more fighter jets from Russia without any US sanctions.
Nevertheless, the signing of BECA and other agreements provide grounds for and indicate the desire for closer military cooperation in the future, particularly on the part of the US. This has implications for those regional countries with which India is not on good terms.
The implication for regional countries
As the intelligence and data sharing under the BECA enhance the targeting capability of Indian military platforms, they increase the insecurity of countries such as China and Pakistan.
India-China crisis during the Doklam in 2017 and recently in Ladakh may also have impacted upon the Indian decision making to sign COMCASA in 2018 and BECA in 2020. Instead of resolving the border disputes, India’s singing of BECA and other such agreements to gain military benefits against China will not augur well for peace in the region. It will intensify the geopolitical divide in the region resulting in conflicts.
China-India stand-off may have impacted Indian readiness to sign BECA with the US. For India, however, Pakistan remains a significant and core concern. Not only Pakistan gets more coverage in the Indian strategic and public discourse it remains central to the planning of Indian military force structure. Additionally, Pakistan also becomes relevant to such developments because of the idea of a two-front war scenario with Pakistan and China that is being discussed in India’s strategic circles.
Pakistan’s concerns over the shift in Indian policy to counterforce targeting have been aggravated with Indian access to real-time and accurate data on Pakistan’s military infrastructure. India is developing a range of missiles that can be used for counterforce targeting in Pakistan. Real-time data on military targets in Pakistan would increase the lethality and accuracy of Indian missiles such as Brahmos and Nirbhay cruise missiles, Agni III ballistic, and K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Future Indian hypersonic missiles would also benefit from these developments.
Pakistan should seek clarity from the US government over the provisions of BECA and get assurances of not sharing any sensitive data on Pakistan’s military infrastructure with India. Although India already has its Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities but access to the data from the US will complement those capabilities.
Furthermore, sensitive information on the military and other infrastructure of other smaller countries will weaken their military and diplomatic bargaining positions vis-à-vis India. They will have difficult choices to make then on their relations with China and or to comply with the US and Indian interests in the region.
This article was published in the Centre For Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on October 28, 2020.