Earlier this week, India and the United States signed the last of the four foundational defence agreements, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), during the 2+2 ministerial dialogue.
Both the sides said that the pact will aid greater information-sharing between New Delhi and Washington. Calling it a “significant achievement”, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said BECA would open new avenues in information sharing.
Captain Vikram Mahajan (Retd), the director of Aerospace and Defense at policy think-tank US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, told HuffPost India in an email interview that BECA facilitates the exchange of geospatial information. “It provides a framework (for) the bilateral exchange of mostly unclassified data which can aid targeting and navigation in the areas of common interest.”
The four foundational agreements—GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA — were signed between India and the US in 2002, 2016, 2018 and 2020 respectively. The deals, said Mahajan, enable India to purchase or lease certain strategic platforms of the US which otherwise would not have been possible.
After BECA was signed on Tuesday, several reports looked at how the agreement could help India keep an eye on and counter threats from China (see here and here). Mahajan said that “if the deal would have been signed earlier, the situation at the Northern border of India could have possibly been different.”
He added that the signing of BECA will help in better and more extensive monitoring of the activities taking place not just at the Northern, but also the Western border, of India.
1. How will the four foundational agreements (BECA, GSOMIA, LEMOA and COMCASA) signed between 2002 and 2020 practically help India?
The purpose of the foundational agreements is to enhance interoperability between the armed forces of the US and India. General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which was signed in 2002, paved the path for technology cooperation in the military sector by sharing classified information between the US government and American companies, with the Indian Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) but not with Indian private companies. The gap was filled in 2019 with signing of Industrial Security Annex (ISA), during the second two plus two ministerial dialogue, in December 2019. Signing of ISA opened the door for US defence companies to partner with the Indian private sector.
Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which was signed in 2016 enables logistics support during port calls, joint exercises, training and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. Other than Bilateral ‘replenishment at sea’ of warships and the fuelling of P8 aircraft of the US Navy at Port Blair last month, India recently procured 11,000 Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) from the US, for the Indian Army deployed at the Indo-China border to tide through the winter.
Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed in 2018 allows Indian Armed Forces to have secure encrypted communication through specialised equipment and access to Anti-Spoofing Module GPS system amongst others. These provisions are available for US origin military platforms like the C-17, C-130 and P-8Is. Non-US platforms like India warships, armoured vehicles etc. can also benefit through installation of these equipment onboard.
Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is last of the four foundational agreements. BECA facilitates exchange of geospatial information. It provides a framework through which the bilateral exchange of mostly unclassified data which can aid targeting and navigation in the areas of common interest. Other than enhanced interoperability and sharing of secure and other information, these agreements enable India to purchase or lease certain strategic platforms of the US which otherwise would not have been possible.
It is pertinent to mention that each of these agreements is an opportunity, and not an obligation to share.
2. What information can India and the US share under BECA?
Under BECA, geospatial maps and charts between US and India can be shared, which may have been acquired from multiple sources like satellites, UAVs, reconnaissance aircraft, aerostats etc. Data shared from BECA will help in identifying, updating, and tracking of various types of targets and their positions, both on land and littoral. Data received under the agreement can be interpreted for long-range navigation and missile-targeting with enhanced accuracy. It is important to note that being a bilateral agreement, India is also expected to share similar data with the US, in the area of common interest.
3. BECA has been signed even as India is engaged in a standoff with China in Ladakh and the US has been vocal about the threat from Beijing. Is the timing of the deal significant? How can it help India counter China?
BECA has been on the cards since the signing of LEMOA in 2016. However, in time and space it could only be signed now, as it had to undergo extensive deliberations. While the timing of the deal may seem significant, it is pertinent to mention that if the deal would have been signed earlier, the situation at the Northern border of India could have possibly been different.
This is because with more ‘eyes in the sky’ the monitoring of the activities, troop build-up, infrastructure development etc, across the border could have been possibly better monitored. If detected early, pre-emptive actions could have been taken to avoid the current situation by the Indian Armed Forces.
The signing of BECA will now help in better and more extensive monitoring of the activities taking place not just at the Northern, but also the Western border of India.
4. Reports pointed out that the UPA government had concerns over the protection of classified information and access to classified laboratories in India related to BECA. Have they been addressed?
The deal took well over four years of deliberation to sign, so that the concerns of both sides were addressed to their individual and mutual satisfaction.
5. Some analysts have raised concerns about the extent of the US’s control over the digitised data and even potential misuse of the agreement. Do you think this is a valid fear?
BECA is a bilateral agreement signed between two sovereign nations. Any concern regarding compromise of shared data is unfounded.
6. It has been 12 years since the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed. Have the objectives outlined been achieved?
India conducted two nuclear tests in May 1974 and May 1998, both resulting in sanctions against India. It was not until the visit of the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s to the US in July 2005 that produced the long-awaited nuclear breakthrough. No deal in the past had garnered as much protest internally in both the democracies, and concern internationally. While not a single US atomic power reactor has been bought by India, this was the most important deal to have been signed between the two nations. This is because no real bilateral partnership could have progressed between the two democracies, without resolving the differences on non-proliferation that had been the biggest concern of the US.
Today, India is the ‘Major Defence Partner’ and the largest trading partner of the US. Earlier this year, during the visit of President Donald Trump to India, the India-US relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. A decade ago, no one had imagined the relationship between US and India to be where it is today. Each deal and agreement signed between the two nations has added to confidence building. All this has been possible only because of the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Therefore, in my view, much more has been achieved due to the signing of the deal, than was envisioned.