After a prolonged negotiation spanning for over a decade, the US and India have finally signed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) during their third round of India-US 2+2 dialogue which involved the US Secretary of State and Defense and their Indian counterparts. BECA is the last of the four foundational agreements and will enable India access to classified real-time signal intelligence (SIGINT) and other sensitive information gathered by the US satellites about India’s Northern and Western borders. This will significantly enhance the Indian military’s situational awareness for planning conventional or nuclear strikes, especially against Pakistan, in line with India’s evolving counterforce temptations.
India’s Journey from NSSP to BECA. India and the US agreed on the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in 2004 which provided the basis for expanding bilateral activities and commerce in space, civil nuclear energy and dual-use sensitive technology. The Joint Statement of Jul 18, 2005, provided a future framework for building a strategic partnership and included a commitment to build closer ties in space exploration, satellite navigation and launch, besides promising a civil nuclear cooperation agreement which offered an unprecedented concession to India by allowing it to keep 08 out of the 22 nuclear facilities outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), purely for military purposes.
To enable the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the US had to amend its own domestic law which prohibits civil nuclear cooperation agreement with a non-NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) state like India. Additionally, the US also coerced the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant India-specific exemptions from its export control guidelines so that India could engage in civil nuclear trade with rest of the members of the NSG.
The US also forced India’s entry into the export control regimes that regulates missile and dual-use technologies that could be used in weapons of mass destruction. The US is also pushing the NSG to allow India the full membership of the group that came into existence as a result of India’s misuse of civilian nuclear technology for military purposes. Several countries, however, continue to resist this joint move by India and the US as it would formally give recognition to India as a nuclear weapon states with no reciprocal obligations to work towards nuclear disarmament.
Interestingly, when India and the US were negotiating contours of their strategic partnership, the BJP, which was in opposition, strongly criticized the Congress government for giving up on India’s ‘strategic autonomy.’ Over the last 15 years the BJP, from being a strong critic has turned into a strong advocate of the evolving strategic partnership that may have consequences for India’s security and autonomy.
Other than the BECA that has been signed recently, India and the US have signed General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002; Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016; and Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA) in 2018. These agreements are based on reciprocity and India would be expected to share classified information with the US and other countries with the emergence of new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.
In their Joint Statement issued after the recently concluded 2+2 ministerial dialogue between the US and India, both sides expressed satisfaction on the progress made in the implementation of LEMOA, COMCASA, and agreed to review their bilateral military-to-military engagements which would include the holding of joint military exercises, training and expert exchanges. These developments are being viewed with concern by India’s neighbours, including China and Pakistan.
Implications for the Region. The US-India Comprehensive Global Partnership is likely to enhance India’s political standing at the international level besides helping the current BJP leadership to restore its credibility at the domestic front. On the military side, access to classified information and satellite imageries from the US satellites would help India improve its situational awareness and plan offensive military operations that may include the possibility of aerial surgical strikes inside mainland Pakistan, or counterforce conventional or nuclear strikes against Pakistan’s strategic assets.
India has recently tested Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HTDV) which would be able to carry hypersonic cruise missiles with speeds more than Mach 7 and hit the targets with greater accuracy. Hypersonic weapons due to their short flight time could also be useful against mobile launchers such as the ‘Nasr’ missile system that Pakistan is likely to employ for deterring India’s limited warfighting doctrine of Cold Start or Pro-Active Operations (PAOs).
India can also utilize the information acquired from the US owned satellites for its drone strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) or the mainland Pakistan, to help reduce the risks of manned aerial surgical strikes and achieve the intended political objectives without putting at risk the credibility of its military. The recently loosening of its export rules for the sale of drones by reinterpreting the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines to specific countries would largely benefit India, which has shown interest in buying the US technology.
These developments are in line with India’s evolving offensive military posture towards Pakistan, and less to do with its ‘projected’ military competition with China, and could force the former to take remedial measures that could ensure the credibility of its overall deterrence posture.
Options for Pakistan. Unlike India, which has a significant presence in space and has also developed anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon system, Pakistan is yet to seriously embark on its space odyssey. This deficiency could seriously impede Pakistan’s military planning and for developing options that could counter India’s evolving thinking on manned or unmanned surgical strikes, or its misguided counterforce temptations.
Pakistan will have to fast track its indigenous space program to meet its growing demand in the civil as well as military spheres. This however would require resources and access to technologies that are limited mainly due to political reasons. To arrest the yawning gap with its eastern neighbour in the space domain, Pakistan meanwhile, could enhance its ongoing collaboration with China. Both countries are already working on the 2012-2020 Space Cooperation Outline between China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), with China launching several communications and Earth observation satellites for Pakistan. This cooperation, nevertheless, needs to be further expanded focussing more on civilian applications to bridge the gap as early as possible, since the developments in the civilian sphere outpace the military developments around the globe and technologically advanced countries like the US are also outsourcing their projects to tech giants instead of establishing their military focussed infrastructure.
The US, which has been a major partner and continues to remain dependent on Pakistan for help in the ongoing Afghan peace talks seems completely oblivious to the implications of these new developments, and how it could affect Pakistan’s security concerns vis-à-vis India. There is a bipartisan consensus in Washington against China and false expectations that India would be able to deliver if its conventional and nuclear capabilities are enhanced. This consensus is not likely to alter with the change of US administration. India, despite the official denials, is now formally part of US military alliance against China. This may compel other countries in the region, including Pakistan, to consider options that could help safeguard their national security interests, but without getting embroiled in the new and different kind of ‘Cold War’ that is shaping up between US and China.