The 2-day annual 2×2 meeting involving the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US, namely, Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh and Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, respectively, begins six days before the American quadrennial elections on November 3 and the possible termination of tenures of Pompeo as US Secretary of State and Esper as the Pentagon boss. The chances of Joe Biden replacing Donald J Trump as US President are rated anywhere from the former squeaking through to registering a landslide win.
The ending of the one-term Trump presidency could quickly lead the Washington policy establishment, inclusive of the mainstream Republican Party which has been alienated and sidelined and has actively canvassed for Biden, breathing a sigh of relief and dismissing the last four years as an aberration. An aberration or whatever, it nevertheless revealed the basic self-centredness and the isolationist impulses at the core of US foreign policy. Trump gave his personal prejudices free run but was not ideological. He supped with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and was thick as thieves with Chinese president Xi Jinping while stomping on treaty allies in Asia and Europe because of his transactional belief that such tactics would best fetch America what he thought it deserved by way of substantive strategic/economic/political gain for putting out for its friends.
In Trump’s system the ask if promptly acted on fetched immediate returns. For instance, in May this year when Modi shipped hyroxychloroquine to the US peddled by the US president as remedy for the novel Corona virus, India received almost by return mail, as it were, relaxation in duties on Indian exports to that country. It was a glorified barter scheme at work and was only a variant of the usual Western liberal notions of world order requiring other countries to “follow the leader”, reflect its “democratic” values, mirror its strategic concerns, subscribe to free trade, and trust in multilateral organizations and treaty regimes that Washington can twist to protect its interests and secure advantages.
The US view of China as adversary predates Trump, of course. Nor has the Trumpian perception about India’s strategic usefulness in this part of the world differed from that of past Administrations. What was new starting in the new millennium was the unvarying insistence that India accept the 4+1 foundational accords to progress bilateral relations to a higher pitch. So we got the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed in 2002 to safeguard intelligence shared by the US, the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) permitting each side to access the designated military facilities for refueling and replenishing military forces, the 2018 Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) valid for 10 years to facilitate interoperability, the fourth agreement up for signature at the forthcoming 2×2 meeting in New Delhi — Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to share geospatial and satellite data, and the ‘+1’ — the 2019 Industrial Security Annex that makes available to Indian private sector companies classified American industrial information to manufacture military goods previously restricted to the Indian government and defence public sector units.
In my books and writings, I have detailed why the four foundational accords while not being particularly useful to India may be a drag and end up actually hurting Indian military capability and conduct of operations, and undermining this country’s sovereignty. Take CISMOA, for example. In the guise of seamless communications between the fighting platforms of the two countries, easier penetration and hence the compromising of the most secret communications networks, including the Indian nuclear command and control links, has now been enabled. But in this post let me outline the reasons why I think BECA could be problematical.
The US has, via satellites, apparently digitally mapped the entire world. In military terms, BECA promises Indian forces and weapons platforms digitized maps so obtained of, say, China and hence the precise targeting coordinates for any Chinese military assets India may care to have in its crosshairs in a conflict. It will, in theory, also permit Indian missiles and other over-the-horizon standoff munitions once fired to reach distant points by helping them correct course mid-way and align properly to target in their terminal run for precise destruction. So far so good; where’s the hitch?
The trouble is the US, as dispenser and source of sensitive adversary target information, is in a position to monitor on real time basis the digitized data being accessed and, if its national interests of the moment are so served, to deny the user state such information and even to tweak the digitized data just enough to misdirect the fired weapon, and otherwise to dictate the outcome of such engagements. The US can then plausibly blame technical glitches in the Indian weapon for it going astray. No BECA can ever be drafted in such verifiable detail as to prevent the US from doing this. After all, India has no control over American satellites and, therefore, even less control over the kind of information they transmit at any time. So, there’s no guarantee that expensive Indian weapons fired at China will not be thus fooled around with by a third party. It needs no reminding that Indian and US interests even as regards China only overlap a bit but are far from convergent.
The cautionary tale to have in mind is what happened when the intermediate range Agni missile was first test fired in May 1989 and was oriented to “target” by the US Global Positioning System (GPS). The launch was fine and the telemetry in the initial stage indicated flawless performance, but with Indian ships monitoring its progress and stationed at the planned endpoint in the Indian Ocean, the missile entering the terminal stage in its flight suddenly plunged into the sea. What happened was that the American GPS had just then “blinked” sending the missile off course! India thereafter used the Russian GPS. It is not hard to imagine such a thing happening with Indian munitions dependent on US-generated target data being misdirected in wartime. With what consequences for India can only be imagined.
This is why India so desperately needs to be self-reliant in armaments and strategic support systems at any cost, including accelerating the pace of launching and operationalizing an Indian constellation of satellites to provide the Indian military indigenous blink-proof GPS and targeting wherewithal not prey to the interests of any outside power.