Article by Shantanu K. Bansal
The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is the fourth and final “foundational” understanding the US has with India. Under the BECA, the two countries can exchange maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other unclassified imagery, geophysical, geomagnetic and gravity data.
The BECA will give India access to classified geo-spatial data as well as critical information having significant military applications. With this India will be able to keep a close watch on the movements of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean and vital Pakistani installations. These are the standard quotations which open sources denote but the author under this article tries to bring out real operational need of the BECA to India.
Now back to the basics, building satellites take years which is followed by complex task of launching it to the desired orbit. The ‘militarisation of space’ (not to be confused with ‘weaponisation of space’) was never a priority for India until we enter the second decade of this century. India’s first ‘dedicated defence satellite’ was launched in 2013. Before this, Indian analysts generally term a satellite as a ‘dual-use technology’, means both for military and civil use.
In comparison other major countries around the world were busy in exploring as well as exploiting space for military services. The trend started during the cold war period itself. Not as a surprise, the concept of Anti-satellite weapons (E.g. ASATs) was also introduced in the same era. Taking the war to the pinnacle of heights that is the Space. But India’s endeavour to use space based applications for defence purposes are very new when compared to such advance countries. Hence, the first advantage is that the BECA can provide strategic input from US satellites, filling up the areas where we still lack.
India has not been able to develop desired number of satellites which the geostrategic environment of our region necessitates for. The importance of Indian Ocean has long been discussed by us. While we know that Chinese warships and submarines started lurking in the Indian Ocean way back in 2009, India still doesn’t have a dedicated ocean surveillance satellites which can help the Indian Navy to surveil such a large part of the Earth.
In comparison China operates 12 ELINT Yaogan satellites assisting its A2/AD operations in the South China Sea. A trio of 3 satellites each provide coverage of 3,500Kms. The fleet of 4 ELINT clusters (Yaogan-17, 20, 25 and 31 satellites) probably provides revisiting time for every half an hour with maximum pass duration of 23-24 minutes. In comparison India operates only 1 ELINT satellite, at least 3 satellites operating in cluster is required to enable Direction Finding (DF)- ability to spot opponent’s electronic signals from a ship or base installation enabling Target Acquisition.
These ELINT satellites are generally assisted by Earth Observation Satellites like Optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites. They are both imagery satellites but basic difference is while optical satellite uses camera lens hence they can only be effective during the daytime but SAR satellites can provide images during night also as it uses radar to generate image rather a lens. It provide images without any atmospheric obstruction for E.g. clouds. Imagery satellites are all dual purpose satellites.
Given the experience in developing earth observation satellites, India has done very well in this domain. For instance, recently launched RISAT-2BR1 has a powerful 0.35m resolution (best in class). This means that two objects separated by 0.35m distance can be distinctly identified. However, the older one likely to provide less resolution, for E.g. CARTOSAT 2 satellite provides a resolution of 0.6m.
While India has achieved the quality milestone, it is still far from achieving quantity. The basic need for India is worthy space based coverage over almost whole of Pakistan, the northern Indian Ocean and the Tibet region. India has limited satellites to cover these areas with relatively better ‘revisiting time’ that is the time taken by the satellite to reach the same point. It is based on varied factors for E.g. inclination of the satellite and designated path along the axis.
In order to understand the concept, as per open sources, a CARTOSAT satellite takes 2.5 days to revisit, hence roughly 4 CARTOSAT satellites are required to give an update in every 24 hours of a desired location but given the pace of operations in today’s fluid environment of warfare, the time between 24 hours can cost the nation. The BECA may come to rescue by enabling the US to share some crucial inputs while the operations continue.
In comparison to China, India operated less than 10 satellites with only 1 SAR satellite operational in 2019 while China operated about 50 imagery satellites including video, hyperspectral and geostationary imagery satellite besides optical and SAR satellites.
While here we are talking about space arm, the US aerial, undersea and ocean surveillance systems are also top notch which can provide crucial inputs. As we are limited to the Indian Ocean; US U2 plane has been conducting reconnaissance operations across the world; it has world’s highest flying UAVs, the fleet of Poseidon aircrafts along with Triton UAVs have been conducting surveillance across the seas, after operating SOSUS undersea surveillance network, it is now upgrading its undersea surveillance grids, its cyber-surveillance capabilities (CYBINT) which shall also be covered by the BECA is world renowned as most of the companies which are dominating the world wide web is itself established in US. The combined inputs in reference to BECA can have a force multiplier effect, with relevance to tactical, operational and strategic domain. Further, engagement with QUAD like platform can increase the quantum of inputs.
However, all this is possible only when the US political priorities matches with that of India’s otherwise the people who have covered 1999 Kargil war very well know how the US denied GPS navigation to India making our aircrafts, missiles and other system almost blind in midst of the battlefield. While BECA provides a force multiplier solution but we must understand that in this multipolar world the key to survival is ‘Atmanirbharta’.
We cannot expect a second country to fight our wars. Such help is of immense importance but will only act as an alternative or to better extent as a secondary support, the primary will still remain our own capabilities in this domain.
We still don’t operate any Data Relay Satellite, our Navigation satellites only provide coverage limited to this region, we still don’t have a SIGINT satellite; forget space we still have not been able to develop a worthy MALE UAV while on the other hand China has been manufacturing thousands of military UAVs annually and have come up as world’s largest exporter of UAVs, we still lack adequate number of strategic airborne surveillance systems, our ability in the domain of CYBINT (along with AI and big data) is very preliminary. The importance of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) has long been realised for the modern battlefield but it’s time to reorient our efforts in this domain because unless and until we can’t see the enemy coming how we are going to fight it?
At last, one needs to understand that BECA provide for 2 way traffic. India has been very active in the Indian Ocean, its ability to perform TECHINT operations over South Asian region and the Tibet Autonomous Region has advanced over the years. Moreover, India has installed number of ground stations at key locations across Asia. It’s prospects to enhance space power in coming decades are very well visible. India is going to launch two geostationary imagery satellites in coming years which will enable 24×7 monitoring of the region, called the GISAT satellites.
The Russian and Chinese advancement in ASATs making the US satellites vulnerable is not a new thing. Hence, in coming years we will see more strides in the area of geo-spatial and overall technical intelligence sharing cooperation with various countries making passive arrangements for data sharing as the counter-space applications and threats to the regional security proliferate.