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Indo-Pacific

US offers India access to military satellites as with Japan, Australia

Intel-sharing agreement likely to help New Delhi identify and strike targets

From left, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi on Oct. 27. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department) 

NEW DELHI -- The U.S. and India on Tuesday signed a key military pact on the exchange of critical geospatial intelligence, which is expected to help New Delhi strike potential targets with pinpoint accuracy, a significant development that comes in the midst of a tense monthslong border standoff with China.

The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or BECA, was inked during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper's India visit, mainly to take part in the third edition of the "two plus two" ministerial dialogue with counterparts Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh.

It is the last of four military communication "foundational" pacts between the two countries and will help enhance interoperability and information sharing in relation to sensitive satellite data, imagery, and topographical and hydrological data, among other things. The previous three -- the General Security of Military Information Agreement; the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement; and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement -- were signed in 2002, 2016 and 2018, respectively.

"We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing activities by China," Esper said after the talks.

"We achieved a significant milestone today with the signing" of the BECA, he said, "which enables greater geospatial information sharing between our armed forces."

Esper also said the two sides are "working to establish new cyber and space dialogues to increase cooperation in domains where both our countries face emerging threats."

His counterpart Singh said that the positioning of a U.S. Navy liaison officer in the Indian Navy's information-sharing hub, the Indian Fusion Center-Indian Ocean Region, and an Indian liaison officer at the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Bahrain "could be leveraged to enhance our information-sharing architecture."

The new military pact would enable India to survey a particular country or region through access to uninterrupted real-time geospatial data, including on difficult terrains. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

According to analysts, the BECA is especially beneficial to India, which will be able to access high-end satellite data, imagery, maps and other geospatial information from the U.S.

"The BECA provides India a big leap into data, information and intelligence sharing, at a level that is in comparison with other U.S. allies [in the region] such as Japan and Australia, which have certain access to these kinds of critical technologies," Pankaj Jha, a defense and strategic studies professor at O.P. Jindal Global university and former deputy director at India's National Security Council Secretariat, told Nikkei Asia.

He said that the BECA would enable India to survey a particular country or region through access to uninterrupted real-time geospatial data, including on difficult terrains, altitudes, and so forth. "[With this], you can pinpoint your targets [as] the U.S. satellites are far ahead of [India's] in terms of accuracy," Jha said. "It will help India's missile navigation system in a big way."

Just ahead of the signing of the pact, professor Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies program at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Nikkei the agreement was coming at "a very critical time for India" when it had border problems with China. "[The pact is] very significant ... in a way when you are looking at specific topographical intelligence, when you are looking at geospatial intelligence."

"Intelligence sharing has [already] been going on at a very high level between the two countries, especially in this crisis [on the Sino-Indian border] as well we have seen [that]," Pant said. "I think what this agreement will do [is] mainly formalize that [process] because already we have seen a lot of engagement," he said, adding that now the two militaries and defense establishments "are very comfortable" in dealing with each other.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, left, with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at a joint news conference in New Delhi on Oct. 27.   © AP

Pompeo, for his part, said that in the past year, the two countries have expanded their cooperation on cyber issues and their navies have held joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. He also "happily" took note of Australia joining the Malabar 2020 naval exercise in November with the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad: India, Japan and the U.S. The top American diplomat had also participated in the Quad ministerial meeting in Tokyo earlier this month.

Both Pompeo and Esper openly targeted China while calling for a "free and open" Indo-Pacific, though Indian ministers refrained from directly referring to Beijing.

India's Jaishankar said the Indo-Pacific region was a particular focus of the talks. "We reiterated the importance of peace, stability and prosperity for all countries in this region. As [Defense Minister Singh] stated, this is possible only by upholding the rules-based international order, ensuring the freedom of navigation in international seas, promoting open connectivity and respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states," he said. "A multipolar world must have a multipolar Asia as its basis."

Pompeo and Esper also jointly met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their visit and "discussed several issues of regional and global concern on which the United States and India collaborate, including COVID-19 response, security and defense cooperation, and shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific," according to State Department principal deputy spokesperson Cale Brown.

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