By signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), India has potentially mortgaged the digitised military capability of its three services – army, air force and navy – to the United States. If this sounds startling, it is.
Working in tandem with the Communication, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed in 2018, BECA too is much more than just “developing inter-operability” – i.e. the ability to fight together against a common enemy – as background briefings and media reports based on those briefings are fond of saying. As if that were not bad enough, through the twin-routes of datasets (given under BECA) and systems (given under COMCASA), India’s indigenous kill-chains (sensor-to-shooter networks working through a command centre) would potentially be under US control through its massive cyber capabilities.
What prompted the Modi government to take this mindlessly suicidal extreme step, considering India is neither a US military ally nor has it received any commitment that the US military would fight its wars? Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggests the answer. On the eve of the BECA signing, she tweeted, “Arguably without Doklam and Ladakh crisis, India would not have got to yes on COMCASA or reportedly BECA.”
The reality is India has cut off its nose to spite the Chinese by flaunting untested strategic ties with the US, in the hope that US geospatial intelligence and real-time images datasets would help the accuracy of India’s long range firepower comprising its cruise missiles, multi barrel rocket systems and probably the Russian S-400 air defence missile system once its joins the inventory.
By signing the ‘India-specific’ COMCASA, India was given highly encrypted classified security equipment, and by signing BECA, the US would share its military Geographic Information System (GIS) comprising topography, terrain and weather information for mission planning. India would also get US satellite imagery (data and video), GPS military resolutions and datasets from its airborne assets.
The huge volume of US datasets from diverse sensors would come to Indian command centres through the special COMCASA equipment. Since good quality, real-time datasets are the new ammunition of digitised warfare, this can be platformed quickly (perhaps using US-assisted Artificial Intelligence) to both the armed drones being procured from the US as well as other weapon platforms with the three services for precise stand-off firepower.
On the face of it, this would be great. But deep down, India has created space for the US to exercise widespread malafide activities on the cyber front, should it so decide. Malicious cyber activities do not happen only through cyberspace, but through systems too. These include computer software, embedded processors, routers, all wired and wireless transmission, controllers and so on. While systems are accessed through cyberspace, there are other paths that cyber warriors can use to introduce egregious errors into computer systems without using the internet.
For instance, America’s COMCASA equipment could have embedded cyber logic bombs. These are nano malware (malicious software) codes that start functioning when certain conditions are met, or outside instructions are given after months or even years. They could then start deleting datasets files or corrupt them inducing malfunctions in the kill-chain, leading to missiles going awry if not running amok. To be sure, the best ballistic, cruise or hypersonic missiles in the world depend on the robustness of the kill-chain supporting it. This explains why major power like US, China and Russia pay special attention to having cyber and electronic hardened kill-chains.
Since US (cyber) experts would be authorised COMCASA system users, they could corrupt datasets on command for as long as they want. Or there could be dataset poisoning; it could be falsified or corrupted. The US could even overwrite Indian short-range, point to point radio frequency connections by long-range high-powered signals from beyond physical parameters. Moreover, the US has developed impressive nano weapons capable of transiting through cyberspace to disrupt or destroy physical infrastructure.
A case is point is the world’s first known cyberweapon with nanotechnology – the Stuxnet computer worm used to attack Iran’s nuclear programme in 2010. The US was suspected to be behind this weapon, which linked the cyber domain with the physical one. The US has numerous cyber weapons, techniques and capabilities, including installing information mines, information reconnaissance, changing network data, dumping information garbage, disseminating propaganda, applying information deception, releasing clone information, establishing network spy stations and so on.
It is no one’s case that the US is likely to carry out malfeasant cyber activities against India, a country it regards as its strategic ally. However, the important issue is capability and not intention. By signing COMCASA and BECA, the Modi government has given the US entry into the Indian military’s growing digitised space, something no nation other than a US military ally – all of whom have excellent indigenous cyber capabilities – would do.
The problems regarding interoperability would be no less. Given the centrality of data, the then US chairman joint chiefs of staff committee, General Martin Dempsey suggested in 2010 that the US Air Force should now use a ‘data to decision’ cycle rather than the traditional ‘sensor to shooter’ cycle that it does with its military allies through the Link-16 network. So, what is underway is the introduction of tactical cloud architecture to replace Link-16. Of 1970s vintage, Link-16 has limited bandwidth which can do only voice transmission, is complex to plan for each mission, has high latency and suffers from cyber and electronic vulnerabilities. Allied militaries – all of which have signed BECA and CISMOA (Communication, interoperability and security memorandum agreement, equivalent of the India-specific COMCASA) – which use the tactical cloud are thus tied in to fighting a common enemy.
After the signing of these ‘foundational’ military agreements, Indo-US joint exercises are now likely to graduate to advanced and operational manoeuvres from the tactical exercises thus far. The Indian defence forces would be introduced to and trained in new data-centric war concepts under cloud architecture.
So far, so good but the questions which remain unanswered are: What good are these advanced war concepts when the Indian forces would eventually fight with different war concepts, capabilities, and capacities? Will there be two sets of warfighting concepts, one when exercising with the US, and another when India prepares itself to fight with China and Pakistan?
Can India afford to divide its limited high-profile assets, especially in the absence of a vibrant defence industrial complex, to support its warfighting capabilities, on twin-training war concepts that are generations apart?
Has the Modi government even applied itself to the implications of signing BECA and the earlier COMCASA on war-preparedness at a time when external threats have multiplied?
Finally, all this would also not be lost on China and India’s friend, Russia – which still provides the bulk of Indian fighting platforms.
Pravin Sawhney is editor of FORCE newsmagazine.