A key task for the newly elected government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to decide on the content of the last of the India-U.S. foundational agreements – the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA).
BECA, like the previous agreements – Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) – also calls for modification for India’s specific needs.
BECA is an agreement that allows the U.S. and India to share geospatial data and imagery to identify the military hardware of their adversaries at pinpoint accuracy and very high resolution. The U.S. has signed similar agreements with South Korea, Australia and Japan. At the outset, it seems beneficial for India to join this circle, given that the U.S’ geospatial intelligence-gathering satellites far outnumber India’s. But as the weapons of fourth-generation warfare and technological challenges enter the cyber and electronic realms, BECA’s over-focus on geolocating adversarial hardware will prove to be limiting. One such challenge that it neglects is the alarming likelihood of weather warfare, and the growing criticality of meteorological intelligence.
In May 2019, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned off a 24-GHz (gigahertz) band of the electromagnetic spectrum to fifth-generation (5G) telecom operators in its sovereign territories. The auction took place despite apprehensions raised by U.S. weather-monitoring agencies – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – about the clash of the telecom and meteorological technologies. The top leadership of the two scientific agencies noted that the 24-GHz band, typically allotted to weather-monitoring instruments – including satellite sensors which measure water vapour in the atmosphere and precipitation – cannot also be assigned to 5G networks because it can interfere with monitoring cloud cover and precipitation, thereby setting back the efficiencies of weather forecasting and disaster preparedness to 1980s levels.
Fifth generation (5G) networks are already at the centre of a global storm, and central to the ongoing technology dispute between the U.S. and China. This has created extreme views on 5G – from it being the next big technology revolution to it being the bane of human health. It is true that 5G networks will have higher speeds and lower latencies than previous generation networks. But, a caveat: according to the laws of physics, the airwaves at the 24 GHz-band cannot travel long distances as they are absorbed by the moisture in the air and have restricted penetration through the steel and concrete of urban infrastructure. Given this limitation, a 5G network on 24-GHz will be confined only to thickly populated, urban areas and will require dense transmission tower infrastructure.
The race for spectrum allocations, usually limited to bidders from the telecom sector, has now grown into a contest between the remote-sensing and telecommunications industries. The Internet-of-Things has enabled the inter-linking of billions of electronic devices, and the allocation of the scarce natural resource – electromagnetic spectrum – will only become more complicated.
India has suffered from the deadliest and most expensive precipitation disasters known in the past few years – the 2005 cloudburst over Mumbai, the 2011 and 2013 flash floods in Leh and Uttarakhand, and the recurrent tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, the latest being Cyclone Fani only last month. India has seven of the world’s most populous cities that contribute to its economy. Precise weather forecasting for these cities is vital, not only for preventing colossal economic losses, but also for disaster management.
By the end of 2019, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will auction a few spectral bands for 5G operations. The airwaves around the 24-GHz band are being considered for the metropolitan areas. But before going ahead with this allocation, TRAI must study the impact of 5G transmission on the 24-GHz band on localised urban weather monitoring.
This is why the archaic BECA should be modified. A civilian dry-run of BECA can be tested for inter-operability via the existing Indo-NOAA agreement signed in 2008.
The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Department of Space can collaborate with NOAA and NASA respectively to analyse the meteorological data of those U.S. cities that have implemented 5G telecom services with the 24-GHz band. India can share data from the MADRAS precipitation-measuring instrument onboard the Indian Space Resarch Organisation’s (ISRO) Megha-Tropiques weather monitoring satellite, while the U.S. can employ its counterpart, the Advanced Microwave Imager, onboard its JASON-3 satellite. This will test NOAA’s thesis of a clash between the telecom and meteorological technologies – a test beneficial for India, the U.S. and its partners.
The case of the 24-GHz band shows that when extended to military operations, or in the case of a cold war, deliberate electromagnetic interference can be considered an act of electronic warfare. In the more mundane situations of daily weather monitoring and disaster management, it can become an act of criminal and economic negligence or even culpable homicide.
The test of inter-operability, through existing agreements, must be undertaken by the new government in India. This will provide New Delhi a template to analyse bilateral and multilateral military or space pacts, which involves sharing of spectral data.
Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies, Gateway House.
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