Threats in the Long Range

Commentary | June 28, 2012

Tensions between the United States of America and Russia over the deployment of a ballistic missile defence system by the US in eastern Europe are sharpening. Japan is deploying such a system to ward off the North Korean missile threat. With fears of increasing missile proliferation, BMD deployments could take place also in the Gulf region. What stock-taking can one do of the situation in South Asia?

India’s strategic neighbourhood is extremely difficult, with two large neighbours, China and Pakistan, possessing nuclear weapons and a panoply of missiles and collaborating with each other to contain India. No other country faces such a powerful combination of adversarial direct neighbours.

India is therefore compelled to develop technologies and capacities to protect itself. But it faces considerable technological and financial constraints. Its formidable challenge is to develop capacities that are autonomous but also available in reasonable time frames.

India’s political system and domestic economic and social challenges dispose it towards moderation. It seeks to develop the base of high technologies in the country, but without excessive investment of resources and determined acceleration of programmes.

India’s missile development programme began in 1986 and it is only this year that it has successfully launched its 5,000-kilometre range Agni V missile. Its earlier development of Prithvi and Agni III missiles gave it the means to develop a BMD programme, which began in 1999.

India’s BMD programme has a two-tiered system, with the Prithvi air defence for high altitude exo-atmospheric (50 to 80 kms) and advanced air defence for low altitude endo-atmospheric (15 to 30 kms) interception. Future plans include two new anti-ballistic missiles, AD-1 and AD-2, for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles at a range of around 5,000 kms.

India has carried out seven BMD tests in all, six of them successful, of which two used the PAD exo-atmospheric interceptor and four the endo-atmospheric one. The first was on March 6, 2006, the seventh on February 10, 2012.

India’s BMD system is being developed in two phases: in the first phase against missiles with less than 2,000 km range, like Pakistan’s Ghauri and Shaheen missiles, with 600 km-range radars and missiles at the speed of Mach 4-5 and expected deployment by 2013.

It will be a two-tiered terminal phase interceptor system consisting of a PAD exo-atmospheric interceptor missile, an AAD endo-atmospheric interceptor and the “Swordfish” long range tracking radar developed jointly with Israel. Under phase one, the national capital region will be covered and later other cities will be protected.

The current PAD missile is intended to be replaced by a PDV missile in the PAD/AAD combination by eliminating the liquid-fuel first stage and creating a two solid-fuel stage missile capable of interception at altitudes of upto 150 kms.

Phase two will cater for missiles with a range greater than 2,000 kms, will reach Mach 6-7 speed and have the capability to manoeuvre and deploy decoys. It will require long range radars with a detection range of 1,600 kms with greater indigenous content. Several technologies, such as a space based launch detection system, have to be integrated to make this possible, and all this will take several more years to develop.

A satellite kill vehicle, using Agni III, is reportedly being developed but no test has been scheduled so far, as delicate political considerations are involved. China’s ASAT test in 2007 has spurred Indian concerns because our growing space assets need protection.

While the achievements of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation are impressive, claims that we can deploy an effective BMD system against intermediate range ballistic missiles and ICBMs in the next few years invite some scepticism. Of course, India is not planning a full spectrum BMD system because of technological and financial limitations. Even the US, after spending billions, does not possess such a system and is looking for financial burden-sharing now even for developing and deploying the Standard Missile 3 that can intercept an incoming missile mid-course. The Indian effort is concentrated on the terminal phase which gives limited geographical coverage as compared to mid-course interception.

However, in terms of actual effectiveness in battlefield conditions, like other systems, the Indian system will have to contend with the enemy overwhelming the shield with a large number of warheads or mirved missiles. The Chinese have this capability.

Just as the Russians are developing new missile and reworking systems to defeat the proposed US BMD shield, the Chinese and the Pakistanis will react similarly to India’s BMD system. Chinese experts claim China has never taken India as a strategic rival and that none of its weapons were designed to contain India. Similarly India says that its longer range Agni missiles are intended to deter China and not Pakistan, but this does not deter Pakistan from developing its missile capacities further to counter India. Regional diplomatic initiatives to address these problems are very difficult to work out.

The US BMD deployments are triggering Chinese responses with an impact on our region. China wants to deter the US, India wants to deter China and Pakistan, Pakistan wants to deter India. China will not limit its capabilities to assuage India’s concerns so long as it perceives a threat from the US. India will continue to develop credible deterrent capabilities against China so long as the China threat exists and expands, and will not be able to respond to Pakistan’s calls for a mutual strategic restraint regime that leaves China out.

Significantly, all those countries deploying terminal defence systems are integrated into the US surveillance and tracking capabilities. India and the US have signed a 10-year defence framework agreement that provides for expanding collaboration relating to missile defence. In January 2012, a senior Pentagon official stated that the US was open to collaborating with India on the missile defence shield project and would restart the dialogue with India on the subject.

For many years India and the US have been talking about missile defence issues, without tangible progress so far. India wants to retain its autonomy in this area.

In sum, India is making progress in developing a BMD system even if its effectiveness in battlefield conditions remains open to question. India has little choice in this regard as it cannot allow the strategic gap between it and China to grow irretrievably. It must remain abreast of vital strategic technologies. India has to consider developing ASAT technologies before any international regime is reached that excludes India like the non-proliferation treaty.

India is not a member of any alliance and must rely on itself for its defence. This makes it necessary for it to develop its strategic capacities sufficiently and independently. The conditions for a separate Indian subcontinental deal on such issues do not exist as China would not want to be constrained in its choices vis-a-vis the US by the India factor, apart from its unwillingness to deal with India on the basis of equality in nuclear matters, and India will not want to be constrained in its choices vis-a-vis China by the Pakistan factor.

This is a circular problem and squaring this circle will be exceedingly difficult indeed.