MISSILE DEFENCE IN SOUTH ASIA: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE REGION
Over the past decade, India has pursued an active missile defence option with the help of the United States, Israel and Russia, in the shape of Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC), the Arrow, and S-300 missile defence systems. It has also considered developing a system of its own. In a region which has seen four wars over the last 59 years, and where in the last few years nuclear armed adversaries – India and Pakistan – have fought one limited war and seen a tense period of force mobilisation, the introduction of missile defence is likely to adversely impact the fragile security and strategic balance in the region. Moreover, China, which provides the declared rationale behind the maintenance of an Indian nuclear arsenal1 would also be affected. China’s deterrence, which is based on a modest deployed nuclear arsenal, would also be affected with the introduction of missile defence by its neighbour. The nuclear deterrent of Pakistan, and to some extent, that of China, would be in danger of becoming destabilised. These countries might respond by either increasing their nuclear arsenals or by trying to acquire missile defence systems of their own, among other defensive options. In either case, the net effect is likely to fuel a nuclear arms race, as well as a costly race for better and effective defence systems.
Since the pursuit of missile defence in South Asia is a relatively recent development, little analytical attention has been paid to India’s ballistic missile defence plans, its costs and implications for India itself, and for its neighbours – Pakistan and China – in terms of security and stability of the region. This study aims at analysing the net effect of missile defence on the deterrent capabilities of Pakistan and China and their likely responses.
Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD): The Concept
The United States is the pioneer of the concept of developing and deploying nationwide missile defences. The idea of a nationwide US anti-missile system goes back to the 1980s when President Reagan envisioned a missile defence shield for continental America, named Star Wars, and laid down plans to build the shield to protect mainland America against ballistic missile attacks. It was George W. Bush Jr’s Administration that decided to give it a new impetus. President Bush decided, in December 2002, to field initial elements of a limited missile defence system by September 2004. At the same time, the US abrogated the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in December 2002. Although US plans have faced many problems with a number of failed intercepts, it marked a change in the US policy from a focus on deterrence to a shift towards a mix of offence and defence. The US also decided to bring on board its allies and others facing growing ballistic missile threats from their adversaries in order to build a network of missile defences. Japan, a key ally, facing a missile threat from North Korea, immediately supported the plan.
While the reactions from Europe, Russia and China ranged from lukewarm to strongly critical, India showed overwhelming support for the concept, surprising even the Indian analysts2 since India had opposed the US BMD plans in early 2000.3 Many argued that it represented a fundamental shift in India’s policy. Discussing the possible motives for such a response, Rajesh Basrur points out three possible motives: the desire to obtain military and technical assistance from the US, as well as support for its drive for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, which could pave the way for its rise to a superpower status; the desire to gain access to US surveillance data, especially on Chinese and Pakistani missile sites; and a possible consideration for a strategic tie up with the US against China.4
The increasing Indo-US strategic cooperation in recent years, ranging from defence and military cooperation to joint production of civilian satellites and transfer of high and dual use technology items culminating in the Indo-US deal of March 2006 for supply of civil nuclear technology and equipment does seem to support some of the possible motives pointed out by Basrur. This provides the broader perspective on Indian motives and must be kept in mind while tackling the issue of Indian pursuit of missile defences.
India’s Pursuit of Missile Defences
India, in its pursuit of ballistic missile defence, has taken two fundamental routes: one to acquire missile defence systems from abroad; and, second, to develop the system indigenously. India’s missile defence acquisition efforts have revolved around variants of Russian S-300 BMD system, the Israeli Arrow BMD and the American Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3). India’s indigenous efforts have centred on the domestically designed, Akash, a long range surface-to-air missile (SAM).
India’s pursuit of missile defence dates back to the 1990s. As early as 1995, there were reports that India was negotiating to acquire air defence missile systems from Russia – the S-300 PMU-1, or later versions like S-300.5 Russian Deputy Defence Minister, Kokoshin, offered to sell S-300 missiles during his trip to India in 1995.6 Subsequently, in August 1995, the Indian Defence Secretary, Nambiar, went to Russia to observe tests of the missiles near Moscow. Reportedly, in June 1996, the deal was finalised, and 27 S-300 missiles were delivered to India.7 The $1 billion purchase was said to include six S-300 systems, with each combat system consisting of 48 missiles.8 These anti-missile batteries are reportedly already in operation.
According to other reports, Russia has already provided India with the ABM Antey battalion module.9 The Antey Corporation’s S-300V, also known by its NATO designation, SA-12, is an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system comprising two missile systems - the Gladiator for destroying ballistic missiles, and the Giant for use against aircraft and cruise missiles. In 1998, Antey unveiled a modification of the S-300V, nicknamed the “Antey-2500.”10 The Antey-2500 module operating within an integrated air defence system can simultaneously engage up to eight Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) from a distance of 2500 km, or sixteen Tactical Ballistic Missiles (TBM) launched from a distance of 3000 km.11 As recently as in February 2006, it was reported in the Russian press that Russia has offered India to “create a comprehensive air defence system using different air defences, including S-300 missile systems of various modifications.”12 If the reports about Indian acquisition of Russian missile defence systems prove to be true, it would bring a qualitative improvement in the deterrence potential of India vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.
India has also shown interest in the Israeli Arrow ballistic missile defence system. Indo-Israeli relations improved considerably in the 1990s. Israel assumed the role of becoming the second biggest seller of weapons to India after Russia.13 India has acquired a number of weapons systems from Israel. The Arrow was jointly developed by Israel and the US. Arrow 2, an advanced version of Arrow, is designed to intercept short and medium-range ballistic missiles, and can detect and track up to 14 missiles simultaneously at distances as far a 500 km away.14 The Arrow system could potentially be used by India to counter Pakistan's nuclear-capable Ghauri and Shaheen missiles.15 Although Tel Aviv seems keen on selling Arrow system to New Delhi, the sale requires the approval of the US, since Arrow was a joint project and was partly funded by Washington. To date the US has not given approval for the sale of Arrow.
However, Israel has already sold India the Green Pine radar system, a component of the Arrow system, which tracks incoming missiles and transmits data to Arrow’s management systems and interceptors. The radar can detect targets at ranges up to about 500 km. It can simultaneously track dozens of TBM, and can discriminate between TBMs, aircraft and other missiles, as well as distinguish between real threats and decoys. Green Pine is transportable and is capable of predicting impact points of incoming tactical ballistic missiles. Out of the two Green Pine radars ordered by India, the first was delivered in 2001, and the system has been reportedly deployed in India.16
The Green Pine radar's deployment along the Indian-Pakistani border potentially provides India with strategic advantage. Reportedly, the system covers all of Pakistan's military command centres and bases between Islamabad, the capital, and the Indian frontier and also provides India with surveillance of Pakistan's nuclear centres and missile sites.17 The Green Pine combined with the Russian S-300 or Antey ABM systems would provide India with missile defence cover over key parts of its territory against Pakistan and China’s IRBMs.
In March 2004, Israel signed a $1.1 billion deal to sell three Phalcon Airborne Early Warning Command and Control Systems (AWACS) to India. The United States had given Israel the green light to sell the Phalcons to India which will be mounted on Russian Ilyushin aircraft.18 The Phalcon system, expected to be delivered within 44 months, can pick up aircraft, including at low altitude, hundreds of kilometres away in any weather, day or night. Once deployed, the Phalcon system would provide India surveillance over much of Pakistan’s territory. Combined with missile defence systems, Phalcon would enhance India’s ability to counter a first strike by Pakistan.
Discussions have also been underway since 2002, for the sale of the US PAC-2/PAC-3 missile defence system to India. In February 2005, a US team, headed by Edward Ross from the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, had briefed New Delhi on technical details of PAC-2.19 Moreover, India has attended several BMD workshops, conferences, and missile defence exercises over the past few years.20 The Bush Administration has been giving signals that it is keen on selling the PAC system to New Delhi. In June 2005, the US cleared the sale of the (PAC-3) system to India on the eve of Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the US.21 Again in September 2005, a high-level US defence team held detailed classified briefings of Indian officials on the PAC-3 system.22
PAC-3 is a surface-to-air guided missile defence system that provides advanced capability against cruise missiles, aircraft, and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The PAC-3 system has four main components – radar, command centre, launcher, and interceptor missiles.23 The system is capable of targeting and destroying multiple targets while evading countermeasures and decoys. The PAC-3, unlike previous models, relies on hit-to-kill technology to eliminate short- and medium-range missiles.24 The PAC-3 interceptors are mounted on mobile launchers which can hold up to 16 interceptors each. The launchers are arranged to provide overlapping coverage, allowing PAC-3 to respond rapidly to attacks from all directions.
Other reports suggest that India has also been working on developing a missile defence system of its own. India’s Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) has reportedly been engaged in efforts since 1993 to modify its Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM) into an interceptor capable of engaging ballistic missiles.25 Akash’s range is approximately 27 km. According to India’s DRDO, its range will be increased to 60 km and eventually to 120 km.26 One of its important features is the Rajendra phased array radar27 which is capable of multi-target tracking and engagement. It can reportedly track up to 64 targets at a range of 50 km. The stated goal of the eventual upgrade project is to intercept missiles with ranges up to 2000 km.28 This goal may be a little too ambitious and unrealistic given the difficulties the US has experienced developing the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) designed to intercept missiles with ranges up to 3500 km.29 Moreover, so far there have been no reports of Akash tests against ballistic missiles. However, it would be of great concern to both China and Pakistan if the US decides to transfer missile defence technologies to India since missile defences erode their nuclear deterrents vis-à-vis India.
In early 2005, there were reports that India was working on another missile defence system on the basis of Prithvi missile and the Israeli Green Pine radar. According to these reports, the DRDO intended to integrate this system into a missile defence system within a five-to-seven-year timeframe. The head of DRDO’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, V. K. Saraswat, confirmed the ballistic missile defence programme, saying that the system was intended to provide a missile defence cover in a radius of over 200 km.30 Again, in July 2005, Indian Defence Minister Pranab Makherjee said that there was no question of accepting a missile shield from anyone and that India was developing its own.
Space satellites are an integral component of missile defence systems. India also has some satellite potential to complement its missile defence efforts. These can be used for early warning to detect a ballistic missile from its launch, its approximate flight course, etc. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been developing defence support programme satellites and their space-based infrared system. The Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) series of satellites are in orbit31, which can be used for missile defence purposes.32
India’s likely missile defence choices are, however, not clear so far. Although the DRDO and leading Indian defence technocrats have repeatedly asserted that the country has the capability to build missile defences,33 these claims need to be treated with care. Many experts are sceptical of Indian claims to be able to build a truly indigenous BMD system, at least in the short to medium term.34 In the past, many Indian initiatives termed as indigenous have faced critical snags or lagged far behind schedule. These include: the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA); the Trishul short-range SAM; and the Nag anti-tank guided missile.35 There are also recent, though unconfirmed, reports of possible abolition of the Akash missile programme,36 which would indicate that the project was not technically successful. Even a technologically advanced state like the US has discovered that developing and integrating missile defence systems present unique challenges. India’s capability to develop such complicated technologies37 is questionable in the short term since these require a high degree of technological expertise, and decades of research and testing.
Therefore, in the short to medium term, India’s option could be to acquire the systems from abroad or go for a mix of imported systems and indigenous ones. Given the size of the country, a national BMD system is unlikely. Since BMD systems cost billions of dollars, from an economic point of view India cannot afford a nation-wide missile defence. This would suggest a limited point defence system to protect targets such as Nuclear Command Authority and other nuclear and missile establishments.38
The architecture of such a system is also unclear. One possibility is deployment of a layered system with imported systems such as S-300, Arrow or PAC-3 providing the first layer of defence architecture while modified Akash providing a second layer of defence. While a near foolproof BMD system would require several layers of defences, the exorbitant costs of BMD systems would make any complex missile defence deployments unviable. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the US would allow the sale of Arrow system to India. The sale of the US PAC-3 systems might materialise in the next few years and provide India with limited missile defence cover. However, at present, India’s most likely option seems to be the deployment of a variant of Russian S-300 system. India also has the option to integrate the Green Pine radar with Russian ABMs or its own systems.
However, there are a lot of other related issues that confront India as far as deployment of missile defences is concerned. There is some opposition within India against the wisdom of going for missile defences. Even if India managed to deploy missile defences, there is a question mark about its effectiveness against a ballistic missile attack.39 Moreover, the astronomical costs of BMD systems weighed against the dubious gains from such a system are one of the major concerns of the opponents of missile defences.
Some analysts question India’s decision to acquire missile defences in the light of the country’s perspective on nuclear weapons and deterrence. India’s nuclear doctrine emphasises the political utility of nuclear weapons i.e. the potential of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear war rather than winning one. Rajesh Rajagopalan states, “There could be no clearer indicator that BMDs do not fit well within Indian strategic thought than the fact that no Indian doctrinal statements – neither the Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) nor the official statement about India’s nuclear doctrine that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) released in early January 2003 – even hint at the need for BMDs. In fact, I would go further: a decision to acquire such an ABM system directly contradicts the basis of the Indian nuclear doctrine.”40
Moreover, the Indian government has yet to explain to public the decision to acquire missile defences. Whatever the shape and size of Indian missile defence system are, its purpose seems neutralisation of a first strike by the adversary and having an assured second strike capability.
In addition to the pursuit of missile defences, India already has a well-developed ballistic missile programme, as well as nuclear warheads to arm its missiles. For the government of India, ballistic missiles serve as a potential delivery system for nuclear weapons, as part of a strategic deterrence posture directed against Pakistan and China. While Pakistan’s nuclear programme is security driven, India’s has wider objectives: it serves an important status function in support of India’s long-standing quest for global or at least Asian great power stature. India has developed a short- and medium-range missile capability, which includes the Prithvi and Agni series. The Prithvi missiles have ranges under 500 km and are liquid-fuelled. Its Agni missiles have ranges from 700 to 2,000 km.41 India is also developing versions of the Agni with 3,000 km range and ranges over 5,000 km. It is also working on Sagarika SLBM with 350 km range.42 India is also likely to develop a global positioning system to upgrade its missile guidance systems.
India has declared that it will pursue a doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence combined with a “no-first-use” approach to nuclear weapons.43 India’s nuclear doctrine also envisages a triad of nuclear forces – mobile, land-based missiles and sea-based forces. India is working on enhancing its sea-based nuclear capability, but presently it can deliver nuclear weapons only by missile or aircraft. Such an extensive development of India’s nuclear capabilities with a proposed triad of nuclear forces, however, belies India’s claim of minimum nuclear deterrence.
At present, India has a missile capability which can target all of Pakistan’s territory and parts of China. But with the IRBM and eventually ICBM development, India will be able to target all of Chinese territory and beyond. To date deterrence seems to have worked between India and Pakistan, and India and China. However, India’s pursuit of missile defences promises to upset and change the deterrence calculations of Pakistan and China.