India’s ballistic missile defense capabilities are rapidly maturing. Could this inadvertently make Delhi less secure?
On November 23, 2012, Indian scientists achieved a major milestone in missile defense: simultaneous interceptions of ballistic missiles at altitudes of 30 and 120 kms respectively. Such a feat put India on the map of a select group of nations, such as the United States and Israel, who have the capability of engaging multiple hostile projectiles. These tests, declared India’s premier defense research organization – the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) – were done in a deployment mode with higher echelons of the Indian Army and Air Force in attendance, making a strong case for eventual induction of this system into country’s defenses. However, with India’s missile defense capability advancing, questions abound on its strategic and regional fallout.
The History of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in India
In 1983, India initiated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), leading to the research and development of a series of missile platforms from Prithvi to Agni. In addition to these offensive missile platforms, IGDMP also developed defensive missiles such as Akash Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM). Akash was initially planned for air defense measures and equipped with a potential of conversion to Theatre Missile Defense System. Then, in the 1990s, DRDO started conceptualizing a missile defense plan for India. The actual transformation of Akash SAM into an anti-tactical missile defense began in earnest during this period.
The stated objective of this program was to develop a system that could intercept ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 km by 1997. However, technological incapacity as well as non-proliferation measures by the international community created hurdles in the process. India also was far less enthusiastic in advertising its intentions and objectives in the field of missile defense, lest it invoked American ire. Subsequently, DRDO entered into negotiations with Israel and Russia for BMD platforms and associated technologies. It bought S-300 anti-missile platforms from Russia, developed long-range, phased array radars in collaboration with Israel and built guidance radars with French assistance. As has been the case with all other defense technologies developed by India, its quest for missile defense therefore had both an indigenous component and a foreign one.
In its current iteration, India’s BMD is a two-layered system. Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) is supposed to tackle incoming missiles at ranges of 80-120 km (exo-atmospheric interception). On the other hand, the advanced air-defense (AAD) mainly consists of Akash Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) that can intercept incoming missiles at ranges of 15-30 km (endo-atmospheric interception). If the PAD system is devised for mid-course interception, the AAD is a terminal phase interception system which can only counter incoming missiles after their entry into the atmosphere. In their present configuration, these systems are designed to counter missiles with range close to 2,000 km traveling at speeds ranging from Mach 3 to Mach 8.
For tracking and guidance, it relies on its “swordfish” radar systems developed in conjunction with Israel and capable of simultaneously tracking more than 200 objects with diameters of no less than two inches at a range of 600-800 km. However, DRDO’s hunger for technological innovation remains unsatisfied. It has recently declared its plan to intercept missiles with over 5,000 km ranges, closing in on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ranges. These systems would be called AD-1 and AD-2 and would aim to counter missiles with far more velocity, up to Mach 12-15. DRDO has plans to extend the range of the “swordfish” radars to 1,500 km. In the future, a series of geo-stationary satellites may also be used for deduction of enemy missiles.
Why India Wants a BMD System
Many factors have motivated India’s quest for missile defense. First, Pakistan’s inclinations to pursue low intensity conflicts and foment terrorism under the shield of its nuclear arsenal have made India extremely uncomfortable with the strategic situation in the region. The Kargil War, 2002 attack on the Indian parliament and 2008 Mumbai attacks were symptomatic of this strategic imbroglio. Many in Delhi hope missile defense will provide India a space for limited wars against Pakistan.
Another motivating factor was the fear that there could be an unintended launch of a ballistic missile, especially given Pakistan’s vacillation between being ruled by a trigger happy military and being overrun by jihadi extremists. Lastly, India also realized that a limited BMD, especially to secure its political leadership and nuclear command and control against a first strike, would augment the credibility of its second-strike nuclear posture.
These motivations notwithstanding, perhaps one of the most important factor in advancing India’s BMD capability was the election of a Republican government headed by George W. Bush in the United States. In his May 1, 2001 speech at the National Defense University, the new American president announced plans to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
Moving away from the Cold War concept of nuclear deterrence, the superpower was now endorsing defense against nuclear weapons. India saw this policy reversal as an opportunity to develop its own capabilities. Having been shunted to the backwaters of international nuclear politics, as underlined by its absence from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India grabbed this opportunity with both hands, becoming the first nation to publicly endorse Bush’s new plans.
Missile defense became the new mantra for cooperation between the two nations. Since 2002, India and the U.S. have actively engaged each other on missile defense. The subject has been a source of agreement between the two nations at nearly every meeting of the U.S.-India defense policy group. India’s scientists and military have been regular participants in missile defense shows in the U.S., Israel and Japan. If the Bush administration facilitated dialogue with India on missile defense, no policy reversal can be observed under the Obama administration. In fact, the engagement has only increased with the U.S. now proposing ideas such as the joint development of missile defense technology, and softening its stand on sale of Arrow missile defense systems to New Delhi.
Current State of India’s BMD
Still, India’s ballistic missile program is far from problem-free. Confusion and doubts surround India’s much trumpeted success in missile interception. Though one can observe DRDO’s declarations of deployment of a BMD in Delhi and Mumbai since 2008, no considerable progress on the front has been made. This should warrant particular concern in light of the scientific community’s tendency to exaggerate its technical accomplishments. There is also some confusion over the accuracy of these interceptions. DRDO claims a 90 percent accuracy level. Civilian analysts, on the other hand, greet this claim with a heavy dose of skepticism; after all, even the most technologically advanced countries have an interception accuracy of 70 percent.
Also, some critics have questioned the DRDO’s claim that the system is ready to be deployed. As skeptics point out, the system has only been tested in controlled environments. Moreover, the intercepted missiles targeted in these exercises are slow moving Prithvi-class missiles. They also argue that when analyzed against missiles that travel at far greater speeds based on solid fuel booster mechanisms, DRDO’s claims of an effective BMD system seem exaggerated. In other words, DRDO’s capabilities are far from proven when pitted against Chinese ICBMs, such as the DF-41.
Would India’s BDM Actually Create Security?
The ultimate shape of the missile defense is also a venue of debate. It is not clear to what extent the DRDO can expand the missile defense shield with its growing technical capability. However, expanding the missile defense to shield large parts of the country may be counter-productive. Logically, only a limited missile defense complements India’s nuclear doctrine, which relies on “assured retaliation” for the purposes of nuclear deterrence. A nationwide missile defense could create concern among India’s adversaries that it is preparing for a first strike; a perception which may ultimately prove disastrous for nuclear stability in the region.
Second, development of a pan-national missile interception capability is beyond India’s economic means. Still, it is important to acknowledge that a midcourse interception capability, which is India’s primary intention, can also be employed at a broader level. With increasing capabilities in the booster strength of its ballistic interceptors and of its ground radars, it is hard not to foresee mission creep in India’s ballistic missile interception program.
These issues intersect with potential negative strategic ramifications of India fielding a BMD program. Pakistan is acutely sensitive to any perceived military edge, current or future, that India may be developing. For example, Pakistan’s nuclear force expansion is believed to have been accelerated as a direct response to India’s conclusion of a civil nuclear agreement with the United States in 2008. Although the civil nuclear agreement could only potentially affect Indian nuclear force development by broadening its access to the international nuclear fuel market, and freeing up its domestic uranium for nuclear force expansion – a possible but hypothetical scenario – this was apparently enough cause for Pakistan to ramp up its nuclear force production. A limited fielding of a partly unproven Indian ballistic missile defense capability, as DRDO is planning, could similarly be enough to compel Pakistan to grow its nuclear arsenal – with all the potential dangers that this entails.
For instance, this would elevate threat perceptions in both New Delhi and Islamabad. The disparity in Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal size, compared to India’s more halting efforts, was enough for Jaswant Singh, a former Minister for External Affairs and nuclear negotiator, to call in 2011 for an end to the central tenet of no-first-use in India’s nuclear doctrine. Ending no-first-use would also dispel the atmosphere of restraint pervading the doctrine, and signal to Islamabad that New Delhi was increasingly comfortable with the use of force in the next crisis, protected by a lower nuclear threshold and a BMD shield. Given that Pakistan would develop its own sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear means to counteract these shifts, the price of fielding BMD capabilities would be a tenser strategic environment.
An Indian BMD system could also provoke a Chinese reaction. The BMD capabilities fielded by the United States are the subject of certain neuralgia among Chinese strategists, who continually worry that these will provide Washington with a first-strike capability against China’s deliberately small nuclear forces.
More broadly, Washington’s interest in India’s BMD projects could validate suspicions in Beijing – especially prevalent in the wake of the 2008 civil nuclear agreement – that the United States and India are attempting to contain Chinese great power aspirations. As shown in the Sino-Indian border stand-off in April, in which Chinese troops occupied and then refused to abandon positions they had taken within Indian territory for a prolonged period, China has not been shy in reacting to Indian activities that are of far less concern to China than the BMD issue. At a time when India and China are making a renewed effort to secure a long-term agreement on the status of their borders, BMD developments could therefore worsen the trajectory of their relationship, all while offering India uncertain returns.
Thus, the BMD program provides India with the prospect, albeit still distant, of blocking or reducing an offensive missile strike, and also serves as an area where American and Indian defense scientists can collaborate – building important bridges between the two states that could later transfer over into other areas. However, these benefits need to be weighed against the likely negative regional reactions. At the same time, it also is likely to raise tension and perhaps have unintended second and third order consequences in India’s relations with China and Pakistan. Thus, instead of being wholly consumed by the technical aspects of BMD, Indian policymakers need to also ask themselves whether the game is still worth the candle.
Frank O’ Donnell is a doctoral candidate in War Studies, King's College London and research associate with the Centre for Science and Security Studies. Yogesh Joshi is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.