India: How Credible is its Ballistic Missile Defence?

29 Nov, 2012    ·   3768

Debak Das discusses the credibility and strategic implications of an operational BMD System in India

Debak Das
Debak Das
Research Officer

The strategic implications of an operational Ballistic Missile Defence System are grave and potentially dangerous. The DRDO’s successful test of the indigenously built Advanced Air Defence (AAD) interceptor on 23rd November 2012 in a ‘near deployable configuration’ is an interesting development. Its Director-General, V.K. Saraswat, recently announced that New Delhi and Mumbai could be brought under the missile defence shield system that has been successfully tested over the last few months. CNN-IBN reports that the Director of the Missile Defence Programme has stated that the AAD system is ready to be deployed over the Delhi-National Capital Region by 2014.

How credible is India’s missile defence? How is this likely to impact the regional strategic environment in South Asia?

Changing Tracks on Missile Defence: From Nay to Aye
India’s initial resistance to missile defence came from its criticism of the United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the early 80s. Even in July 2000, the then Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes opined that the US should give up the whole exercise as it would lead to far too many problems in the future. After US President, George W. Bush’s announcement of an American National Missile Defence System, it seemed that the Indian position had changed. This change has been attributed to the fact that Indian thinking about ‘nuclear weapons has always been a mix of power-oriented realism and idealistic restraint.’ (Rajesh Basrur, 2002)

The more natural and logical arguments posited were of course, that the Indian position of vehement opposition to missile defence and space based armament proliferation would not be acceptable to the successful pursuit of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the groundwork for which began in the early 2000s. The increasing pace of the Chinese and Pakistani missile programmes and the rising tensions with the latter in the period of the NDA government, also led to a giving up of the erstwhile policy of opposition to a missile defence shield.

The Missile Defence Shield
Earlier this year, The Hindu reported V.K. Saraswat claiming that incoming ballistic missiles with a range of 2000km could be destroyed with the shield and this capability would be enhanced to meet missiles with a range of 5000km by 2016. This capability was successfully tested at both the endo-atmospheric and exo-atmospheric levels. The DRDO has also compared this indigenously built system to the US’ Patriot 3 system. By late July, Saraswat had claimed that the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system was ready for induction and that two cities, Mumbai and New Delhi were ready to be put under its defensive shield. At the time, India Today reported that the government was baffled with the activities of the DRDO, which was acting of its own accord in announcing to the world Indian missile defence capabilities.

The 23 November test saw the supersonic interceptor AAD home in on and destroy an incoming modified Prithvi missile at an altitude of 14.7km in the endo-atmospheric stage. The success of this test has been hailed as a major boost to the development of a multi-layered BMD System. With the next test for exo-atmospheric ballistic missile interception scheduled for January, it is important to consider the strategic implications that a BMD shield entails.

Strategic Implications
Any discussion on the ballistic missile defence raises technical questions about the possible success rate of a deployed system. While the odds of an interceptor missile taking out an incoming ballistic missile with multiple warheads are low, the odds of such an interceptor system taking out multiple incoming ballistic missiles (each with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) are even lower. The ‘successful’ tests that were conducted by the DRDO were in fact against the slow moving Prithvi missiles. The DRDO has not even tested them against its own Agni missiles. How such a BMD system would fare against missiles like the Dongfeng-41 with multiple sub-warheads with separate trajectories remains an unanswered question. The Indian BMD system does not even provide an answer to Indian vulnerability to the ‘stealth’ cruise missiles like the Hatf-VII that are possessed by Pakistan.

The lack of systematic policy considerations guiding the Ballistic Missile programme has seen the DRDO act quite hawkish on the score of achieving the capability. But given that this system threatens Pakistan’s first strike capability, it is bound to lead to uncertainty and insecurity on that side of the border. The Indian BMD will thus serve to only accentuate the current missile race in South Asia.

Domestically too, statements assuring BMD capabilities to just two cities will prove to be a major headache to the central government, as selective defence of cities is bound to be contested by other parts of the country, thus possibly arousing domestic turmoil. It seems that missile testing and potentially destabilising hawkish behavior on ballistic missile defence in India has acquired a certain bureaucratic momentum of its own. It is thus important for the government to reign in these programmes. While not compromising on the technological development of Indian defences, the government needs to ensure that these capabilities do not foster insecurity in the region.