Special Commentary: India’s Missile Defence

12 Apr, 2013    ·   3880

Amit Gupta analyses whether the country is securing the homeland or complicating deterrence

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow

India has tested a two-tier missile defence shield and is getting ready to place it around its two major cities, Delhi and Mumbai. There are three issues that emerge from the deployment of this capability: will it work effectively; how will it alter Pakistan’s nuclear calculus; and will it complicate the India-China military balance?

While Indian scientists have expressed confidence in the system and claimed it has a 90% accuracy level, impartial observers tend to be more sceptical. The best anti-missile systems tend to have an accuracy rate of 70% and that statistic can also be challenged (Broad and Sanger, 2013). The most common complaint against anti-missile defences is that they cannot distinguish between real missiles and decoys thus, invariably, letting some actual warheads in and causing damage. Moreover, as Brigadier Arun Sahgal has pointed out, the missile shield would require round the clock online connectivity, uninterrupted power supply, and associated systems that even at the best of times, are unreliable in India (Bedi, 2012).

To put this in perspective a recent analysis of Israel’s much hyped Iron Dome system is worth reading:
“But a growing chorus of weapons experts in the United States and in Israel say their studies -- based largely on analyses of hits and misses captured on video -- suggest that Iron Dome destroyed no more than 40 percent of incoming warheads and perhaps far fewer. Many rockets, they argue, were simply crippled or deflected—failures that often let intact or dying rockets fall on populated areas.” (Broad and Sanger, 2013)

Further, the costs of such a system have to be taken into account. Israeli sources bring out the high cost of the Iron Dome stating that Jerusalem spent between $25-30 million to shoot down 421 low-tech rockets (Harkham, 2012). When one looks at more sophisticated missiles with countermeasures, the cost-benefit ratio may not justify such an expenditure.

What is likely, therefore, is a weapons system that can shoot down some missiles but will not be the perfect, or even close to perfect, shield against a nuclear strike. But the fact that it will shoot down some missiles, and in the Pakistani case that would be a huge bonus, does bring some degree of uncertainty into the calculus of Pakistan’s strategic planners about the robustness of their nuclear deterrent. What this does, therefore, is to change Pakistan’s deterrence calculus vis-à-vis India.

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, unlike India’s, is a first use doctrine and, therefore, requires the use of a disarming first strike, and a policy of firing all its nuclear-armed missiles in one salvo. Pakistan cannot afford the luxury of firing some missiles to deter say an Indian conventional attack and then to enter into negotiations to deescalate the conflict. For that to happen, Pakistan (and even India) would require an advanced Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence capability that neither country possesses. Thus, for Islamabad, the option becomes use your entire force and cause maximum destruction or use a few weapons, have some shot down by an Indian missile shield, and then face an Indian retaliatory barrage that cripples Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear capabilities. A use it or lose it first strike then becomes Pakistan’s best and only alternative.

Also, being a cash strapped country and being quite happy to use unconventional tactics, it is a lot cheaper for Pakistan to develop countermeasures in a way that its military’s strengths are best utilised. Inter Services Intelligence has shown that it is quite capable of sending a ship loaded with terrorists from Karachi to Mumbai and that small group wreaked havoc in the city (Woodward, 2010, p.46). Sending a boat with a nuclear warhead on it into Mumbai harbour is not an infeasible scenario and one where the missile shield would be useless.

Having said that, another Mumbai style attack, especially one with nuclear weapons, would firmly put Pakistan at the top of the list of global terrorism. This is something that would give even the most foolhardy regime in Islamabad room for pause. Pakistani decision makers have to recognise, and Indian decision makers need to stress this in their dialogue with their Pakistani counterparts, that while Jihadi tactics have given Pakistan an unconventional deterrent against India, the use of such forces is risky since they are difficult to control. The ISI’s 2011 attack on the UN compound in Mazhar-i-Sharif was actually meant to be against the US consulate but that was non-operational at the time - leading to the death of four innocent UN employees.

Moreover, given the level of developmental backwardness in Pakistan, India only has to hit Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore with nuclear weapons - something that is easily doable - to create unacceptable damage in Pakistan. Consequently, a sneak Pakistani attack might give a temporary advantage to Islamabad, but it still could not prevent nuclear retaliation by India.

A missile defence shield, however imperfect, does change the diplomatic calculus with Pakistan. When the US decided to move forward with Star Wars, it changed the strategic calculations of the USSR and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev who recognised that the time had come for serious arms control negotiations. The same may well happen in Islamabad as Pakistani decision makers recognise just how expensive and destabilising the countermeasures to a missile shield are. Countermeasures could include more warheads, the creation of manoeuvring warheads (something that is both scientifically difficult and fiscally expensive), a Pakistani missile shield, or the use of nuclear warheads through Jihadi tactics. This is particularly the case if one takes into account the changing Pakistani threat perceptions - especially in a post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan strategic context.

The US-Pakistan relationship will be “normalised” after US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What I mean by that is that both the State and Defence department will no longer turn a blind eye to contentious issues like the Haqqani Network and safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan. In such circumstances, antagonising India makes very little sense. Further, in its new military doctrine, the Pakistani Army has identified internal threats, quite correctly, as the major challenge to the country’s security - India comes in second. This requires a shift of emphasis both in terms of weapons and tactics. It also means not getting into an expensive nuclear arms race with India. The US has also made it clear that it welcomes the opportunity to work with India on developing a missile shield and this offer has not been made to Pakistan, thus suggesting that American priorities may be shifting towards a stronger alliance with India (Menon, 2012, p.49). All these factors could encourage Pakistan to negotiate with India on nuclear issues.

For several reasons, China’s reaction to an Indian missile defence shield is not the same as Pakistan’s will be. First, China is building its own missile shield, which consists of an exo-atmospheric defence provided by the Second Artillery of the PLA and an endo-atmospheric defence provided by the Air Force (Zhang, 2013). This is, however, not aimed against, or determined by, any possible Indian innovations. It is meant for the countries that China views as its major strategic challengers - the US and, possibly, Russia. India’s Agni series of missiles are still not deployed in large enough numbers to factor into China’s strategic calculations.

Second, China’s numerical advantage in nuclear warheads and its advances in anti-satellite weaponry place India at a distinct disadvantage and not, therefore, at the top of China’s threat priorities. China’s 863 anti-satellite Program has been successfully tested and New Delhi, unlike Beijing, does not have a redundancy of military and surveillance satellites that could keep India’s “eyes in the skies” open for a long time. Further, the exo-atmospheric part of the missile shield does depend on some degree of satellite surveillance and warning capability. To suggest that an Indian missile shield can effectively take on a Chinese nuclear assault is probably wishful thinking. It will certainly complicate Chinese strategy but not seriously degrade Beijing’s capability.

Third, a China-India conflict will be conventional in nature if it is along the border for neither the Indian or Chinese militaries are considering changing the territorial status quo through a use of force. That does not mean, however, that either side will allow the other to take away further territory.  What we are likely to see is a conventional war that is at the tactical or operational level to maintain the status quo along the border. If the Chinese had wanted to unilaterally seize Tawang, it would have been attempted a long time ago. Further, tactical nuclear weapons make no sense in the Himalayas given the massive environmental damage that would be caused by the use of such weapons - and a missile shield would be irrelevant if tactical weapons were used since their low altitude, short cruise time, and distance from the missile shield would render Indian defences as a non-factor in the conflict.

Accidental Launches
What then, are India’s best political-diplomatic options with a missile defence shield?  For India, a missile defence shield has two major selling points. One is its utility in countering accidental or unintentional launches. Indian interceptors could shoot down a rogue warhead, particularly from Pakistan, because the likelihood of rogue Chinese elements seizing control of Chinese missiles and then launching a strike on a secondary threat like India is, in the present Chinese strategic context, rather low. In the Pakistani case, however, the fact that rogue elements may seize control is a reasonable fear, and in that case, shooting down a Pakistani missile and asking for clarification from Islamabad makes a lot of sense.

Second, for reasons cited above, nuclear arms control with Pakistan becomes a real possibility and should be welcomed in New Delhi. Over the past few years, Pakistan has built up its nuclear capability to the point where western observers conclude that the country has more nuclear warheads than India. This nuclear numerical superiority has not got Pakistan the security blanket it desires, and it continues to worry about the India threat. An Indian missile shield that is only 40-50% effective would still block out enough Pakistani warheads to put Pakistan’s first use nuclear policy into question. Especially since its larger missiles are counter-value systems that are targeted at cities.

India has carried out a range of nuclear negotiations with Pakistan and it is perhaps time to take them to the next level where the Pakistani arsenal is stabilised and secured. If a missile shield can help achieve that, then it may be worth the price of setting up.

William J. Broad and David Sanger, “Debate Emerges Over Effectiveness Of Israel's Antimissile System”, The New York Times, March 21, 2013.

Rahul Bedi, “India’s missile shield is ready: Top scientist; Analysts call it no more than a ‘technology demonstrator”, The Straits Times, May 12, 2012.

Ariel Harkham, “Trapped under the Iron Dome: Israel's siege mentality represents a fundamental strategic failure”, Jerusalem Post, December 2, 2012.

Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of ISI, told American authorities that two former members of ISI had planned Mumbai as a rogue operation, i.e. without the consent of Pakistani authorities.  Bob Woodward writes that the CIA subsequently received reliable intelligence that ISI was directly involved in the training for the Mumbai attacks.  See Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010, p.46).

Jay Menon, “Partnering Possibility,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 13, 2012, p.49.

Interview with Dr. Xiaoming Zhang, Department of Strategy, USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, April 8, 2013.