02/27/2009 - 13:07

Missile defense in India

Bharath Gopalaswamy

Bharath Gopalaswamy

Gopalaswamy is a scholar at Cornell University's Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Previously, he worked at...

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A few weeks ago, Indian officials held preliminary talks with the United States about purchasing a missile defense shield from it. "India is a partner of ours, and we want to provide it with whatever it needs to protect itself," a U.S. official told the Financial Times. Already, Indian officials and scientists have witnessed some simulations of the U.S. missile defense system, along with a couple of live tests. Washington even has offered to sell the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system to India.

India's interest in strategic missile defense dates back to 1983 when New Delhi initiated an "Integrated Missile Development Program." The program included not only offensive missiles such as the nuclear-capable Prithvi and Agni, but also the Akash, a surface-to-air missile that had the potential to provide India with theater missile defense capabilities. Later in the 1990s, India's Defence Research & Development Organization and the country's military discussed initiating conceptual missile defense studies. Around the same time, the Indian military had a few conversations with Israel and Russia about how they could help New Delhi advance its air defense systems. Although such talk clearly demonstrated an Indian interest in missile defense, it was confined to professional military officers and low-level bureaucrats.

The interest of India's elected leadership intensified a few years later, their support growing for a variety of reasons. First, 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan turned Pakistan into a U.S. ally, triggering speculation that the Pakistani government might be overturned by anti-American Islamic fundamentalists who would then control Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. And if Pakistani nuclear weapons fell into such hands, India feared it might be the first target.

Secondly, some in India believe that a domestic missile defense capability might be able to check Pakistan more generally. Ever since Islamabad obtained nuclear weapons, it has emboldened its strategy of supporting insurgencies within India to settle outstanding political differences--i.e., Kashmir. Missile defense, the argument goes, would prove instrumental in providing New Delhi reassurance and protection since Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be countered both offensively and defensively.

Finally, few countries in the world face the missile threats that India does. Of course, there's Pakistan and its Ghauri and Shaheen missile series--both of which possess ranges longer than 1,000 kilometers. But there's also nearby China, a fellow nuclear-armed state equipped with DF-21 missiles that can travel more than 2,000 kilometers. So it's no surprise that the upper-echelons of the Indian government have begun to show significant interest in defense technologies that can, at least theoretically, combat such threats.

A ballistic missile flight from Sargodha, Pakistan, could reach New Delhi in about 5-7 minutes. As such, Indian missile defense proponents envision the system working as follows: A technically complex and vast constellation of early warning sensors would detect the missile immediately after it is launched. This part of the system is already more or less in place; the Green Pine radar, which India purchased from Israel around 2002 and is situated about 200 kilometers north of New Delhi, can detect a missile 90 seconds after it has been launched--at least on a preliminary basis. The next step is to determine whether the signal picked up by the radar is that of an incoming missile or a false alarm.

Complicating matters is that India and Pakistan share a border, making for shorter ballistic missile flights. For example, the estimated total missile flight times are 8-13 minutes for ranges of 600-2,000 kilometers. The flight times can be even less if the missile is flown in a depressed trajectory.

Such a short time period places stringent conditions on procedures for evaluating and verifying warnings. There would be no time to consult or deliberate after receiving this warning. In other words, any response would have to be predetermined, presenting a significant likelihood of accidental nuclear war from false alarms.

Oddly, despite such potentially catastrophic consequences, in India the debate about missile defense has become a debate about India's burgeoning ties with Washington as a part of New Delhi's "Next Steps in Security Partnership"--a 2002 diplomatic initiative between the United States and India to expand their cooperation in civilian nuclear activities and civilian space programs, along with broadening their dialogue on missile defense to promote nonproliferation and to ease the transfer of advanced technologies to India.

For the United States, missile defense initially was only one aspect of its budding bilateral relationship with New Delhi. But over time missile defense has come to represent something larger in the relationship. Quite simply, it represents Washington's implicit support for India against Pakistan, without, of course, supporting an explicit Indian recourse to offensive military strategies. Along these lines, there's every reason to expect the United States to continue to be supportive of India's emergence as a counterweight to China.

Ultimately, technology will decide the operational capability of missile defense in India. But for the time being, it can be assumed that New Delhi's decisions with regard to missile defense are strongly linked to the changing tenor of U.S.-Indian relations.