Star wars

India must engage in strategic partnership

The Statesman | May 14, 2001

Missile defences require an elaborate surveillance and early warning system to detect a hostile launch through military satellites and ground-based radars and suitable interceptors to destroy the incoming missile before it can reach its intended target.

As had been widely anticipated, President George W Bush has lost no time in implementing his election promise of authorising the development and subsequent deployment of an anti-missile shield to protect America. In doing so, he has sounded the death knell of the US-Russia Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. The ABM treaty has often been described as the cornerstone of global strategic stability and around this treaty the architecture of most arms control agreements had been built over the last 30 years. President Bush has also redefined the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and may have spurred a new global arms race. The new US policy has indirect repercussions for India’s security and needs to be analysed carefully so that suitable strategies can be evolved.

While clearly articulating his determination to go ahead with a missile defence system with all the attendant risks of destabilising the new world order, President Bush held out several olive branches. He expressed his willingness to address Russia’s concerns; announced his intention to link missile defence with unilateral reductions in the US nuclear stockpile coupled with a gradual move away from hair-trigger alerts: and, indicated his read1ness to have wide-ranging consultations with US allies and friends to seek international! consensus on this sensitive issue.


Almost the entire international community has deep reservations about the Us proposal and is of the view that the US is seeing phantom ballistic missile threats from the so-called “rogue” states, though some nations such as the United Kingdom do not appear to be willing to say so publicly. However it is the larger purpose of ballistic missile defence (BMD, comprising national missile defence — NMD — and | theatre missile defence — TMD) that must be noted.

The Bush administration has been of the view that nuclear deterrence must be adapted for 21st century needs. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated during his confirmation nearing before the US Senate that, “Credible deterrence can no longer be based solely on the prospect of punishment through massive retaliation. Instead, it must be based on a combination of offensive nuclear and non-nuclear defensive capabilities working together to deny political adversaries the opportunity and benefits from the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction against our (US) forces and homeland, as well as those of our allies”. President George W Bush chose to use almost the same words during his much publicised address on global security at the National Defence College on 1 May 2001. Quite obviously, besides issues affecting national security, the US decision has been driven by a combination of factors that include ideology, domestic politics and the need to rejuvenate the military-industrial complex in a flagging economy.

A nuclear-tipped ballistic missile can be intercepted in three segments of its trajectory — during the boost phase immediately after launch, in mid-course while it hurtles through outer space and during the terminal phase after re-entry into the earths atmosphere and before impact or burst.Missile defences require an elaborate surveillance and early warning system to detect a hostile launch through military satellites and ground-based radars and suitable interceptors to destroy the incoming missile before it can reach its intended target. Interceptors are primarily anti-missile missiles and, increasingly, powerful space-based or airborne lasers. Anti-missile missiles could be stationed on land (the US advanced Patriot and Russian S-300) and at sea (on Ud Aegis class destroyers) and anti-missile lasers in the air (on Boeing 747 aircraft) and on satellites in outer space.

However, despite all the media hype, the technology is decades away from becoming operationally effective. The simplest way to defeat missile defences is to saturate each target with simultaneous attacks from a large number of missiles. Other counter measures include the launching of decoys and flares to confuse and distract interceptor guidance systems and anti-missile warheads and enhance the chance of penetrating the missile defences.

Though ostensibly aimed at neutralising ballistic missile threats from “states of concern” to the US such as North Korea, lraq, Libya and Iran and non-state actors like Islamist terrorist organisations, the proposed BMD will undoubtedly undermine the quality of deterrence of nuclear-armed adversaries of the US like Russia and China. Russia may halt further reduction of its nuclear forces, upgrade its nuclear posture to a robust launch-on-warning status and develop sophisticated missile defence penetration aids.


In an extreme case. Russia may even withdraw from the START-I arms control treaty and put START-II on hold. In any case, Russia will use the fielding of BMD as leverage to wrest major concessions out of the US. On the other hand China can be expected to be more aggressive in its opposition as, besides the NMD, it feels threatened by the TMD that will provide a nuclear shield to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea and severely degrade the offensive capabilities of its short-range surface-to-surface missiles.

Since it possesses only about one dozen to 20 ICBMs that can reach the west coast of the US and threaten cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. China will have to take several! steps to ensure that its deterrence remains viable despite the US BMD. China could be expected to upgrade its nuclear weapons capability quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

The modernisation and expansion of its nuclear arsenal would imply a several-fold increase in the number of ICBMs and submarine-launched SLBMs. China would also develop multi-warhead ICBMs with multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles so that each missile can hit several targets simultaneously. The implementation of these measures would to an exponential increase in China’s defence expenditure. It is this daunting proposition that has made the Chinese oppose the proposed US BMD tooth and nail.

China’s nuclear force modernisation and a quantitative Increase in its arsenal will have an adverse impact on India’s minimum nuclear deterrence that is based on a small number of survivable warheads and missiles and the concept of punitive retaliation. India will be forced to upgrade the state of readiness of its ‘modest nuclear arsenal and continue to qualitatively improve its nuclear warhead and ballistic missile capabilities as a hedge against strategic uncertainty.

Pakistan will inevitably follow suit, resulting In an unintended arms race in Southern Asia with all the attendant problems. India will also need to consider the acquisition or indigenous development of ant1missile defences to enhance the defensive capability of strategically important primary nuclear targets in India like New Delhi.


There is also the diplomatic angle to consider. During the Cold War era India would have rued the US BMD decision as the beginning of the end of strategic arms control and due to its long-standing opposition to the militarisation of space. Today, India can think in terms of other options. India can accept the strategic, technological and commercial inevitability about the fielding of a limited BMD by the US and take necessary counter-measures to safeguard its national security, so that it can remain engaged in ongoing negotiations and discussions on the issue and count as a player to reckon with in the emerging international security framework.

Alternatively, India can oppose the deployment of missile defences as a destabilising development, as it opposed several other post-World War II international security developments, and remain a fringe player on the world stage.

It is in this context that foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s implied endorsement of the US decision needs to be viewed. Knowing fully well that the eventual deployment of a limited BMD system is inevitable. India has cautiously welcomed President Bush’s intended moves towards de-alerting its nuclear weapons and unilaterally reducing the number of warheads while refraining from being directly critical of the decision to field missile defences.

It is in India’s interest to invest further in its growing “strategic partnership” with the US, Russia and the European Union and prepare itself for a larger role in international affairs. However, national security cannot be sacrificed at the altar of diplomatic gains and India must simultaneously take all precautions necessary to neutralise the negative impact of the BMD counter-measures likely to be initiated by India’s nuclear-armed adversaries.