Going by recent events, New Delhi is all geared to set up a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system for India. An enterprising initiative, given not only the sheer size of the country, along with its shaky history of defense procurements, but also the present tech R&D status. However, no military development has ever happened in a vacuum, and India’s technological ineptness is the least of its concern in this regard. Regional elements and western interests is what makes this an almost impossible task for New Delhi to pull off.
An Indian ballistic missile defense shield is not essentially threatening to Pakistan’s security posture. However, it will undermine Pakistan’s deterrence capability, forcing it to up the ante of nuclear deterrence in the region. Should India acquire a credible defensive mechanism, Islamabad fears this will boost New Delhi’s confidence in retaliating conventionally to its state-sponsored, cross border terrorism. Congruently, many in India also believe that a BMD system will liberate New Delhi from Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail, as offered by its option-enhancing policy. Pakistan remains sensitive to any Indian military development and Islamabad has historically compensated for its lack of R&D prowess and international collaborators by investing indigenously in technology capable of countering India’s developments. Pakistan has already responded to this development in the form of its allegedly successful MIRV (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle) capability, touted to be built with Chinese assistance, further giving it credibility.
The feasibility of a BMD in an actual war is a debatable issue; however, it will certainly offset the strategic stability between New Delhi and Islamabad.
This imbalance may also see Islamabad trying to rake in more Chinese assistance on its own military programs, something New Delhi will clearly wish to avoid.
Alternatively, Beijing may not have lost any sleep when India unveiled the Agni V, but even a partially functional BMD system will definitely quip some interest amongst the PLA strategists. This is the first time New Delhi has trotted down the path of a multi-layered missile defense system, and this may embolden India to employ limited retaliation to any Chinese incursion along the disputed border line. Although missile experts in Beijing believe the Indian capability to be rudimentary at best, the decision to invest R&D in this field will be a competition for the Chinese, who have so far dominated the anti-missile systems field in the wider region.
New Delhi’s Gamble
There is definitely a disconnect between India’s scientific community and the decision making echelons. The need to further develop and enhance its offensive posture stems from the ambition of power projection, which, New Delhi apparently believes will propel it to a global stage. Going by this line of thought, the Indian BMD system will be more of a technology demonstrator, rather than a plausible defensive mechanism. In 2012, the then chief of DRDO, Dr. VK Saraswat publicly announced that the indigenous BMD system was tested and ready for immediate deployment for New Delhi and Mumbai. At this time, the Prithvi ADS had only been tested nine times. The US National Missile Defense (NMD) program, by contrast, has undergone a few hundred tests, and has been in developmental phase since the 1960s. Even today, the Obama Administration remains sceptical about the feasibility of a nation-wide missile defense system. Therefore DRDO’s claims of a ‘reliable’ shield system cannot be taken seriously.
The government at the center, if and when it decides to move forward with deployment, can also not justify offering this capability to only two cities in the country, for which the center will have to answer to the state governments.
The Washington Angle
When the Israelis tried to sell the Arrow Missile defense system to India in 2002, the US stepped in and pressured Tel Aviv to call off the deal. The logic to do so was simple: no brinkmanship. This was a time when India was not overtly threatened by any of its belligerent neighbors (China, because the diplomatic relations were stable, and Islamabad because it lacked the capability to do so). In this setting, allowing New Delhi to buy and set up a BMD system, just to fulfil its power projection ambitions could prove to be disastrous for regional stability. Not only would Pakistan have tried to acquire the same through underhand deals, but China would have stepped up its own development on the anti-missile front, threatening, amongst others, prime US interests in the Asia Pacific. Furthermore, transferring a US patented military technology to another state is sanctioned under various arms control regimes.
Recently, a report in an Indian newspaper spoke about an Indo-Israeli deal which would see an indigenously developed Iron Dome set up for India. Although there are no further reports on the topic at the moment, whether this signals a change in Washington’s threat perception for India, or turns out to be another disappointment for New Delhi, US interests will dictate if and when India finally gets a credible BMD system.
Amit R. Saksena is a postgraduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs, Haryana, and is a Wikistrat intern analyst.