India reveals plans for an ambitious anti-missile defense shield, sparking concerns of an arms race and speculation as to the country's true capabilities.
India's recently unveiled designs to develop an integrated anti-missile shield has sparked concerns as to the potential impact on the regional strategic balance.
With development underway, reports that the US is willing to assist India in building an anti-missile defense capacity are a cause for concern in both China and Pakistan. Russia, which has been one of India's key defense partners, will also be watching developments with growing unease.
Nonetheless, considerable doubts remain as to the potential effectiveness of Indian anti-missile systems currently under development.
Following successful interceptor missile tests in 2006 and 2007, India claims to have developed an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capacity, with operational deployment scheduled by 2011.
The chief controller of India's Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), VK Saraswat, was quoted by the local media as saying that his organization was "developing a robust anti-missile defense system that will have high-speed interceptions for engaging ballistic missiles in the 5,000 km class and above."
During the November 2006 Prithvi Air Defense Exercise (PADE), a high altitude test was conducted involving the successful interception of a Prithvi ballistic missile by a second modified Prithvi interceptor missile, dubbed the AXO (Atmospheric Intercept System). The agency has also successfully tested the Advanced Air Defense (AAD) missile, intended for lower altitude interceptions.
According to sources, a further test is scheduled for this April when two interceptors will target a single incoming missile. Development is also reportedly underway on the high-speed AD-1 and AD-2 ABM systems.
Ajey V Lele of New Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses is optimistic concerning the potential of India's anti-missile program, despite speculation that it may trigger a regional arms race.
Lele told ISN Security Watch, "With nuclear powers in the neighborhood, India needs to shift focus from conventional defensive capabilities towards a solid missile defense as part of a national deterrence policy."
An "operational missile defense system would certainly greatly ease New Delhi's security concerns, especially [regarding] external aggression, be it a hostile state or non-state actors," he said, adding, "Both Pakistan and China have nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting many Indian cities within a very short flight time."
India started work secretly on anti-missile defense long before its 1998 nuclear tests; work prompted by a growing emphasis in China and Pakistan on missile development.
Following the AAD test in December, senior Indian defense officials made it clear that they believed the new system was capable of intercepting the M-9 and M-11 class of missiles stockpiled in neighboring countries.
With an eye on Indian ABM development, Pakistan continues to fine-tune its nuclear-capable missile arsenal through ongoing work on the Ghauri, Ghaznavi and Babur series of ballistic and cruise missiles. Whether Pakistan will follow with its own anti-missile system remains unclear.
India's true capabilities
Observers believe that by transforming its existing missile capabilities into a viable intercept system, India may push into the elite club of nations with operational anti-missile systems.
India has shown interest in the past in Israel's Arrow system. Sales of the related Yellow Citron control and Green Pine radar were blocked by the US, Israel's partner in the Arrow project. Israel later supplied a couple of Green Pine Radars to bolster India's dual-function Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR), which can be utilized in both "target acquisition" and "fire control" for exo-atmospheric anti-missile systems.
However, many question India's ability to put in place a robust missile defense system on its own. These reservations are partly based on the DRDO's previous record, which is marred by technical shortcomings such as those exposed during the Trishul and Akash anti-aircraft missile projects.
While Israel and France have provided India with technical support, some experts remain skeptical. Stratfor analyst Nathan Hughes told ISN Security Watch that ballistic missile defense was not something that the agency could just pick up.
"[I] haven't seen evidence suggesting that the DRDO is either capable of that level of technological sophistication or has pursued a representative test and evaluation program anywhere close to sufficient to field a meaningful BMD [ballistic missile defense] capability."
"Even the US has yet to succeed in having a fool-proof shield in place when it has been working concertedly on this for the last three decades with over US$100 billion invested in a wide range of technologies," Hughes argued.
Deba R Mohanty of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation holds a similar but slightly more optimistic view as to the DRDO's ability to develop viable anti-missile interceptors.
"It is difficult to develop and deploy a robust multi-layered anti-missile system in a very short time," he told ISN Security Watch.
However, relating to recent developments in India's defense sector, Mohanty said. "One should not always go by the previous record, especially when there is a shift taking place in the DRDO's thinking and functioning."
"Perhaps [India] could achieve success in the field of anti-missile system development with an open door to private and foreign players to assist in its effort with their proven technology," he said.
Defense analysts fear a credible Indian anti-missile capability could promote instability in the South Asia region, triggering responsive arms-procurements and weapons systems development. Moreover, there are fears that US involvement might complicate India's relations with China, Russia and Pakistan.
"India having a credible BMD shield will certainly make Pakistan squirm, no matter how effective the system truly is," Hughes said.
However, Hughes downplayed Chinese concerns with regard to Indo-US ABM cooperation. He believes that China must decide how to contend with a Japanese BMD capability, rather than India's, as enhanced Japanese capabilities would directly impede the credibility of Beijing's deterrent vis-à-vis Washington.
"While China would watch India's growing missile defense capability very carefully, as the technology gap might further narrow between the two, it would be interesting to watch how the Pakistanis would develop their counter-capabilities," Mohanty said.
"There is hardly any doubt that both China and Pakistan would most likely try to strengthen their missile strike capabilities to maintain the strategic deterrence," she concluded.
"We're just beginning to talk about what India's needs would be in the realm of missile defense and where cooperation might help advance that," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during his recent visit to India. He stressed that any resultant joint development effort would not be directed at any specific country.
India's indigenous defense programs do not have a good track record, with many ambitious projects either stalled or delayed. Saraswat, the father of India's interceptor missile program, while expressing confidence in recent development work, has indicated that US support is needed.
Lockheed Martin, which pioneered the Patriot and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system, is considering collaboration with the DRDO on BMD development. In early February, Lockheed's Richard Kirkland hinted that "exploratory discussions" had taken place with Indian government and industry representatives on future ABM collaboration.
The other potential ABM development partner is Israel. There have been a series of joint Indo-Israeli defense R&D projects in recent years including cooperation on advanced radars and anti-missile defense systems.
Any potential deal with the US or Israel invites vehement political opposition in India, especially from leftist parties, and it remains to be seen whether a robust anti-missile shield can be achieved in coming years given the associated technological and collaborative challenges.