Thursday, March 26, 2009

Indian Missile Defense: Success Too Soon?

Two weeks ago, a ballistic missile blasted off from a warship sailing in the Bay of Bengal. Its target was Wheeler Island, a small enclave of land off the coast of India and home to one of India's most important missile testing facilities.

Within seconds of the launch, the Indian military's radars and computer banks began tracking the supersonic rocket. Several computations later, an alarm triggered another "hot" missile on the island that, once launched, began pursuing the aggressor warhead. Some 70 kilometers above the earth's surface, the two collided. The rocket's debris fell through the sky, most of it burned and vaporized. What little remained scattered like ash into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean, marking India's third successful test of its nascent missile defense system.

Over the past few years, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the Indian military's scientific arm, has been trying to push India into a very exclusive club: countries that can boast of having a missile defense shield. The only other members so far are the United States, Russia and Israel. The recent success may not have generated the same level of national jubilation as the nuclear tests in 1998, but among strategic circles the satisfaction was clear. "The third consecutive interception of ballistic missile demonstrated the robustness of the Indian BMD system," remarked an overjoyed V. K. Saraswat, program director for India's Air Defense.

India hopes to unveil its missile umbrella in two phases. Stage one, which envisages the ability to intercept missiles of 2,000 km range, is expected to be completed by 2011. Stage two of the program, where scientists hope to take on intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range greater than 3,500 km, will be ready by 2014.

There are still several major barriers that need to be overcome before a fully functional missile shield can be deployed to protect major national cities and other important landmarks. But the Indians take this prospective development very seriously, as part of becoming a recognized global power. So seriously, in fact, that the DRDO has consistently brushed off questions about finances. According to officials closely associated with the project, the cost so far is roughly $1 billion dollars and counting. Saraswat, when asked about the program's budget, simply smiled and said, "We have enough," hinting that the government is willing to turn a blind eye to the project's monetary feasibility.

At the heart of India's nuclear strategy and missile defense program is the decades-old notion of deterrence. But India's own nuclear doctrines -- highlighted in a 1999 press release by the Cabinet Committee on Security, and the Draft Report by the National Security Advisory Board, also from 1999 -- underline the importance of the survivability of second-strike capability. Critics have pointed out that a shield would increase insecurity in the region by provoking an arms race and missile buildup involving Pakistan and China, which in turn would escalate the likelihood of war.

However, Ali Ahmed, a nuclear expert at New Delhi's prominent Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, disagrees. "We would like to preserve ourselves from a decapitating nuclear strike. So the reason why India is developing a missile defense system is not to defend the entire landmass as such, but rather the survivability of our second-strike capability. This is something that is helping our deterrence; this is not something that will provoke the Chinese or the Pakistanis to multiply their warheads."

Doctrines aside, there remains some pragmatic skepticism about the shield's viability. First, there is the question of technology, which has not yet matured. It is unclear, for instance, whether the Indian ABM program can take on a barrage of incoming missiles in the event of a full-scale attack. Then there is the issue of deception. Saraswat quietly skirted around the topic when asked if the interceptors could distinguish between decoys and actual warheads. Many people who are closely following the developments have charged that the tests were carried out in too sanitized an environment, one that does not reflect real-world scenarios.

Scientists at the DRDO have only been able to develop the program's missile technology -- meaning that other vital components, like radars and the mission control center, had to be acquired from overseas. Foreign companies from Israel, the United States and Russia have also been hawking their own military wares to the Ministry of Defense: the ready-to-go Arrow-2, PAC-3 and S300-V, respectively.

Yet Saraswat expressed confidence in India's program, saying that while foreign collaboration could not be ruled out completely, the indigenous character of the project is necessary to "customize [it] to the Indian threat profile." He even went on to claim that the homegrown missile architecture was "20 to 30 percent" better than the American-made PAC-3 system, although that is debatable.

Perhaps the most fundamental challenges for the missile shield, though, lie not in the missiles it might shoot down, but in the evolving complexities of deterrence. Despite the phenomenal sums of money spent on the program, for instance, it could do nothing to prevent the recent Mumbai attacks, part of what many in India believe amounts to a low-intensity war by Pakistan against India. Whether the DRDO can continue to maintain support for the costly effort in light of this changing threat environment remains to be seen.

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