The government of India has been baffled by DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat's repeated claims that a ballistic missile shield is ready for deployment, and that two locations, presumably New Delhi and Mumbai, will be the first recipients of the ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. Speaking on a TV programme in early May, Saraswat said that "this system is now ready for induction". Nearly two weeks later, the claim was repeated in an interview to Press Trust of India where Saraswat was quoted as saying, "The ballistic missile defence shield is now mature... We are ready to put phase I in place."Well-known defence technology analyst Prasun K. Sengupta is sceptical; he bluntly terms the DRDO's claims as "sheer unabashed jingoistic kite-flying by DRDO, period".
Only six tests, that too in highly controlled conditions, have taken place so far and there is no independent confirmation of whether they have been successful. As of now it is not clear which of the three services will even man the system. Former joint director of the Centre for Air Power Studies, Air Vice-Marshal (retd.) Kapil Kak says, "It is indeed surprising why the IAF - as the national instrument vested with the responsibility of India's air defence - was not closely involved from the proof-of-concept stage itself."
Mail Today requested the DRDO to respond to a series of questions early last week, but had received no response till Tuesday.
According to the DRDO, six of its seven tests have been successful. But, instead of carrying them out in realistic conditions, they have been done in laboratory conditions so far. The usual test comprises of the launch of a "hostile missile" from the Interim Test Range in Chandipur on the Orissa coast, and the counter-launch of an interceptor missile from Wheeler Island just 70 km away. DRDO scientists say that the target missile that was intercepted in the test of February 2012, for example, mimicked a 2,000-km range missile of the type that Pakistan possesses, yet it was actually launched from 70 km away.
Equally important is the fact that the "target" missile is a liquid fuelled slow-moving Prithvi, and as of now the DRDO has not tested its system against its own solid-propelled missiles like Agni I or Agni II. As Sengupta puts it, "Its (the Prithvi's) slow speed during both the boost phase and the terminal phase "does not in any way mimic the flight profiles of the solid-fuelled Theatre Ballistic Missiles and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles with both China and Pakistan."
With nuclear weapons around, only a shield that will guarantee blocking every single missile is the only one worth having. As of now there is no indication that the DRDO, or any other country, can achieve such a goal. None of the DRDO's claims have been verified by third parties, say, any of our armed forces. In contrast, China's January 2010 test was authenticated by the Pentagon whose spokesman said, "We detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exo-atmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors."
The Indian BMD system is something of a puzzle. It was initially mooted by APJ Abdul Kalam in 1997 and taken up in the 2000s, when key technology relating to tracking, fire control and guidance radars became available from Israel, France and Russia. However, none of the three services ever expressed any requirement for such a system. Their need has been for a system to counter shorter ranged, theatre ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
Non-proliferation experts are appalled at the lack of any visible political guidance to the BMD. The obvious response of an adversary to a missile shield is to field greater numbers of missiles with nuclear weapons; that seems to be the track Pakistan is following. Kak notes, "For an unstable and fragile state like Pakistan, India's BMD could indeed be destabilising, as this would substantially reduce the value of Pakistan's nuclear and missile arsenal, tempting it to increase the same."
MIT scholar Christopher Clary argues that, "Indian policymakers must be willing to make the calculation that whatever safety comes from missile defences of dubious effectiveness outweighs the risks that come from a Pakistani nuclear arsenal that is larger than it would be without Indian missile defences."
Of course, there is the other question. In its claims DRDO says that the system will be ready for "two places", presumably Mumbai and Delhi. But what about Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow and the rest of the country?
The government only has itself to blame for permitting a technology programme with such serious ramifications and not providing it any political guidance.