Thursday, 9 August 2012

'The Indian missile shield: nothing to be baffled about'

Last Month, India Today carried a column by Manoj Joshi that was rather critical of the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO's) ballistic missile defence (BMD) program. Joshi argued that DRDO's claims about the BMD shield being ready after just six tests, in what appear to be controlled conditions, were unrealistic; that a project of such strategic importance lacked proper direction from the outset; and even questioned the need for such a system in the Indian context. Be that as it may I felt that it would be good if a different perspective was brought to the fore that diverged with the opinions expressed in Joshi's piece and furthered the debate on what is by any account a most significant programme for India's strategic security.

In today's guest post we have Mihir Shah responding to Joshi's assertion and rebutting some of the points expressed by him on DRDO's BMD programme.

1: That India's missile shield is not ready for deployment

To be fair, Joshi doesn't state this explicitly, but seems to drive the reader towards this conclusion by questioning the adequacy of the tests the missile shield was subject to. This, in spite of the presenceof multiple credible sources in the public domain that attest to the fact that the entire BMD system has been subject to full-up tests, in its "final user configuration". Moreover, although the column's title expresses the belief that the government is 'baffled' over the DRDO chief's claim, Joshi presents scant evidence to show that this is indeed the case. Even the ubiquitous 'unnamed sources' that usually form the basis of such theses are conspicuous by their absence.

2: That a modified Prithvi missile launched from a distance of 70 km can in no way mimic the flight profile of a 2000 km range missile

This is incorrect. As long as the inbound reentry-vehicle comes in at the correct angle and terminal velocity, it matters not for a terminal phase BMD system whether it was launched from 2000 km away or 70 km away. And there is no reason a Prithvi's trajectory cannot be modified to mimic that of an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) in the terminal phase. The day the DRDO builds aSprint/Spartan type system, there shall be no alternative but to test it against "proper" long-range missiles. But to the best of my knowledge, they aren't building a Sprint/Spartan right now, so why use an expensive Agni as a target when a much cheaper (and convenient) Prithvi will suffice?

3: With nuclear weapons around, only a shield that will guarantee blocking every single missile is the only one worth having

This one claim is perhaps the most puzzling of all, and demonstrates a skewed understanding of how ballistic missile defences are supposed to work. Another perspective would point out that If India deploys even a marginally effective BMD system, it will seriously limit an enemy country's nuclear strike options and impose excessive costs on them should they decide to build more warheads and delivery vehicles to neturalise India's advantage.

Let me explain what I mean, by building a hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the hypothetical continent of Westeros is in the midst of a cold war, with the Starks of Winterfell facing off against the powerful Lannisters of Casterly Rock. The Lannisters are known to possess a limited number (say forty) of nuclear warheads mounted on ballistic missiles. At most, that means they can hit 40 targets, Furthermore suppose Lord Tywin of the Lannister's for some reason demands that each Lannister missile be targeted against a different city. To counter it, the Starks decide to put into operation a BMD shield to cover the North, Riverrun, and the Vale of Arryn. Let us assume that this shield has a rather poor anticipated kill probability of 80 per cent. How do the Lannisters respond? The easy way out would be to assign multiple missiles to a smaller number of targets. They select eight of the most important targets and assign five missiles to each in the hope that at least one of those five will make it through. Almost at once, the Starks' BMD system has protected 32 targets, thousands of lives, and tons of precious resources without having fired a single shot. This is called 'virtual attrition'. The Lannisters may well decide to enlarge their arsenal to 200 warheads and missiles and get back their earlier effectiveness numbers, but there is every chance that this will be either impossible or terribly expensive. And the moment the Starks give their system a minor upgrade to increase its effectiveness to 90 per cent, they (the Lannisters) will be back to square one, requiring another 200 missiles to restore the status quo. The economics of the competition are loaded in favour of the Starks -- an ABM system is expensive to set-up, but it can be expanded and upgraded at a fraction of what it would cost the Lannisters to build more missiles and warheads and then set up the infrastructure for their deployment, maintenance, and upkeep.

Applying the lessons of this scenario to India tells me that inflicting a bit of this same virtual attrition on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal wouldn't be such a bad thing at all. Several well-meaning analysts consider a nuclear war 'unthinkable' and see a war as 'lost' as soon as the first nuclear warhead goes off. In the process they end up advocating an all-or-nothing approach to national defence which frankly speaking makes very little strategic sense. One expects pragmatic policy-makers to be made up of sterner stuff. It is their job to make the nation as secure as possible, to rationally think about nuclear war, to devise strategies to win it if it happens, and ensure the continued functioning of the state after the dust has settled. And rational thinking dictates that given a choice between losing, say, Delhi alone versus losing Delhi and Jaipur, the correct decision would be to save Jaipur, no matter how much it offends some. Sitting around twiddling thumbs and calling either "unthinkable" is NOT an option.

4: That 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

This is a weak line of argument at best, since it juxtaposes the views of the user of an indigenously developed weapon system with a foreign defence department in the context of evaluating the efficacy of a high security programme under development! The two are hardly equivalent! In any case it can always be argued that we do not know whether the Chinese system was verified 'independently' by their military. As for the Pentagon, its statement only states that American satellites detected an interception. There is little to indicate that it verified the operation of every little component of the system: the search, tracking, and fire control radars, the communications system, the command and control system, and so on. In any case the Indian military and potential users have pretty much been present during various BMD tests. Surely, a user team from the Indian Army, present at Wheeler Islandat the time of the test, got to examine the operation of the entire system in more detail than a few foreign satellites observing a Chinese test? In fact given that both Air Marshal Barbora and Maj Gen Saxena were present at this particular test on July 26, 2010, it is quite possible that the shield will be operated by a joint Army-Air Force team under the direct command of the SFC.

5: That the system will be ready for only "two places", presumably Mumbai and Delhi. But what about Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow and the rest of the country?"

The deployment in two places is only supposed to be an initial deployment. Every new weapon is deployed in phases, and there is no reason the BMD system should be any different in that regard. In fact, setting it up in several cities at once without it being given a thorough shakedown would be the far riskier option, strategically and economically.

6: That building a missile shield would force Pakistan to build "field greater numbers of missiles with nuclear weapons", compromising India's interests

In support of this suggestion, Joshi quotes Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak: "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." My response to this is, yes, it may be so but why is this "destabilisation" necessarily a bad thing? Pakistan has more than once pronounced its willingness to use nuclear weapons if war breaks out, and hasn't shied away from protecting terrorist entities it actively supports with these weapons. Short of a direct threat of unprovoked nuclear war, the situation is already about as unstable as it could get for India. Now with the Pakistani economy in doldrums, wouldn't it make sense for India to "destabilise" the strategic equation by forcing Pakistan to pour more money and resources into an arms build-up it cannot afford?

Acknowledgements: Mihir Shah would like to extend his sincere gratitude to Rahul M, Nitin V, and Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj for contributing their considerable knowledge and views and their assistance in critiquing this rebuttal.
Asian Defence News

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