Ballistic Missile Defenses

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BALLISTIC MISSILE DEFENSES Ballistic missile defenses constitute the strategic paradigm that introduces new possibilities of evolving strategic defenses against ballistic missiles carrying nuclear, chemical, or biological payloads, known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The post–cold war strategic environment is a transformed landscape of new nuclear powers who have acquired the requisite technical capabilities, with varying sophistication and diverse strategic intents and interests. The new strategic environment has replaced the previous deterrence logic of mutual assured destruction with a focus on war-fighting capabilities and intents. Ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have become the new means to accentuate military escalation and brinkmanship, available to the new nuclear missile powers, which include India and Pakistan.

The Strategic and Technological Imperatives of Ballistic Missile Defenses

Ballistic missile defense systems in their evolving technological architecture constitute a layered defense that can be divided into four distinct areas. First, the lower-tier systems are designed to defend against short-range threats, such as short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), cruise missiles, and aircraft deployed in the land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 the Israeli Arrow system, the Russian S-300V and S-300VM systems, and S-300 PMU and the sea-based systems of the SM-3 class and its derivatives of the Navy Area Wide Missile Defenses. The second, upper-tier systems are designed to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) intercepting at the edge of or outside Earth's atmosphere, or the Theater High Altitude Air Defense and the Navy Theater Wide Missile systems. Third, the U.S. National Missile Defense system features deployment of interceptors of longer range and speed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attacks and defend the homeland. These systems would intercept offensive missiles at the apex of their ballistic curve above the atmosphere.

Finally, the Boost-Phase Intercept (BPI) systems are designed to attack a missile shortly after it is launched, before it exits into the atmosphere. The range of BPI systems includes an airborne laser, with a converted Boeing 747 and an oxygen-iodine chemical laser to shoot down missiles in their ascent phase. The second BPI system would be an unmanned aerial vehicle to launch high-speed airborne interceptors now being developed by the United States and Israel. The third system is a space-based laser that could be deployed in a constellation of twenty satellites, each equipped with a hydrogen-fluoride chemical laser and onboard sensing and surveillance equipment, employed to shoot down targeted missiles in their boost phase. The fourth option would be the forward-deployed Aegis ships deploying the Navy Theater Wide system, which would be deployed in conjunction with Navy Area Wide Missile Defenses.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had envisaged a limited antimissile capability for the United States and the Soviet Union. It was abrogated unilaterally by the United States, citing the emergence of foreign missile threats. U.S. missile defense efforts have been designed to neutralize the missile arsenals of the states of concern, which may attempt to redress their comparative declining national power and their containment by U.S. strategic power through missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

South Asian Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Balance

South Asia features a triangulation of nuclear and missile deployments by China, India, and Pakistan that are enmeshed in a high-intensity strategic arms buildup, premised on stubborn national policies that defy attempts at stabilization. China and Pakistan would be the revisionist powers opposed to missile defenses that neutralize their nuclear status quo. India is more subtle, and would welcome stabilization measures emanating from an optimal missile defense system that would be technologically proficient, inducing a psychological deterrent against Pakistan's potential missile rattling. India is, however, concerned about the ramifications of a U.S. Theater Missile Defenses (TMD) in Northeast Asia, as that could spur Chinese missile modernization and quantitative buildup of its intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and ICBMs, having targeting consequences against India.

The regional cascade dynamics in the Middle East and Northeast Asia and its spillage into South Asia has resulted in second-tier nuclear missile proliferation, and it could trigger quantum revisions of the prevalent nuclear missile asymmetries to India's disadvantage, spurring India to further nuclear and missile tests and activating serial deployment options of its IRBM and ICBM missiles of the Agni class. Missile defense deployments by India at the lower tier would lead to its saturation by large numbers of SRBMs in the Pakistani inventories, transferred by China. Cruise missiles constitute the next template in ballistic missile defenses. Cruise missiles are faster airbreathing vehicles that are capable of carrying WMD payloads. The BrahMos, C-801 and C-802 are the emerging types that would equip the Indian and Pakistani arsenals that are sea- and air-launched variants with antiship attack roles. The possibilities of their technological adaptation into land-attack modes with nuclear/WMD payloads are not ruled out. The Novator 3M-54E1 Klub-S (SS-N-27) to be inducted into the Indian navy in 2008 would be a dedicated land-attack cruise missile.

The nuclear missile forces of India, Pakistan, and China that constitutes the South Asian Triangulation are small and medium arsenals, with the Chinese nuclear missile arsenal being a medium-sized force with triad characteristics. The impact of a limited Theater Missile Defense in the region would have a triangulation of consequences: India's acquisition of a limited missile defense capability would likely erode the Pakistani nuclear deterrent and would prompt Pakistan to increase its number of missiles and nuclear warheads. Pakistan resolutely opposes the missile defense technology, and given its limited resources would prefer more offensive missiles than any missile defense system. Indian preference for an Arrow-2 and the S-300 V, S-300 VM, and S-300 PMU, along with its Akash missile, could provide a layered defense that might erode Pakistani air-deliverable nuclear warheads by F-16 fighter-attack aircraft, and could force Pakistan to deploy more transferred Chinese and North Korean missiles of deeper range and faster reentry speed in quantities to overwhelm any Indian advantages.

China could react to an India-U.S. convergence on missile defenses by: preference of a joint missile defense network with Russia, employing the proven S-300 V and S-300 VM systems; simultaneously increasing the number of its deployable nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles by adopting multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle technology. The cumulative impact of these would erode any limited Indian missile defense and could prompt India to resume testing and to increase its deployment options of the Agni IIB IRBM, with ranges targeting China.

India and China would prefer to safeguard their respective second-strike capabilities and assets with a limited missile defense system, and would respectively prefer the Russian missile defense network with other options. India and China would prefer to engage with the United States on its missile defenses plans in terms of diplomatic and strategic postures.

India's Nuclear Doctrine and Its Force Posture

India's nuclear posture is premised as a force-in-being and rests on a quartet of deterrence that would be credible and minimalist; disarmament that seeks eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons; diplomacy premised on multi-lateralism and de-alerting of nuclear forces with a "no-first-use" (NFU) treaty. India's NFU policy is entwined with its assured retaliatory capability premised on a triad structure for its nuclear forces. Its premise of employment would arise out of nuclear coercion or use by its adversaries. India's assured retaliatory capability would emerge from a high degree of mobility and dispersal of its nuclear warheads. India prefers to employ nuclear weapons in a mode of deterrence or punishment, using procedures that are reliable and suitable to Indian conditions, ensuring high levels of civilian custody, with a secure role for the Indian armed forces. India prefers an effective nuclear targeting strategy to determine the nature and quantum of any retaliatory strike.

India's nuclear doctrine emphasizes delayed but assured retaliation. India's nuclear deterrent hinges on its credibility and certainty of retaliation. It is also defined by the quantum of retaliation. This certainty factor would be assured by the extent of dispersal of India's nuclear forces, and their ability to recover from a first strike and to deliver unacceptable damage to the aggressor.

India's nuclear missile force posture has been reinforced into operational effectiveness by the constitution of the Strategic Forces Command and the National Command Authority in January 2003. However, India's NFU policy would be notional, given the dynamics of its operational milieu. In the context of a limited missile defense shield, India's nuclear missile posture could graduate into a first-strike force with assured retaliatory capabilities.

Options for Ballistic Missile Defenses: A Net Assessment for India

India's options for ballistic missile defenses widen with the growing nuclear missile proliferation in its region. An arc of multiple missile threats confronts India. The arc ranges from China in the north, to the U.S. missile-armed fleets in the Indian Ocean, to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the west, all equipped with MRBMs and IRBMs that could target India. India's quest for missile defenses emanates from prevalent instability introduced by Pakistan's missiles, and the missile rattling of its coercive diplomacy against India. Pakistani readiness for a first strike undermines the Indian force-in-being posture that has its emphasis on the de-alert status of its nuclear missile forces. The rapid escalation spiral and the persistent Pakistani initiative to escalate induce considerable irrationality, undermining the deterrence logic.

Geographical contiguity, brief missile flight times, the lack of omnidirectional surveillance, and the lack of institutionalized nuclear risk reduction measures with verification and monitoring systems in place necessitate the imperative for a limited ballistic missile defense system that has inbuilt components of tracking and surveillance to act as a rapid response system in the event of any surprise or inadvertent launches by Pakistan.

The challenge of strategic offense versus strategic defense has been a universal dilemma that has plagued the deterrence debate. India's dilemma increases with the increase of hostile multiple missile threats with nuclear payloads. India's inevitable resort to ballistic missile defenses remains a crucial necessity; its challenge lies in potential priorities for India between a robust minimal nuclear deterrence built around its manned aircraft and its land-based missile force with sea-based deterrence to be in place in the long run. India's priorities would therefore have to be with the certitude of assured retaliation, along with a credible conventional force posture that could dissuade Pakistan of any escalatory potential and effectively deter China. The Indian debate in missile defenses and its nuclear force posture would concern maintaining an optimal balance between conventional weapons and a robust nuclear force with limited missile defense capability and technological affordability.

W. LawrenceS. Prabhakar

See alsoBallistic and Cruise Missile Development ; Nuclear Programs and Policies ; Nuclear Weapons Testing and Development ; Weapons Production and Procurement


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