India’s Ballistic Missile Defense Options
December 20, 2010
By Nathan Cohn - Despite steady efforts toward developing ballistic missile defenses (BMD), the purpose of India's emerging capabilities remains obscure. Given the glacial pace of Indian strategic decision-making, New Delhi may not have decided what purpose BMD is to serve and where to deploy it. Even so, Pakistan's military-planners have likely begun to consider potential responses. These decisions and their ramifications will be influenced by assumptions about the scope and mission of future Indian missile defenses.
India began BMD flight tests in 2006. Some Indian officials have claimed that initial tests have been exceptionally successful. In reality, claims of BMD effectiveness are questionable at this early stage of development. The history of U.S. BMD programs suggests that India will need to overcome significant technical challenges before claims of effectiveness are plausible. Moreover, India's defense research establishment has experienced difficulties in developing other major weapons systems and the challenges of BMD development are daunting.
Assuming the government of India succeeds in developing BMD or purchases such capabilities elsewhere, New Delhi could deploy the system to accomplish several potential missions. Opportunity and financial costs associated with BMD deployments, as well as an assessment of which assets are most essential to protect, would certainly factor into India's decisions. Thus far, India has not elaborated publicly on the purposes and architecture of its missile defenses. How might India choose to deploy BMD, and how might Pakistan respond?
One plausible deployment is a defense of India's leadership and the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) around New Delhi. The mission would be to protect the Indian leadership from the threat of a decapitating nuclear attack - or to dissuade Pakistan's military leadership from believing such an attack could succeed. There are other ways for the government of India to protect its leadership, such as by dispersal to bunkers away from the capital. But New Delhi could decide to adopt multiple approaches to protecting the continuity of its government, including BMD. If the protection of India's NCA by means of BMD is a fixed requirement, then Pakistan's prospective counters are immaterial to New Delhi.
A second option is a thin and perhaps symbolic defense of India's two most iconic cities, New Delhi, the seat of the government, and Mumbai, the commercial capital and the location of significant nuclear infrastructure. Symbolic defenses could fulfill domestic political imperatives and accede to the urgings of India's strategic enclave, without committing vast resources necessary to achieve harder objectives. Limited defenses of New Delhi and Mumbai would still place India in a select category of states, including the United States, Russia, Israel, and Japan, that have some kind of BMD deployments.
A third option is for BMD to accompany Indian troops in carrying out "Cold Start," a limited war doctrine designed to retaliate against mass casualty attacks on Indian soil linked to Pakistan's military and intelligence services. In this scenario, Indian leaders might presume that BMD deployments could be of assistance in calling Pakistan's nuclear threats as a bluff. If escalation occurs across the nuclear threshold, New Delhi would have to rely on their missile defenses working effectively the very first time they were required on the battlefield. Depending on the size of the theater of war and the number and kind of missiles challenging Indian missile defenses, this might be a heroic assumption.
Other Indian BMD deployment options are harder to envision and even less feasible. A nation-wide defense of Indian population centers from breakdowns in Pakistani command and control or from terrorists in possession of ballistic missiles would be financially prohibitive: there are simply too many large cities to protect. Protecting India's nuclear-capable assets and infrastructure, which are widely dispersed, is also too hard and too expensive. Relying on mobility to ensure the survivability of India's arsenal is a better bet than relying on missile defenses.
The development of missile defenses has predictably stoked Islamabad's concern that India is attempting to neutralize Pakistan's nuclear deterrent, which Pakistan considers essential to deter a conventional war with India. New Delhi's interest in BMD has heightened Pakistan's security concerns, providing Pakistan yet another rationale for increasing its nuclear weapon requirements. However, Pakistan may already be the world's fastest growing nuclear power. There are many drivers of Pakistan's on-going nuclear expansion, such as conventional military asymmetries, Cold Start, and the U.S.-India nuclear deal. These factors make it difficult to argue that Pakistan's nuclear expansion would proceed at a more modest pace in the absence of BMD.
Nonetheless, Indian ballistic missile defenses are likely to marginally increase Pakistani military concerns that it will be unable to hold defended targets at risk, generating further improvements in Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, especially with regard to penetration aids. Other potential counters to prospective Indian missile defenses, including cruise missiles, are already being pursued.
If decapitation is a fixed targeting strategy for Pakistan, BMD deployments around New Delhi may be especially likely to increase Pakistan's qualitative or quantitative nuclear requirements. Similarly, any Indian effort which appears designed to back up Cold Start and to negate Pakistani threats to use nuclear weapons would be of great concern to Pakistan's military establishment, even though they are likely to express confidence in being able to defeat missile defenses.
The world's most dangerous strategic competition is occurring in Southern Asia, where China, India, and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear arsenals and ballistic missiles, competing for influence in the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan, and modernizing their conventional forces. Escalation control is not easy on the subcontinent, and Indian deployment of Indian BMD will make it more challenging. But the threat of escalation begins with a mass casualty attack on Indian soil. India's Cold Start strategy increases the risk of full-scale conventional war and uncontrolled escalation in the aftermath of such an attack. If Pakistani authorities wish to avoid triggering Cold Start as well as concerns over prospective Indian missile defenses, they would be well advised to work harder at preventing acts of terrorism on Indian soil.
Photo Credit: SM-3 Launch, October 2009. US Missile Defense Agency