Commentary on The Impact of US Ballistic Missile Defenses on Southern Asia

in Program

Rodney Jones, Policy Architects International

Introductory Remarks:

  • US Theater Missile Defense (TMD), whatever its efficiency, will have military utility, and therefore political utility. It is coming gradually to Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean, in a sea-based and then airborne form. Ground-based cooperation with Russia on TMD is not inconceivable, while cooperation with Japan is likely to move forward.
  • National Missile Defense (NMD) is unlikely to be highly effective against up-to-date missiles and countermeasures, but no opponent can be sure of that or be able to
    measure its limitations. Therefore it will at least have political utility. With Russian cooperation, its political utility will be quite pronounced, since Russian cooperation neutralizes European opposition. NMD may also be more militarily effective against rogue state missiles than some on the critical side in the current debate believe.
  • Boost-phase missile defense is the key to how strategically potent BMD will be. Effective airborne or sea-based boost-phase defense is at least 10 years away. Ground-based boost-phase defense (with Russian cooperation) also would
    take at least 10 or more years.
  • Space-based boost-phase defense would seem to be the current administration’s holy grail. That capability, however, (other than in some experimental form) is at least 15 and probably 20 years away. Hence, it will not happen in this administration if it gets two terms, and probably not in the next one either. Since it will be part of
    research and developement, it will affect perceptions abroad, and may influence others’ planning.
  • Nuclear detonations in space could ruin everyone’s day, and set back globalization. This capability exists in a large way in Russia and in a substantial way in China already. If there is a pivot for future strategic arms control, this may be it.

Commentary on Michael Krepon’s essay:

  • I agree with the thrust of much of the analysis as a possible scenario. US deployments will trigger reactions. Theoretically these reactions could amount to a cascade, or just a trickle. I am not sure that how the US deploys is the ultimate determinant of these reactions. There could be surprises in store in these reactions.
    I am also skeptical that the linkages between China and South Asia are as tight
    as Krepon sees them. As for myself, I am more concerned about the linkages within
    East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) and with a Russia that gets back on its feet. But there are many ways that could play out in East Asia.
  • I challenge the notion that depreciates an “arms race” in South Asia: “The good news in this analysis is that, while the strategic dynamic among China, India and Pakistan is quite complex, these interactions are geared toward a modest competition rather than a strategic arms race. All three countries have separate as well as common reasons for dampening their nuclear pursuits.”
  • This is not true of all three: the Pakistani interaction in its own mind is “strategic.” Moreover, Pakistan is desperately trying to match India, not in scale of nuclear force, but in condition of survivable nuclear forces.
  • Moreover, the slowness of the South Asian arms race should not obscure that it is an arms race. While it is resource and technology constrained, it is not politically or legally constrained. It is a multi-front arms race, conventional, nuclear, missile, space imagery, even cruise missiles (Brahmos-Yakhont), and more. The local BMD part of it has been more obscure, but that began during the 1990s too, in seeking S-300s (follow-on to SA-10s, -12s, Gannon SAM).

The big differences in Asia from the Cold War bipolar dynamic are:

  • Big asymmetries, especially between India and Pakistan (a bit like NATO vis-a-vis USSR/Warsaw Pact.       
  • Neither India nor China threatens the world with the prospect of opening up a World War–as Soviets threatened in narrow confines of Western Europe, and sometimes elsewhere through geopolitical competition.       
  • Catalytic war as a global holocaust threatening mutual suicide of superpowers is not embedded in current situation… Furthermore, MAD ceased to be a driving concern in the 1990s.       
  • But in this Asian triangle, there is geographical contiguity of all three players, coupled with very short reaction times in South Asia. Thus there catalytic potential may exist for the 3 Asian states (but not for the world).

What will be the effect of US deploying BMD/TMD?

  • Krepon says it could moderate or accelerate cascade effects of nuclear competition in Asia: perhaps, but I am not sure it is that powerful an external variable on nuclear competition–which has its own legs. Japanese and Korean reactions over time are also worriesome, more so than Indian reactions. Pakistani reaction to India also matters.

  • While I see a close connection between US BMD and China’s calculations, I do not see a close connection between US BMD and India’s or Pakistan’s calculations. India and Pakistan have their own motors. I do not see a close connection between what Washington does with BMD and trends in South Asia.  I also do not see a close connection between what China does and India’s programs. India’s programs have their own motives and dynamics, which are largely political. China understands this. Basrur’s essay, interestingly, provides a logic to that Chinese indifference as well.
  • I agree with Krepon that US deployment of space-based weapons will have a major effect on Russian as well as Chinese calculations. It could take the form of them threatening to use nuclear detonations in space, creating havoc with commercial satellites. That said, going to space with boost-phase weapons probably is quite a ways off, beyond two Bush administrations.
  • I am reluctant to accept the sharpness of the distinction between strategic and theater BMD that Krepon relies on when he says seabased TMD is OK. If the ABM Treaty remained and demarcation had been negotiated, such a distinction would have been plausible, but the Bush Administration has not only cast the legal distinction aside but is pursuing means that would erase the distinction.
  • As China’s desires regarding nuclear arms control have been ambiguous in recent years, it has increasingly supported international regimes, but the default has been no new strategic arms control with China on bilateral or regional level. The BMD issue is likely to postpone that further into the future, unless there is a crisis that changes minds and creates a new paradigm.
  • India does not want negotiated arms control.  It does not even seriously try for any arms control. India has lost all credibility in that sphere, but its credibility was frayed pretty badly after 1974 anyway. With the end of the Cold War, no strategists or serious military planners believe India has any interest in formal or treaty-based arms control. Therefore, the issue is not that there is inordinate complexity about arms control in South Asia, it is rather simple–India will not play. It may well be that only nuclear crisis events, accidents, or a nuclear exchange will create a paradigm shift that alters India’s receptivity to arms control.
  • This does not mean arms controllers should not keep trying, but they ought to put illusions aside, drop the blue smoke and mirrors vocabulary, and work with realities. Stabilizing military relationships also requires working on the military capability side, or on the side of providing security.

Commentary on Rajesh Basrur’s essay:

  • Rajesh Basrur has a very interesting paper, 75% of which is right and well-reasoned, but in my opinion he goes just a bit off when he argues categorically that BMD will have no big adverse effects and only benign effects.
  • Basrur’s critique of the domino effect is probably largely right, except that space-based boost-phase BMD may alter the effect somewhat at least for the Chinese and Japanese reactions. He says that India can tolerate a widening gap; that is my own estimate too. But Pakistan cannot do so as easily (may work in India’s nuclear asymmetry with China, but then these are both huge countries with strategic depth. This is not necessarily the same for China vis-a-vis US, where US has global reach and China has very limited reach with the live issue of Taiwan at stake).
  • Basrur says that a doctrinal shift away from MAD is the main contribution of BMD; there may be partial truth to that, but the more powerful basis of the shift is the end of the protracted, seemingly immutable, ideologically intense, zero-sum game of the Cold War. One side finally bowed out and the whole situation is different now. MAD is no longer compulsory. It can be set aside. But the real irony is that this makes BMD less imperative (between the sides that have given up MAD). Basrur admits it is costly and not terribly effective but buys into the political argument that it is morally imperative. To my mind, nothing like this is morally imperative if there is a better way.
  • Basrur argues that Indian TMD is not inherently destabilizing and does not augment or reduce deterrence. Here he is not quite correct. This must be looked at contextually, not just logically; its destabilizing effects between India and Pakistan have to do with the extreme asymmetry and Pakistan’s extreme uncertainty about its vulnerability to conventional preemption, and the survivability and deliverability of its nuclear weapons under attack.
  • Beyond that, Pakistan is concerned about Indian “projection of power” if its military advantages are not neutralized (India’s desire for TMD is like the US’s desire to avoid restrictions on its projection of power). In that respect, between them, Indian TMD is destabilizing. That is not to say that BMD between India and Pakistan is “fatally” destabilizing (bound to lead to war). However, Basrur is overly confident that India will be deterred. The issue is, will India be deterred from applying its superior conventional capabilities? (not just deterred on the nuclear level from a “first strike.” This is a common lapse and fails to appreciate the deeper fears in the South Asian
    equation, whether one regards them as irrational or not).
  • Basrur’s confidence in an Indian strategy of “reassurance” versus Pakistan is heartening but the analysis is not compelling. Pakistan will not be reassured by Indian blandishments, only by concrete results. Wfhereas these need not be based on parity, they must be based on equal treatment under law for Pakistan to accept them.

An unexamined issue, BMD intervention:

  • In contrast to East Asia, where US TMD intervention to protect Taiwan (or US cooperation on TMD to protect Japan) is implicitly understood, the issue not taken up yet in this Stimson work is how US TMD may be used to “intervene” in South Asia, and what effect anticipation of that might have on Indian and Pakistani conventional and  nuclear force calculations. The premise is that nuclear war must be avoided in South Asia. India and Pakistan may blunder into it, and so to avoid huge out-migration and huge humanitarian costs outside powers might be tempted to intervene with missile defenses to limit the scale of destruction.
  • One can imagine how India and Pakistan might visualize this. India benefiting from US TMD interdiction of Pakistani strikes, to restrain India (like Israel restrained despite Iraqi Scud attacks in the Gulf war). Would US try to interdict missile strikes from both sides to nullify nuclear war? (I just want to put this question on the table. I have no answers myself.)


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