India’s Ballistic Missile Defense Options

in Program

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.

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?

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

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.

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

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.

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
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.

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.

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.

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.

South America

Photo Credit: SM-3 Launch, October 2009. US Missile Defense





Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices