Immature Technologies

Even as India realizes its economic goals, it is surrendering its strategic ones

Bharat Karnad

In the heydays of Laika, Sputnik and Gagarin, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev boasted that his missiles could ‘hit a fly in the sky’ and, presumably, anything larger with even greater ease. This was the first intimation of an anti-missile defence capability. He spurred a paranoid America into desperately closing the so called ‘missile gap’. But what he said then was a pipe-dream which, some 50 years later, still is.

Medium range (150-400km) ballistic missiles (MRBMs) hurling back into the earth’s atmosphere at speeds of as much as 5 March (five times the speed of sound) can be intercepted and blown up. The problem however, is that there is no sure guarantee of interdiction. The results of two actual tests on the Israeli Green Pine radar wedded to the Arrow anti-missile missile witnessed by Indian defence scientists, for instance, were split. While in one test a Scud-variant of the incoming missile (the kind Pakistan has acquired from North Korea) was destroyed, in the other test, it pierced the defence screen. To claim a 50 per cent kill probability-level for Arrow which is abysmal performance-on the basis of a couple of tests, may not be fair. But, equally, the Israeli claims of a 90 per cent hit level for the Arrow system, even if these are believed, means that 10 per cent of the incoming nuclear tipped missiles will get through. Depending on the yield of the enemy warheads, like say the 1-3,3 megaton thermo-nuclears on the Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles, the consequences could be fatal. So, what use is a porous missile defence? (And, mind you, the Arrow is supposed to be the best the current crop of anti-missile missiles!) Clearly, technology to defend against MRBMs is yet to mature. Why not wait for it to do so before investing in it?

The picture gets murkier when longer range ballistic missiles are considered. Travelling at speeds in excess of 10-15 Mach in the terminal phase, these are simply unstoppable short of exploding a nuclear bomb in their vicinity some eight kilometres up in space in the hope that the intense heat wave will melt the semi-conductor chips in the firing circuits and the fast descending fission/fusion warhead will be rendered a dud.

Besides, any ABM (anti-ballistic missile) complex can be cheaply and easily defeated, for instance, by saturating it with missile fire. Considering that the cost of every additional offensive ballistic missile is a small fraction of the price tag for augmenting a missile defence system with basic coverage, it is a lose-lose situation against even a minor foe like Pakistan. Were China to enter the fray, India might as well throw in the towel.

Even if performance is not in question, the cost surely is. Indeed, in the mid-1990s, a joint Armed Services’ team examining the possibility of a minimal ABM cover provided by among others, the Russian S-300 system, concluded that a minimal missile defence was unviable, its cost of some Rs 56,000 crores prohibitive and, benefits wise, its acquisition made no sense whatsoever. Implicit in such thinking was the belief that the huge amount of monies squandered in this fashion could be more productively spent on modernizing the Indian military.

So, where’s that common sense and pragmatism gone? Perhaps, it has become a victim of US’ hard sell conjoined to New Delhi’s desire to accommodate Washington. But there’s an ulterior American motive in extending an ABM shield to India. Washington has always had a strong counter-proliferation agenda. To match, it now has a practical two-stage policy to denuclearize the subcontinent. In the first successful stage, the US military is physically established in Pakistan, virtually manages that country’s air space out of its base in Jacobabad, and well before the Dr A.Q Khan revelations, began controlling critical parts of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. What this means is that the US will not permit Pakistan to operationalize, let alone use, its nuclear weapons for any reason.

The second stage will involve persuading India to give up its nuclear weapons on the twin plea that with Pakistan for all intents and purposes disarmed and theatre missile defence readily available to India. Courtesy US Navy’s Aegis-class destroyer(s) stationed off the Indian coast, which will be sufficient to deter China, New Delhi does not really need a N-arsenal of its own. It is another matter that because Americans will be in charge of the Aegis radar relaying information about enemy missile launches on a real-time basis for the Arrow (or the American PAC-3) to be fired, Indian security will become hostage to US interests.

If this tack fails, the US will insist that the Indian nuclear deterrent be frozen in its present small yield, small-sized, short legged, de-mated and de-alerted nuclear force configuration. Limits on the development of the Indian nuclear force are something New Delhi voluntarily agreed to vide the 10 or so rounds of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks. It will not take much ‘power pressure’ from Washington to convince Indian leaders to accept this as a permanent nuclear straitjacket.

It is a supreme irony that just when India is securing the wherewithal of an independent great power in terms of economic, technological, and conventional military heft, it is inching in the strategic realm toward the status of a security dependency on the United States.



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