Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Indian Missile Shield: Nothing to be Baffled About

This is a unedited draft of my guest post on Saurav Jha's blog on IBNLive

Recently, India Today magazine carried a column by Manoj Joshi that was very critical of the DRDO's ballistic missile defence (BMD) program. Joshi argued that the DRDO chief's claims about the BMD shield being ready after just six tests, in what appear to be controlled conditions, were unrealistic; that a project of such strategic importance lacked proper direction from the outset; and even questioned the need for such a system in the Indian context. The article is so full of inaccurate assumptions, misleading remarks, and false statements, that it’s hard to know where to start refuting them. But I thought it would be useful to rebut some of his more outrageous claims.

False Argument #1: India's missile shield is not ready for deployment.

To be fair, Joshi doesn’t state this explicitly, but drives the reader towards this conclusion by questioning the adequacy of the tests the missile shield was subject to. This, is spite of the presence of  multiple credible sources in the public domain that attest to the fact that the entire BMD system has been subject to full-up tests, in its "final user configuration". Moreover, the column's title leads one to believe that the government is indeed 'baffled' over the DRDO chief's claim, although Joshi presents scant evidence to show that this is indeed the case. Even the ubiquitous 'unnamed sources' that usually form the basis of such theses are conspicuous by their absence.

False  Argument  #2: A Prithvi missile launched from a distance of 70 km can in no way mimic the flight profile of a 2000 km range missile.

This is incorrect. As long as the inbound reentry-vehicle comes in at the correct angle and terminal velocity, it matters not for a terminal phase BMD system whether it was launched from 2000 km away or 70 km away. And there is no reason a Prithvi's trajectory cannot be modified to mimic that of an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) in the terminal phase. The day the DRDO builds a Sprint/Spartan type system, there shall be no alternative but to test it against "proper" long-range missiles. But to the best of my knowledge, they aren't building a Sprint/Spartan right now, so why use an expensive Agni as a target when a much cheaper (and convenient) Prithvi will suffice?

False  Argument  #3: "With nuclear weapons around, only a shield that will guarantee blocking every single missile is the only one worth having".

This one claim is perhaps the most puzzling of all, and demonstrates a very limited understanding of how ballistic missile defences are supped to work. If India deploys even a marginally effective BMD system, it will seriously limit an enemy country's nuclear strike options and impose excessive costs on them should they decide to build more warheads and delivery vehicles to neturalise India's advantage.

Let me explain what I mean by building a hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the continent of Westeros is in the midst of a cold war, with the Starks of Winterfell facing off against the powerful Lannisters of Casterly Rock. The Lannisters are known to possess a limited number (say forty) of nuclear warheads mounted on ballistic missiles. At most, that means they can hit 40 targets, if Lord Tywin decides to target each missile against a different city. To counter it, the Starks decide to put into operation a BMD shield to cover the North, Riverrun, and the Vale of Arryn. Let us assume that this shield has a rather poor anticipated kill probability of 80%. How do the Lannisters respond? The easy way out would be to assign multiple missiles to a smaller number of targets. They select eight of the most important targets and assign five missiles to each in the hope that at least one of those five will make it through. Almost at once, the Starks' BMD system has protected 32 targets, thousands of lives, and tons of precious resources without having fired a single shot. This is called 'virtual attrition'. The Lannisters may well decide to enlarge their arsenal to 200 warheads and missiles and get back their earlier effectiveness numbers, but there is every chance that this will be either impossible or terribly expensive. And the moment the Starks give their system a minor upgrade to increase its effectiveness to 90%, they (the Lannisters) will be back to square one, requiring another 200 missiles to restore the status quo. The economics of the competition are loaded in favour of the Starks -- an ABM system is expensive to set-up, but it can be expanded and upgraded at a fraction of what it would cost the Lannisters to build more missiles and warheads and then set up the infrastructure for their deployment, maintenance, and upkeep.

Applying the lessons of this scenario to India tells me that inflicting a bit of this same virtual attrition on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal wouldn't be a bad thing at all. Several well-meaning analysts consider a nuclear war 'unthinkable' and see a war as 'lost' as soon as the first nuclear warhead goes off. In the process they end up advocating an all-or-nothing approach to national defence makes very little strategic sense. One expects pragmatic policy-makers to be made up of sterner stuff. It is their job to make the nation as secure as possible, to rationally think about nuclear war, to devise strategies to win it if it takes place, and ensure the continued functioning of the state after the dust has settled. And rational thinking dictates that given a choice between losing, say, Delhi alone versus losing Delhi and Jaipur, the correct decision would be to save Jaipur, no matter how much it offends some. Sitting around twiddling thumbs and calling either "unthinkable" is NOT an option.

False  Argument  #4: "None of the DRDO's claims have been verified by third parties, say, any of our armed forces. In contrast, China's January 2010 test was authenticated by the Pentagon".

This is a dishonest line of argument, comparing the user evaluating an indigenously developed weapon system with a foreign defence department secretly observing a test being performed by another country. The two are hardly equivalent! We do not know whether the Chinese system was verified 'independently' by their military. As for the Pentagon, its statement only states that American satellites detected an interception. There is little to indicate that it verified the operation of every little component of the system: the search, tracking, and fire control radars, the communications system, the command and control system, and so on. Surely, the users' representatives from the Air Force and Army a user team from the Indian Army, present at Wheeler Island at the time of the test, got to examine the operation of the entire system in more detail than a few foreign satellites observing a Chinese test?

False  Argument  #5: "the system will be ready for "two places", presumably Mumbai and Delhi. But what about Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow and the rest of the country?"

The deployment in two places is only supposed to be an initial deployment. Every new weapon is deployed in phases, and there is no reason the BMD system should be any different in that regard. In fact, setting it up in several cities at once without it being given a thorough shakedown would be the far riskier option, strategically and economically.

False  Argument  #6: Building a missile shield would force Pakistan to build "field greater numbers of missiles with nuclear weapons", compromising India's interests.

In support of this suggestion, Joshi quotes Air Vice-Marshal (retd.) Kapil Kak: "For an unstable and fragile state like Pakistan, India's BMD could indeed be destabilising, as this would substantially reduce the value of Pakistan's nuclear and missile arsenal, tempting it to increase the same." My reposnse to this is, yes, it may be so but why is destabilisation necessarily a bad thing? Pakistan has more than once pronounced its willingness to use nuclear weapons if war breaks out, and hasn’t shied away from protecting terrorist entities it actively supports with these weapons. Short of a direct threat of unprovoked nuclear war, the situation is already about as unstable as it could get for India. Now with the Pakistani economy in doldrums, wouldn't it make sense for India to "destabilise" the strategic equation by forcing Pakistan to pour more money and resources into an arms build-up it cannot afford?

Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Rahul M, Nitin V, and Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj for contributing their considerable knowledge and views, and their assistance in critiquing this rebuttal.