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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

Political Implications of India-US Cooperation on Missile Defence

Monday 7 April 2008, by Neha Kumar

The visit of Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence of the United States, to India on February 27, 2008 was another step forward by both the countries to strengthen their strategic relationship. The main aim of the visit was to discuss arms procurement and India’s plans to buy 126 multi-role combat fighter jets which will cost approximately $ 10.6 billion. The other main issue discussed was to have a joint missile defence system although discussions on this issue are at an early stage. Robert Gates said to the reporters: “We are just beginning to talk about perhaps conducting a joint analysis about what India’s needs would be in the realm of missile defence and where cooperation between us might help advance that.” This cooperation is technically advantageous for India as India is facing a lot of technical problems in building its indigenous missile defence programme. The DRDO claimed to carry out successful tests of exo-atmospheric interception with the Prithvi Air Defence Experiment (PADE) but analysts doubt the extent of success of these tests. After the successful tests of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, the DRDO is seeking American help for “hit-to-kill” technology for its interceptor missiles. The head of the DRDO, V.K. Saraswat, said that Indian missile interceptors employed “proximity fragmentation” implying something short of “hit- to-kill” technologies. The DRDO’s claims to have had a successful BMD test is doubted because advanced countries like the US were unable to carry out successful tests at the initial stages.

The BMD cooperation between the two largest democracies of the world will have large scale political and strategic effects, not only in South Asia but also at global level. First, Indian participation with the US on the BMD issue would make India a larger part of the US anti-missile programme and a part of the Big Asia Belt which includes all the countries from Turkey to Iraq. If India becomes a part of this, only three major countries would be left out from American domination in Asia, that is, Iran, China and Russia. Another major concern will be whether the Indian Government will get domestic support for such cooperation? The nuclear deal is already in a state of flux as India’s Left parties do not want New Delhi to come under the umbrella of the US. Secondly, it would have an impact on Indo-Russian relationship. India has a long term military relationship with Russia since the Cold War period. But in recent times, there is a feeling that the Russian military system and contracts are not very reliable and there is necessity to look for other major suppliers for arms in the global market. Some of the major contracts with Russia have been broken. There are complaints from the Indian side that Russia did not deliver in time and the equipments are of low quality. Therefore India felt a strong need to look towards the US which could upset Russia. Also, Russia is against any BMD system to be deployed in Europe and Asia because it would degrade the first strike capability of Russia. Russia feels that these systems are directed against it. Thirdly, the impact of BMD on the South Asian region will lead to an arms race. China is alarmed with the cooperation of India with the US; the reason being that China regards this as an attempt by the US to encircle China by using allies like Japan and South Korea. This issue becomes more sensitive because it has come up at a time when China and India’s border dispute is again escalating. Therefore, China regards the India-US defence cooperation as a game being played against it to hinder its strategic interests in the region. China is already busy in modernisation of missiles and could speed up its programme of modernisation with the decision of India to cooperate with the US on the issue of missile defence. Another major player in the region of South Asia is Pakistan which has a long history dispute with India. Pakistan might feel the need to re-evaluate its nuclear posture and might invest more on missile construction, countermeasures technology etc. Thus, introduction of BMD would lead to instability in the region and might result in an arms race.

GIVEN the above strategic conditions, the question is: should India go for BMD or not? My answer would be that in spite of the reasons mentioned above, India should invest and cooperate with the US on the issue of BMD. The domestic opposition to the nuclear deal and future opposition on BMD are ideological and do not have any strategic logic behind them. India should understand the difference between “being a satellite of the US” and “being a close ally of the US” and should depict itself at national and international levels as a “partner” of the US enjoying sovereign rights in taking independent international and national decisions. With regard to Russia, India should maintain a balance between Russia and the US. India should make it clear to Russia that we still believe in the policy of non-alignment and this missile defence alliance with the US is not going to harm Moscow.

Non-Proliferation lobbies have mentioned repeatedly about the threat from India on account of the BMD programme resulting in an arms race in the South Asian region but often forget about the missile developments of China and Pakistan. It is a well- known fact that China has a history of proliferating missile technologies by gifting them to Pakistan. Today many analysts claim that Pakistan has much more advanced missile capability as compared to India. The first strike policy has made the situation for India worse. India has faced the threat of nuclear attack from Pakistan twice; on both occasions the issue was solved by US intervention. China has also claimed the territory of Arunachal Pradesh and there have been reports of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory. The moves by China and Pakistan have posed a serious threat to India and forced India to consider the option of accepting BMD.

BMD is also important for Indian deterrence particularly keeping in view the way in which India’s Intergraded Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) has been scrapped. Indian officials claim that all missiles under this project have been built or are on the verge of completion. But the realities of these missiles are different. Prithvi missiles are liquid fuel missiles; therefore these are very difficult to launch and also they are not very reliable. Agni missile takes half-a-day’s time for preparation before deployment. Agni III is the only missile which could target the major cities of China but it has not yet been inducted into the India defence forces. After giving up the IGDMP programme, India has tested Brahmos and Sagarika, sea-based ballistic missiles. Thus, the major thrust of India is on the sea-based ballistic missile which is stored underwater and cannot be detected. It would give India second strike capability to a limited extent as its range is limited. This missile should be placed near the target which makes it highly vulnerable. However, if this is combined with BMD, it would further strengthen Indian deterrence by limiting the destruction caused during war. So, instead of paying attention to various arguments against the Indian BMD, the Government of India and security analysts should explore the possibilities of undertaking joint research projects with the US to develop BMD which would have relevance for its own security.

The author is a Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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