Remember the First Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, where Saddam Hussein threatened its neighbours who were allied with the US-led coalition forces, with Scud missiles. Iraq launched Scud missiles against military targets in Saudi Arabia and against Israel. In response to the threat of Scuds, the United States sent Patriot missiles to Israel for the protection of civilians. Netherlands also deployed Patriot missiles in Turkey and Israel to counter the Scud threat. The images of Patriot missiles were all over the TV screens to assure Iraq’s neighbours. If things go as per plan, Indians will soon have a similar assurance, courtesy the DRDO.
In June this year, the DRDO chief announced that India had developed its own Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. It is comparable with the US Patriot 3 system which was successfully employed during the Gulf War. But this is not the first official Indian reference to a BMD system. In its year-end review for 2007, the defence ministry announced that India had “taken a significant step towards Ballistic Missile Defence and joined the elite club of USA, Russia and Israel when an interceptor missile successfully targeted the ‘hostile’ missile off the Orissa coast twice in early December”. Former Indian foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal says that India’s BMD programme began in 1999. But the system was first successfully test-fired in November 2006, when media reports unveiled it as an AXO (Atmospheric Intercept System).
Simply stated, a BMD is an integrated system — comprising radars, anti-ballistic missiles, and a command and control system — that provides multiple opportunities to destroy enemy missiles and their warheads before they can hit their targets. These warheads can be either conventional or nuclear, biological or chemical payloads.
DRDO chief claims that first phase of the BMD programme, which can destroy an incoming ballistic missile with the range of up to 2,000 km — such as Pakistan’s Ghauri and Shaheen missiles — is ready to be deployed. A two-tiered system, it can intercept enemy missiles at altitudes of 80 km and 150 km. As per the DRDO chief, all the elements of the BMD, such as long-range radars and tracking devices, real-time datalink and mission control system, have been “realised” successfully. DRDO has carried out seven BMD tests in all, six of them successful.
Under the first phase of the BMD programme, two cities in the country shall be provided with a missile shield. Media reports suggest that Delhi and Mumbai are the two cities mentioned in the detailed proposal being sent for the approval of Cabinet Committee on Security. The system is thereafter likely to be extended to other major cities in the country.
In the second phase of the system, which is scheduled to be completed by 2016, the BMD will be able to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of 5,000 km. DRDO’s claim that it can deploy an effective BMD system against IRBMs and ICBMs in the next four years though doesn’t sound credible.
Senior defence journalist, Manoj Joshi has doubted DRDO’s claims about the BMD system being ready after just six tests, in what appear to be controlled conditions. He worries that Pakistan’s obvious response to a BMD will be to field even greater numbers of missiles with nuclear weapons, causing further destabilisation in the region. He has also raised valid questions that a project of such strategic importance was never coordinated with the defence services.
DRDO says because the BMD system is concentrated on the terminal phase as compared to mid-course interception, the testing with modified Prithvi missiles provides sufficient validation for deployment. Even if Pakistan produces more nuclear weapons, employing the BMD has to be a strategic decision made by India while considering the China factor. China will not be constrained in its strategic capabilities to assuage India’s concerns so long as it perceives a threat from the US. Moreover, a BMD system goes beyond its military potential. In its post-Gulf War review, Netherlands defence ministry stated that although the military use of the Patriot missile system was largely ineffective, its psychological value was very high.
While deployment of the BMD system is hugely welcome, the silence of India’s political leadership on the subject is not. As with the nuclear weapons programme, it is India’s political leadership and not the DRDO chief which should have taken the nation into confidence about the missile shield. More worryingly, why has the government not provided constant political guidance to a programme of such strategic importance?
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review