As India enters talks with the United States today on acquiring Patriot missiles, it needs clarity on the elements that form an effective strategy to develop missile defence capabilities within the nation. Even as India enters these very important negotiations, there are residual doubts in New Delhi on whether India needs missile defence in the first place. Although India had intuitively decided on the need for missile defence a few years ago, there are many voices of caution raising questions on relevance and effectiveness.
For some time now, missile defence has been one of the four items in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative with the US. Well before missile defence came onto the agenda of Indo-US dialogue, New Delhi had been exploring a variety of options on acquiring related technologies and systems from Israel. India has already purchased advanced radars, which form an important component of any missile defence system, from Israel. It has also been interested in the Arrow missile system developed by Tel Aviv in collaboration with the US. While Washington is yet to clear the Arrow sale to India, it has offered to discuss the sale of Patriot II system.
Even before India has got to the first base on missile defence, there has been a vociferous campaign from Pakistan to stop the sale of Patriot systems to India. The non-proliferation community in Washington has joined the chorus by raising the bogey of an arms race between India and Pakistan that could destabilise the nuclear balance in the Subcontinent.
Why does India want to spend money on missile defence when there are widespread doubts about its reliability and effectiveness? This popular question, however, misses the point on the kind of defensive systems that India is considering at the moment.
National missile defence (NMD), which aims at protecting a country against attack by nuclear armed missiles, is indeed a long way off. The US hopes to develop such a system over many years, if not decades.
India should differentiate the diplomatic campaign by some major capitals and American liberals against the American NMD programme and the fundamental importance of the programme as a vehicle for advanced military technological development. Most major powers are investing in military research and development relating to missile defence. That includes Russia, China and many European powers who have embarked on a political campaign against missile defences.
For most of them the creation of missile defence capabilities is a technological hedge against the growing dangers of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood that they might fall into the hands of terrorist groups and irresponsible regimes. Missile defence is also about redefining the rules of the nuclear game six decades after the dawn of the atomic age. With missile defence representing the new locus of military/technological power around, India cannot but begin to develop capabilities in this area.
Although the world debate on NMD remains inconclusive, there is absolute consensus within the US that theatre missile defence is both necessary and feasible. Many liberals in the US who oppose NMD strongly support the TMD, which offers protection for specific sites like national capitals, military facilities and troops deployed abroad.
Israel, Japan and Australia are among the other countries that are actively pursuing TMD programmes in Asia. India’s own focus has been acquiring limited TMD capabilities, which at the moment are a significant advance over conventional air defence capabilities.
The Indian TMD programme is about developing some answers against nuclear blackmail by Pakistan. Ever since it acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1980s, Pakistan has put India in an unenviable position. By neutralising India’s conventional superiority with its nuclear weapons, Pakistan pursued with impunity a proxy war against India. Since then India has struggled to come up with strategic answers to Pakistan’s nuclear challenge.
India’s acquisition of a TMD system will help complicate Pakistan’s nuclear calculus and dent its ability to indulge in nuclear blackmail. Equally important, TMD offers a potential insurance against state failure in Pakistan and the danger of its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremist elements. Further, with India committed to nuclear no-first-use, it needs missile defences more than any other power to delay and, if possible, to avoid the use of nuclear weapons.
If TMD is a natural complement to India’s no-first-use doctrine, what type of systems should India acquire and develop? Some in the establishment would argue that India should develop its own TMD systems rather than import them. But that begs the question on whether the home grown system will meet India’s immediate TMD requirements.
For many in the security establishment, there is an urgency to deploy TMD systems. Thanks to the support from China and North Korea, Pakistan now enjoys a huge lead over India on the development and deployment of missiles. It is to plug this missile gap that India has been focusing on possible cooperation with Israel and the United States on missile defence, with emphasis on proven systems like the Arrow and the Patriot.
In purchasing TMD systems from outside, India would naturally want the best available products. While it must examine the current US offer of the Patriot II system, it must explore the prospects for buying the Patriot III system which Washington has developed. While imports might be necessary to meet immediate requirements, over the long-term India must develop its own capabilities in missile defence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must task the DRDO as well as the Department of Atomic Energy to initiate an R&D programme to develop the full range of technologies relating to missile defence.
In the late 1940s, when Jawaharlal Nehru offered solid support to Homi Bhabha in the development of atomic research capabilities, he did not focus on reinventing the wheel. The strategy was to take advantage of international assistance wherever possible and simultaneously develop indigenous capabilities. The Nehru-Bhabha strategy paid off handsomely in later decades. Similarly when it comes missile defence and the next generation of military technologies that could change the global power structure, India must at once focus on critical external cooperation as well as significant R&D investments at home.