This is part of the Ballistic Missile Defence programme that has tested both exoatmospheric and endoatmospheric anti missile systems so far. Clearly, since this is the Star Wars domain, there is a long way to go. But the media report, in its description of the tests, informs of India, “joining the US, Russia and Israel in an elite group of countries to have accomplished the mission.”
The argument goes that the capability is useful for deterrence. The Ballistic Missile Defence system would be required for protecting against a decapitation strike and command and control echelons. The latter will enable assured retaliation, since India subscribes to the NFU. Further, since the capability cannot cover extensive areas, it could instead be used to protect a set of land-based weapons from the point of view of a second strike capability. Nuclear submarines constitute the sea based second strike capability.
The programme serves other purposes that usually go unmentioned. These include a political dividend in terms of showcasing the government’s privileging of the security agenda. It enables the technologists to demonstrate their capabilities, thereby ensuring budgets, continuing recruitment and enabling the appropriate positioning of India in case in the future such technologies become a security imperative. That India has such a programme enables it to network with likeminded states for interactions in development, including joint development. India had previously made such an offer to the US.
But, what is the impact on security?
In theory, having the protection of a ballistic missile shield is taken as a tendency towards a first strike posture. The logic is that once a defence is available, behind its cover a disarming first strike can be attempted. The cover can then take care of the disjointed, broken-back response of the enemy. It is for this reason that in the Cold War the two adversaries foreswore antiballistic missiles, but for a site in each state. Mutual vulnerability was the basis of their deterrence.
India is not slave to Cold War logic. NFU is a principle tenet of its doctrine. It therefore needs to ensure it does not attract a disarming strike. In case it is able to degrade one, it would be able to make NFU credible. It is in a situation of nuclear asymmetry with one of its neighbours and definitely so in case of a ‘two front’ situation. Additionally, instability in its neighbourhood requires that India cater for contingencies that may emerge over the long-term, such as changes in an adversary’s nuclear posture, accidental launches and by rogue elements.
Nevertheless, given the high-end nature of the technology involved and the prohibitive costs, India is unlikely to be able to operationalize its BMD. Also strategic implications of the development are not necessarily all benign, even if it appears on the surface to be a defensive, and therefore justifiable, move. Given these, India may proceed with the program treating it at best as a technological demonstrator.
Pakistan is likely to employ the BMD developments as reason enough for vertical proliferation. It has doubled its arsenal size over the past half a decade. It is going in for Pu-based weapons so that they can be carried further by its ballistic missiles and also by its cruise missile programme. These initiatives will get a justification in terms of ‘more’ and ‘better’ being needed to take on India’s missile shield for the credibility of its second strike capability.
From the Pakistani point of view, what matters is India’s capability rather than professions, such as the NFU declaration. Knowing Pakistan does not have an NFU doctrine, in the event of hostilities India could, behind its BMD, attempt to degrade Pakistani arsenal in a first strike. This would expose Pakistan to Indian conventional advantage thereafter. Pakistani inability to technologically match the Indian BMD head-start implies that it will compensate with numbers and an inclination to ‘go first’.
A counter argument could be that this is the route Pakistan embarked on in any case. It has not been prompted by the BMD and would not be given up in case the BMD is dismantled. India’s BMD program gives Pakistani buildup a rationale. Therefore, India needs to secure itself against the higher levels aspired to by Pakistan through, among other measure, BMD.
This strategic dialectic suggests that security is an unintended casualty. Clearly, unilateral advance in isolation of the other is not enhancing the security of either. There is therefore a need for engaging each other. At a minimum, a reversion to the sixth point of the Lahore MOU is a must. This must be resumed as a separate, uninterruptible track. On the domestic front, a parliamentary standing committee needs to be formed for overseeing the nuclear complex and embedding its wares within India’s overall strategic doctrine.