A race to oblivion?

Last week India successfully tested an interceptor missile capable of destroying an incoming ballistic missile off Wheeler Island near the Orissa coast. This latest test, if the technical data that has been released in the public domain is correct, would mark a milestone in India’s quest for ballistic missile defence (BMD).

The effort to develop BMD capabilities is wholly understandable.
Thanks to Pakistan’s overt acquisition of nuclear weapons, its security community has come to believe that it can attack India using terrorist proxies with impunity as any Indian conventional response could result in a Pakistani threat to use nuclear weapons. Consequently, its military establishment could again seek to pull off a Mumbai-style attack hoping that India would again hesitate to use its conventional forces against Pakistan.
To address this strategic dilemma, Indian decision-makers have decided that they need to develop the requisite capabilities to significantly degrade the prospects of a Pakistani nuclear attack through the use of BMD. A robust BMD capability would put feckless Pakistani military commanders on notice that they could not indefinitely continue to pursue their asymmetric war strategy against India without the fear of a conventional response.
It is, of course, an open question if India can actually field such a significant BMD capability in the first place. Field tests of BMD under particular conditions, however successful, are nevertheless a very long distance to a working missile shield. That said, there are other compelling strategic reasons why India’s policymakers may wish to re-consider their pursuit of BMD.
Pakistan has long been a revisionist state in that it remains unreconciled to the territorial status quo in South Asia.
Until it abandons this commitment to address what its policymakers, most notably its military apparatus, believe to be the fundamental iniquities of Partition, particularly the putative loss of Kashmir, it will remain at odds with India. Since it cannot take on an increasingly powerful conventional Indian force it will rely both on its nuclear forces and its asymmetric war strategy to pique India.
Despite their own provocative behaviour, India’s military and strategic choices can have a significant bearing on Pakistan’s decisions. For example, it is clear that India’s policymakers have chosen to invest much treasure in the pursuit of BMD primarily for the purpose of undermining Pakistan’s asymmetric war strategy. However, given the Pakistani military establishment’s preoccupation with India, their propensity to believe in any number of conspiracy theories involving India and their fears of a second vivisection of their country, the Indian search for BMD may well have the effect of provoking their worst fears.
For their standpoint, India’s attempt to acquire BMD would not be seen as a mere defensive coping mechanism against their asymmetric warfare. Instead, it would, almost for a certainty, be seen as an Indian quest for what is referred to in the strategic studies literature as “escalation dominance”. Simply put , with a layered BMD structure in place India could cope with an initial Pakistani nuclear response and then strike Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional forces with its own nuclear weapons. Such a scenario comes close to that of a nuclear Armageddon in South Asia. However, from the standpoint of Pakistani security managers it is far from chimerical. To ensure that India could not become overly confident in the efficacy of its ballistic missile capabilities, the Pakistani military establishment would undertake a series of counter-measures, some cheap others expensive.
At a bare minimum they would invest in a range of dummy warheads and place them on an increased array of ballistic missiles. Since Indian decision-makers would have no way of discriminating between dummy and actual warheads they would be forced to target every one of them, thereby dramatically expanding the scope of BMD coverage. Furthermore, the Pakistani military would also make minor technical modifications to their missiles, thereby making them more difficult to target. Additionally, as is already evident from recent press reports, they would swiftly ratchet up their production of fissile material to develop a larger nuclear arsenal. Finally, to further complicate matters for Indian security planners, they would place their nuclear weapons on mobile launchers, would create false sites and would resort to camouflage and deception.
Sadly for India’s policymakers, the vast majority of these strategies are cheaper and potentially more effective than India’s steps towards the acquisition and deployment of an effective ballistic missile force.
India’s strategic dilemma is all too real. It is also quite understandable that its policymakers and defence scientists, in their growing frustration with the behaviour of a recalcitrant and intransigent neighbour, are seeking a technological solution to a vexing strategic and political problem. Though a seemingly reasonable response to the conundrum that they confront , its possible success may, in the end, contribute to a more unstable region than at present.

Sumit Ganguly is the director of research at the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, US

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