An IDC Report

(Courtesy IUS Action Group)


New Delhi, 14 July 2004

Prof Sumit Ganguly's article in The HINDU discussed Missile Defence for India in some detail and Under Secretary Richard Armitage was in Delhi and met India's NSA J N Dixit. Missile defence could well form part of discussions in the India–Pakistan context. The article and the various responses from experts will prove very useful for those involved and interested in India's Missile Defence. ‘More the debate more the clarity’ for India and a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan will be futile to solve the many self made problems over Kashmir and the enmity between those who were neighbours and friends just half a century ago.

The Folly Of Missile Defence

By Sumit Ganguly

The seeming attractiveness of theatre missile defence notwithstanding, it is fraught with almost insuperable technological limitations and strategic flaws.

(Sumit Ganguly is the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations and the Director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington.)


THE UNITED States is now set to spend the sum of $53 billion over the next several years pursuing the chimera of missile defence. The original idea for this system came from the perfervid imagination of the erstwhile American President, Ronald Reagan, and a handful of his scientific advisers, most notably, Edward Teller. At the time, a number of prominent scientists and strategic analysts warned that a leak-proof missile defence system was not only unworkable but made dubious strategic sense. Despite these scientific and strategic questions, the Reagan administration for mostly ideological and political reasons went ahead with this programme.

As with most strategic programmes this one proved far easier to spawn than to kill. Scientific pressure from the weapons laboratories, bureaucratic imperatives, and political considerations kept this questionable programme alive through both the Bush Sr. and the two Clinton administrations, albeit in a more modified form. With the advent of the second George W. Bush administration the programme received a new lease on its life. Worse still, the administration sought to sell a version of this programme to various allies facing growing threats from ballistic missiles. Not surprisingly, Japan, a key ally, confronting an increasingly imminent threat from North Korea, signed on. Most surprisingly, however, India, which had never expressed the slightest enthusiasm for any American military-technological initiative, for once under the National Democratic Alliance regime, chose to partially endorse this renewed American emphasis on missile defence.

Proponents of missile defence whether in the U.S. or India, no longer argue that they visualise a layered, area-wide defence of their respective homelands. That grand and absurd vision has been justifiably interred with its initial exponent, Ronald Reagan. Instead they will argue that what is called for is really theatre missile defence. Namely, that these missiles would be confined to particular theatres of military operations and thereby deny an adversary an offensive military advantage.

The seeming attractiveness of this proposition notwithstanding, it is fraught with almost insuperable technological limitations and strategic flaws. The technological limitations alone should give its proponents considerable pause. To begin with, most of these systems whether the American Patriot or the Israeli Arrow have shown little promise in their initial tests. Not much information is available in the public domain about the performance of the Israeli Arrow system but a good deal of knowledge exists about the Patriot. In its initial version it fared rather poorly during the first Gulf War. In subsequent tests, which have favoured the system, its ability to shoot down targets has been quite shaky. Nevertheless, its proponents continue to insist that these technological hurdles can be overcome in due course.

Perhaps that is the case. However, even if that felicitous future were to materialise, the proponents have no answer for other problems that confront any missile defence system. How, for example, would the interceptors distinguish between real and dummy missiles? Why would an adversary not simply flood the sky with a range of dummies? What if the adversary were to resort to other counter-measures to deflect the interceptors?

Separately, what use would this terribly expensive system be against a determined adversary, who instead of investing in missiles, simply resorted to a "suitcase bomb"?

The last point cannot be overlooked or trivialised. Both American advocates of missile defence and their Indian acolytes have suggested that they need these defences against so-called rogue regimes who are capable of perpetrating execrable acts. If indeed these adversaries would stop at little, why would they not think of inexpensive, simple and technologically unstoppable strategies to deliver their evil wares?

One could, of course, assume for the purposes of a debate, that the technological limitations can be overcome and that the prospects of "suitcase bomber" getting through extensive border controls are slender. Even if one makes those assumptions, however untenable, other strategic considerations militate against the pursuit of this system. The development of a successful ballistic missile defence system is likely to provoke the worst anxieties of an adversary. This is the inexorable logic of international politics. Even though one state may think that its military acquisitions are purely defensive, another may not be able to distinguish offensive from defensive weaponry. More to the point, weapons acquired for defensive purposes can be used for offence.

This problem, referred to as the "security dilemma" by scholars of international relations, assumes greater significance in the case of two nuclear-armed adversaries. Indian officials may well argue that the country's anti-ballistic missile system is simply designed to degrade a Pakistani nuclear strike against its forces and thereby induce Pakistan to desist from its continued support of insurgents in Kashmir and elsewhere. Since Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear capabilities, long before May 1998, it had come to the realisation that India was inhibited from launching a conventional attack for fear of escalation to the nuclear level. With a ballistic missile defence system in place, some Indian security planners believe that they would be able to cope with the threat of Pakistani nuclear missiles thereby renewing the conventional military option against Pakistan.

Despite the apparent attractiveness of this logic it has important flaws. First, the Pakistanis are likely to build more cheap missiles, thereby dramatically raising the costs of India's missile defence program. Second, despite India's professions of a missile defence designed to boost deterrence, Pakistani defence planners will fear that such a system is merely a pretext for India seeking "escalation dominance." This term means that in the event of a crisis, one party will be able to simply ratchet up the pressure on the escalation ladder. In the end, this will enable the more formidable party to seek a "first strike" capability.

Such fears from the Pakistani standpoint are hardly unfounded. India with its vastly greater indigenous industrial and technological capabilities can seek to pursue such a strategy. Even if Pakistani planners devise an initial use of nuclear weapons, India's ballistic missile system could theoretically cope with this strike and then retaliate with its much more substantial forces annihilating Pakistan's capabilities in perpetuity. Though this scenario appears far-fetched, it is precisely the dire possibility that Pakistanis will contemplate. Stated in another fashion, India would be in a position to strike Pakistan at will knowing that Pakistan's limited capabilities could be dealt with through its missile defence system. To borrow another term from the language of strategic studies, India would be well placed to deal with Pakistan's "ragged retaliation."

The rub, of course, lies in a number of the underlying assumptions and misgivings of both sides. On the Indian side, a leaky and uncertain ballistic missile defence system may give risk-prone Indian defence planners much incentive to strike Pakistan first in the event of a future crisis. On the Pakistani side, the possibility of the Indian missile defence system actually working would reduce confidence in its existing nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal. This would induce its already hawkish military planners to envisage a worst-case scenario and think of possible ways of expanding their missile forces and of hardening and dispersing their silos against an Indian attack. All of this would only provoke more counter-measures on the Indian side. Almost inevitably, this action-reaction cycle would lock the two states in an arms race of considerable proportions and at substantial cost.

Of course, some unreconstructed hawks in the Indian policymaking establishment, not unlike their Reaganite counterparts, would not see this as an undesirable outcome. They would argue that India with its far higher and sustainable growth rates could afford to run this race and drive Pakistan's economy into the ground. After all, this is precisely the argument that the more inveterate Soviet-baiting members of the Reagan administrations made about the utility of extraordinarily high defence budgets. In turn, they argue that the Soviet effort to cope with American military spending contributed to its demise. The dubiousness of this argument requires a separate column.

Even if the Reaganites were correct about their assumptions about the Soviet collapse there is little reason why Indian hawks should seek to emulate that strategy in dealing with Pakistan. A disintegrating state on one's borders armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and populated with a range of jihadi groups filled with an inveterate hatred of India is hardly a roseate future to contemplate.

I differ from him because he says that merely because we instal Missile Defences Pakistan will go in for more missiles. This may be OK in theory. But, the far more important thing is that when we have misile defences Pakistan will always feel uncertain about our responses to their terorist provocations. For example should we decide to hit back militarily to an outrage like the December 13 attack on Parliament, Pakistan will think twice before threatening nuclear escalation as they  would know that with missile defences we would have introduced an element of doubt in their minds as to whether we can take on a first missile strike and repond so massively that they cease to exist. This is the very basis of having a no first use doctrine. We have made it clear that any attempted use of nuclear weapons would meet a massive no holds barred response.


I think Prof. Gangully makes good arguments against the missile defense systems. However we must distinguish between deployment and development. All complex systems if founded on solid principles tend to evolve and at some point become functional. Sometimes there is serendipity and cross fertilization from related fields which cannot be foreseen accurately by anyone, or new avenues or opportunities might evolve from work in a given area. Therefore, it might make sense to continue an R&D approach to the missile defense technology in the democracies of the world in an effort to guard against blackmail by rogue regimes. India has a huge advantage with her capable scientific and engineering pool. In summary, I think that it might be prudent for India to invest in an R&D effort in collaboration with the US, Israel and other democracies rather than invest huge sums in deployment unless they know something not known in the public domain.


The Hindu article clearly has the effect of chipping away at Indian defense preparedness, and argues for peace and love with Pakistan.

The first agument –– that missile defence does not stop the suitcase nuke –– is bogus. Missile defence won't stop earthquakes or tidal waves or meteors either. But it does tell an enemy that a suitcase nuke or any other WMD will bring massive retaliation - and the blackmail using the threat of nukes is not at all likely to succeed because the defense system will be up and ready before the retaliation for the suitcase nuke gets under way. So it deters the suitcase nuke just the same. The action it causes, is a desire on the part of Musharraf to really keep his buddies from acquiring uncontrolled weapons. Since I hold that the Global Terror Enterprise is monolithic, with Musharraf very much a part of its High Command, suitcase or missile or anything else is all controlled from the same place. To quote General Aziz on tape during the Kargil war, reporting to Musharraf: "Sir, we have these jehadis by the scruff of the neck. They will do what we tell them to do".

Missile defence also tells the PRC that India will not necessarily be cowed down by a threat of nuclear intervention by Beijing. The PRC won't launch if its going to lead to massive Chinese casualties just to protect a bunch of Islamic terrorists. Without NMD over Delhi and Mumbai, India will have to back down at the slightest move by the PRC to deploy their missiles in a crisis.

Unlike the US, India's economy is concentrated in just a few major cities. The defense coverage needed is not anywhere near as extensive as the US'.

As for the technical options in missile defence, the argument is quite easy to see, without giving anything away. There are 3 phases when you can hit a ballistic missile:

1. Boost Phase –– when it is slow, bulky and vulnerable but is well inside enemy territory. Duration: a couple of minutes.

2. Mid-course –– in space/upper atmosphere: Warheads are still in one piece, and has limited manoeuvrings capability. Duration: several minutes.

3. Reentry/terminal Phase –– warheads likely to separate, and include many dummies as well as a few real ones aimed at different nearby targets. Some maneuvering possible, trajectory may be slightly erratic. Traveling at hypersonic speeds, duration is just about a minute or so.

There are supposedly, efforts directed at all 3 phases. I don't give much chance for the Boost Phase to succeed with laser weapons, unless it seems feasible to cruise at 40,000 feet 100 miles off the Pakistani launch sites with an airborne laser, etc. We have discussed this option, and it appears that it can be countered fairly easily.

As for the mid-course phase, I don't see how a rocket can be launched quickly enough to go and hit something which is already cruising at high speed above the atmosphere, but I know that there are some efforts directed at that phase as well. I suspect that this is using Space-based weapons, which no one will admit having.

That leaves what is called "Theater High Altitude Air Defense", which is what Dr. Ganguly discusses. I agree that launching a rocket from the ground, in the hope of hitting an incoming projectile, while it is still high enough, seems highly improbable. Basically, one finds oneself driven to use rockets with incredibly fast acceleration (which means, they are 50% likely to blow up during launch). If you look at acceleration profiles, you find that a VERY long time is wasted, in getting up to, say, 60,000 feet and Mach 2. The ground-launched missile simply does not have that much time to waste, if it wants to hit a warhead at, say, 150,000 feet.

Unlike the SCUDs of Saddam Hussein, nuclear warheads don't have to hit the ground: an air blast at 5000 feet, or even at 20,000 feet, is equally cataclysmic for a city. So, the interception has to occur far above that altitude. Comparisons with Patriot SAMs are not valid here.

Even then, the numbers favor the attacker. As Dr. Ganguly says (no, I don't think they are going to be "cheap"), one can build more warheads than ground-launched missiles.

BUT, my point is that all this is fairly evident to most aerospace engineers, Generals etc. So this is not how I (or they) would go for "Theater High Altitude Air Defense". In times of tension, I would simply have a few large aircraft on patrol. Each would carry a couple of 2-stage weapons - like B-52s carrying smaller craft. The first stage would be a booster, manned or unmanned, which in turn will carry some 4 or 6 air-to-air missiles (hypersonic).

On sensing missile launch (that's what satellites are for) the boosters would already be traveling at 30,000 feet and Mach 0.8. They would zoom up to 100,000 feet, getting up to some supersonic speed - and covering a pretty wide radius. They would then launch their missiles at all the warheads. These small missiles would be able to reach very high speeds, and literally catch incoming warheads if necessary.

In this scenario, it is easy to see that the defense system has the advantage - you can build many more boosters and AAMs than your enemy can build ballistic missiles and warheads. Only a very few such systems would be necessary to cover all of North India, and a few similar ones would ensure security of South India.

What evidence is there that this is the course of action being followed? Check into the small glimpses of news about AAMs and hypersonic vehicles that come from the defense developers of several countries. Meanwhile, there are these grand, well-advertised declarations of "success" with ground-launched weapons so that the public can have a good laugh about stupid Generals, and academicians. These tests "explain" the defense R&D expenditures which are needed for the real thing.

Do I KNOW that this is what is being done? Well...

1) The above makes sense to me, and I am not completely incapable of reasoning out these things.

2) I know the people running such programs, and they are no less smart than I am.

3) I know the people doing the R&D in India, and they are a HECK of a lot smarter than many commentators.

4) In most things, these people are way ahead of me in reasoning and details.

5) If Dr. Ganguly KNOWs, then he cannot tell. If he doesn't, his guess is no better than mine  and there I AM being modest.

All said and done, Musharraf, the State Department, and all their terrorist buddies, as well as PRC, all desperately need to stop India from developing and deploying effective missile defence. Professor Ganguly seems to be batting for them with his ill-advised article in The Hindu.


The issue of BMD in the Indian context cannot be viewed in the same geopolitical terms as that of the United States.

Furthermore, we must divorce the political agendas and ideology behind the US system from the purely technical need for a viable BMD system for India. Political hawks and irresponsible elements will always have to be reined in, whether BMD systems are deployed or not.

To argue that India should eschew BMD systems because they might spark Pakistan to procure more ballistic missiles is as stupid as arguing that countries should not invest in air defences as the opposing side would simply purchase more strike aircraft! By extension, the RAF should not have invested in radars, AA guns and fighters because the Luftwaffe would only send more bombers!

Any BMD network in India must be aimed at deterring limited strikes from ballistic missiles aimed at specific targets –– a nationwide BMD network is a pipe dream - from sites in China and Pakistan.

It cannot hope to do anymore than counter a limited attack.

However, we must also bear in mind that M-9 and M-11 type missiles will not necessarily be fielded with nuclear warheads by the PRC vs India. The Chinese have large numbers of these missiles and will deploy them as they would employ long-range rocket artillery.

With conventional sub-munition warheads, these may be used for the bombardment of Indian targets such as airfields, radar sites and even munitions depots.

To suggest that no means of defence be provided for such sites is a serious dereliction of duty and as such India must consider the options available to it.

With respect to nuclear missiles aimed at Indian cities, again, a limited BMD network may stop at most 50–70% of incoming missiles at specified targets.

In addition, we must also not lose site of the fact that in the Indian context, BMD is not a wholly new concept, but merely an extension of an existing strategic air defence network –– one that long lapsed in the US after the Nike Hercules and Nike Ajax SAM units were disbanded.

India's Air Force currently operates a network of SAMs and radars aimed at protecting critical targets in the country. This network, though currently viable, is in need of upgrading to cater for new threats.

Ballistic missiles –– conventionally armed or WMD armed - are amongst the new threats facing India's air defences. In the future, hypersonic cruise missiles and aircraft will further tax India's defences.

BMD systems and technologies will dramatically enhance India's ability to defend against these threats - threats that will emerge and must be defended against.

Finally, remember that the purpose of weapons acquisitions is to give you an advantage. No self-respecting or responsible nation merely seeks parity or is intimidated by the effect that procurements would have on the enemy.

While the nuclear aspect does colour and alter this perception, the lack of BMD has not actually prevented Pakistan from nuclear sabre-rattling, nor has it prevented them from seeking to enhance their delivery systems to threaten India to the maximum possible extent.

To deny India a BMD system capable of dealing with these threats or to argue against the development and deployment of such a system by India is grotesquely irresponsible.

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