Implications for India

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST


HOW will the U.S. decision to deploy a National Missile Defence (NMD) system impact India? Or, equivalently, what would be the Indian response to such a development?

The official response has been muted and guarded. There has been no criticism, let alone outright denouncement, of the U.S. move towards deploying the NMD. This was only to be expected given the gradual detente in the post-Pokhran Indo-U.S. relationship. At the same time, the routine statement from the Foreign Office - that India is against the weaponisation of space, the Outer Space Treaty should be respected and arms control measures like the ABM Treaty should be preserved - will not upset its friendl y relations with Russia and China, who have reacted strongly to the NMD proposal.

Since the U.S. is not a target for India's nuclear or missile force, nor is it likely to be in the future, the NMD, at least in its C-I phase, is not designed for any potential threat from India. Both the Rumsfeld Commission Report of 1998 and the Nation al Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 1999 on "Ballistic Missile Threat to the U.S. through 2015," however, do take note of India's thrust to ballistic missile development. In particular, the former notes that India's space launch vehicle provides an option for an interim ICBM capability, that it is developing nuclear warheads for missile systems and has ongoing biological and chemical weapons programmes. The latter has expressed concern over the testing of the nuclear-capable Agni II, with a potential rang e of 2,500 km, last year.

The NMD (as well as the Pacific component of the Theatre Missile Defence over Taiwan) will, however, have an indirect impact on India for two reasons. One, from the Chinese strategic response to it and, two, from the destablised overall global security e nvironment in the region resulting from a renewed arms race in general that the NMD is likely to trigger. China has about two dozen ICBMs. But this, as well as its short range ballistic missile (SRBM) force, would be nullified by the NMD and the TMD resp ectively. The natural Chinese response would be to accelerate the modernisation and expansion of its nuclear arsenal.

According to a recent report by Gaurav Kampani of the Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies (CNS) of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, U.S., China is likely to invest in a more robust nuclear triad. "Within the triad," the study says, "as C hina's long-range strike programmes come to fruition, single warhead liquid-fuel missiles will be replaced by longer-range, multiple-warhead solid-fuel systems."

Kampani adds that a U.S. NMD could also force changes in China's deployment posture. "NMD could prove to be the decisive factor that might persuade the Chinese leaders to transform a small strategic deterrent into a full nuclear-war fighting capability w ith the nuclear force maintained on a high-alert status. A modernised Chinese nuclear force and a more robust posture will have a negative cascading effect in South Asia," the study points out. "The trouble with the U.S. non-proliferation policy with reg ard to South Asia," says the study, "is that it is contradictory. Whereas the U.S. advocates a regional rollback, its policy on missile defence threatens to wreck the meaningful efforts towards global disarmament."

It is true that the nascent Indian nuclear force is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a deterrent against the Chinese capability, nor does it appear to be designed against it, Defence Minister George Fernandes' post-Pokhran remarks notwithstanding. Indeed, it is not even clear that the current policy of minimum deterrence has any calculus behind it at all. So it stands to reason that any change to this already superior Chinese nuclear force should not alter the Indian posture.

Nevertheless, any change in the Chinese posture is certain to fuel a fresh round of debate given the newfound nuclear machismo in Indian strategic circles. Kampani believes that the NMD-spurred environment would heighten the threat perceptions in India a nd would accelerate the operationalisation and the state of readiness of the nuclear force. This could also lead to India giving up its self-imposed moratorium and renewing testing of nuclear weapons as well as delivery systems such as Agni-II.

India's response could trigger a similar response from Pakistan and lead to a regional arms race. This could also mean a renewed transfer of missile technologies to Pakistan from North Korea and China. China has already indicated that U.S. cooperation wi th Taiwan on TMD amounts to a violation of commitments under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It could, therefore, retaliate by resuming missile sales to Pakistan. Kampani is of the opinion that this could signal a revival of the occasional noises of a limited Indian anti-missile defence against the Pakistani missile force. Unconfirmed reports have it that India is exploring the feasibility of modifying the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles in an anti-ballistic mode.

The U.S. decision to deploy the NMD will certainly impact the ongoing process of global strategic nuclear arms reduction and other arms control measures that are in place. Specifically, Russia has said that should the U.S. go ahead with the NMD, it will not honour the commitments under START-I and also not ratify START-II, let alone begin negotiations on START-III. The process could also derail both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which already stands undermined owing to the U.S.' failure to r atify, and negotiations on the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This would have an obvious impact on the domestic debate on the issue and could mean an end to the government's stated de jure commitment to the CTBT and participation in FMCT negotiations.

"For India and Pakistan," points out Kampani, "NMD would also signify a shift from multilateral efforts at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems to unilateral defensive measures. It would communicate the precept that states must rely on their own resources and technical means to deter and ward off threats to national security."

According to K. Subrahmanyam, strategic analyst and chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), it is important for the Board to discuss the implications of the NMD for India but so far there are no directives from the executive on it to dwe ll upon it. A former member of the Board felt that the issues are technical and that the Board lacks adequate expertise in such matters to address the issue in all its facets and recommend an appropriate Indian response.

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