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Indo-US Missile Defence Cooperation: Hype or Happening?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 30, 2009

    In early January 2009, the Financial Times reported “preliminary talks” between US and India on possible sale of systems for an Indian ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield. The daily quoted US embassy officials in New Delhi as saying that technical talks had taken place and that US defence officials had conducted computer simulations with Indian counterparts to demonstrate the capabilities of this technology. The Indian media, and some foreign ones, picked up the story and projected the report as an impending US-India deal on missile defence cooperation. That the report came amidst heightened tensions between India and Pakistan fuelled further speculation.

    However, a closer look at the report indicates media hype rather than actual substance. As the FT report suggests, talks and technical-level interaction has been taking place between the Indian and US defence establishments for the past two years, and much earlier, to explore possibilities of cooperation in ballistic missile defence. Missile defence was one of the potential areas for strategic partnership identified in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in January 2004. Since then, concerned departments in the Pentagon and South Block have been discussing the means by which both countries can partner in this area. However, what puzzled BMD watchers was how such partnership would mould as US and India are placed at diametrically opposite ends of the BMD technological spectrum. The US is striving to develop advanced BMD technologies for mid-course and exo-atmospheric (outside the Earth’s atmosphere) interception with multiple kill-vehicle technologies including laser systems, while India is still struggling with rudimentary air defence technologies, notwithstanding the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) plans for an indigenous BMD system.

    Though ‘cooperation’ remains the buzzword, it is unclear on whether this would amount to technology development or transfer, or off-the-shelf purchases of US systems by India. Soon after the FT report, a Pentagon spokesman denied any talks on sale of BMD systems. Rather, there are vague inferences on technical cooperation, which most in all likelihood could be centred on US ‘assistance’ to Indian BMD experimentations. A Pentagon statement clarifies that Indian scientists were invited to their test facilities – where a series of development tests are being undertaken by the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on systems like the Ground-Based Mid-Course Defence System (GBMDS) and the Airborne Laser (ABL), among others. How far would such interactions lead to a concrete ‘partnership’ is something which cannot be speculated at this point. There are many reasons for this ambivalence.

    First, Indian BMD experimentations are progressing rapidly after the DRDO convinced the government on its ability to develop BMD technology, despite the jinxed state of many Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) ventures. The agency surprised many when it declared in late 2006 the development of a BMD capability through its Prithvi Air Defence Experiment (PADE). After all, achieving precision interception in a first attempt invites astonishment as even advanced countries like US and Russia have struggled on this technology for decades. The DRDO repeated the feat in December 2007 by declaring ‘successful’ tests of its (Prithvi Air Defence) PAD and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) systems. The PAD was touted as an exo-atmospheric system with 50km range (though an exo-atmospheric system should have the range of over 100 km) while the AAD was to be a lower-tier air defence system at 15-25 km range, which incidentally was also the capability aspired by the Akash. With a development and deployment target for middle of next decade, the DRDO is confident of an indigenous BMD shield, and could have convinced the government to reject plans for external acquisitions.

    Second, as many media reports suggest, outright acquisitions from US comes with concomitant political sensitivities. China and Pakistan would be annoyed by the presence of US BMD systems in India, which would negate the deterrence capability of their nuclear arsenals, just like the GBMDS in Eastern Europe affecting Russia’s deterrence calculus. Being under pressure from the East European BMD and proliferation of US theatre defence systems in East Asia, China would make a hue and cry if India deploys US BMD systems as a shield against Chinese missiles, supposedly deployed in Tibet and other military regions. The FT report quoted an unnamed Pakistani official as saying that Pakistan “will have to take counter-measures to respond” to any agreement between the US and India on missile defence.

    Though it is exactly these two catalysts that warrant an Indian BMD shield, it is unlikely that New Delhi would intimidate its adversaries by acquiring US BMD systems. However, Indian planners feel that these two nuclear neighbours would not be bewildered over an indigenous Indian system or acquisition of Russian systems like the S-300 or S-400. After all, China is known to be reverse-engineering Russian theatre systems like the S-75 and S-300 to develop its own air defence variants like the FT-2000 and the Hongqi. Despite its prowess in missile technologies, China’s capabilities on BMDs are underdeveloped. Though China watchers feel something dramatic is to come. One could anticipate China rattling the world with a major BMD demonstration, just as it did with the anti-satellite test.

    Third, the scope for US partnership with India on BMD technology development is limited. Besides the DRDO’s zealousness for indigenisation, the US would be unwilling to share inputs on advanced baseline interception technologies on which the MDA is struggling to carve out a niche. It is often felt that the only technology US would be willing to share is the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) system, which is an air defence system manned by the US Army. One should remember that the US had turned down Israel’s request to transfer the Arrow-II (a US-Israel joint venture) to India, despite it being an endo-atmospheric (range within Earth’s atmosphere) system, though it agreed to transfer the Greepine Radar. Considering that Washington developed cold feet on transferring even an advanced theatre defence system, it is difficult to envisage a US-India partnership on developing an Indian BMD system, which should naturally entail development of longer-range capabilities for boost or mid-course interception.

    This being the milieu, it should be noted that even the US BMD programme is in crisis amidst budgetary constrains placed by the U.S. Congress and concerns that the Obama administration might terminate some existing projects. After more than a decade of development efforts, the MDA is still struggling to deploy its flagship project – the GBMDS. But for the limited deployment in Alaska, the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) and its support systems are still undergoing development tests, with that still elusive final ‘precision hit’. A similar fate hangs on projects like the ABL, which has to prove its worth in a crucial flight test later this year.

    However, the MDA had its own morale-booster when the Aegis BMD (integrated on Aegis destroyers) shot down a dysfunctional satellite over Earth’s atmosphere in February 2008. Australia and Japan are acquiring the Aegis, which is currently the only operational mid-course/early ascent interception system. This implies that even India can aspire for this system if US-India BMD cooperation actually fructifies. However, the strategic relationship has not graduated to such levels of military partnering that would convince Washington to share its naval BMD mainstay with a country with whom relations are tumultuous.

    Such scepticism, however, does not completely freeze the possibilities of cooperation in missile defence. A DRDO-MDA tie-up on knowledge sharing and capacity development is a possibility. The DRDO could benefit from the know-how on support infrastructure including surveillance, early warning and targeting systems, which are less controversial. After all, the PAD experiment was undertaken with formidable coverage from the Greenpine radar. Another system that could raise few tempers is the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, which has higher endo-atmospheric coverage and is being deployed by the US Army as an augmentation to the Patriot. Assuming that New Delhi might have declined the Patriot system in place of its request for Arrow-II, it could convince Washington to transfer the THAAD, which is capable of tackling threats from short-range Chinese missiles in Tibet and Pakistani IRBMs.

    However, with little information on the confabulations between the two countries on BMD cooperation, such speculation would only satiate beat reporters. Nonetheless, Washington could use this opportunity to signal out to Moscow with which Pentagon interlocutors are having a tough time convincing Russia on the merits of an East European BMD system. For that matter, Washington is also aware of the fact that Moscow had offered BMD partnership to New Delhi well before Indo-US ties blossomed.