The Indian nuclear submarine Arihant. Photo: Indian Defense Ministry

It has been reported that the Defense Acquisitions Council (DAC), chaired by Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, has approved the “acceptance of necessity” (AoN) for the acquisition of the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) worth around US$1 billion from the United States. However, in 2002 the US had vetoed India’s bid to acquire the Israeli Arrow-2 missile interceptor system.

Consequently, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization began developing the Prithvi Air Defense (PAD), which will provide long-range high-altitude interception during an incoming ballistic missile’s mid-course phase as well as interception during the terminal phase. At various times these systems had different monikers, such as ballistic missile defense (BMD) or anti-ballistic missile system (ABM).

The people who decide on such things reside in New Delhi and understandably their safety gets priority. So it is the National Capital Region that will get the expensive and exaggerated sense of protection such systems tend to generate.

But no air defense system can be deemed impenetrable. The Americans and Russians realized long before the Cold War ended that the costs involved were prohibitive, even for them. But the idea was seductive.

Even as the Cold War was waning, US president Ronald Reagan toyed with the idea of a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which envisaged an ABM system stationed deep in space that would activate on picking up a launch. It seemed so far-fetched  and futuristic that commentators took to calling it “Star Wars.”

This thought has been high on the minds of India’s security establishment ever since it learned that on May 26, 1990, China tested a Pakistani derivative of its CHIC-4 design at the Lop Nur test site in eastern China, with a yield in the 10-to-12-kiloton range. That yield estimate accords with recorded yields of Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, which were somewhere between 5kt and 12kt.

Refinements in boosting and efficient plutonium use are the normal next steps in weapon improvement, along with miniaturization of the warheads to fit into smaller and lighter re-entry vehicles. Pakistan has done all of these to arm its cruise and ballistic missiles with lighter payloads. Once India deploys the PAD system around its capital, we can be assured that Pakistan too will deploy an ABM around Islamabad. We can also rest assured that China will assist it in developing such a capability.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has estimated that Pakistan has an inventory of approximately 3,100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and roughly 170kg of weapon-grade plutonium. This is potentially enough to produce 200 to 300 warheads.

Pakistan has also frequently tested the ranges of about a dozen Chinese-derived missiles, from the Hatf (50-kilometer range) to the Shaheen-III (2,750km). There is little doubt that Pakistan has planned for all eventualities, from local battlefield use and to feed its desire to have a credible “Islamic” bomb capability, and for that its reach must include Tel Aviv.

Long after the end of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence is still based on mutually assured destruction (MAD). This simply means that any sneak decapitating or debilitating first strike will be responded to with a massive retaliation, the fear of which should instill good sense. The fact that almost three-quarters of a century after the nuclear genie was uncorked from the bottle we have not had a nuclear war or weapon use is living proof of its robust common sense. So much so that when developments in ABM or BMD capability reached fruition, the two Cold War protagonists, the US and now-defunct USSR, had a treaty restricting these systems. Ironically this was well before they even had a treaty on reducing the number of nuclear bombs.

The MAD doctrine was made painfully credible by the development of nuclear-arsenal survivability through widespread deployment (at the peak of the Cold War, the US and USSR each had more than 30,000 nuclear bombs). This credibility got its biggest boost when submarines, initially diesel and then nuclear powered, capable of firing nuclear armed missiles (SSBNs) from the impenetrable dark recesses of the oceans were introduced.

The first of these was the Soviet Zulu-class submarine capable of firing from underwater an early Scud missile (1955). The Americans were the first to deploy a long-endurance, deep-diving and very silent nuclear-powered submarine – USS George Washington – in 1959. Since then MAD was ensured by the highly accurate missiles in the bellies of such submarines operated by the US, Russian, British, French, Chinese and Indian navies. Pakistan too is now reportedly testing nuclear-capable missiles fired from underwater on modified diesel submarines.

We need to learn from how nuclear-weapons strategies evolved during the Cold War, instead of mimicking US and Soviet follies. The notion of deterrence between the US and USSR was based on no escape from MAD.

Cold War follies peaked with the two antagonists together deploying almost 70,000 warheads each aimed at a specific target. At the height of this madness almost every open ground was targeted as possible tank-marshaling or military-logistics areas.

Hence the last thing India wants is to get into a numbers game with Pakistan or China. Credibility depends on reducing the uncertainty of use from the opposite perspective. The Indian PAD missile defense system only increases them.

India and Pakistan have ensured a modicum of confidence by not mating the warheads and delivery systems, giving a vital period to roll back the unleashing of Armageddon. But now both countries will have to evolve a launch-on-warning doctrine.

Clearly, the two South Asian nuclear powers have a local version of MAD in place. The Pakistani doctrine “commits itself” to use battlefield nuclear weapons if an Indian conventional assault threatens its essential nationhood, and hence it has steadfastly refused to accept the notion of “no first use” (NFU). The Indian doctrine emphasizes NFU but also makes it explicit that any Pakistani use of nuclear weapons on India or its forces will be responded to with a massive retaliation.

India may have fewer nuclear weapons, not because it cannot make more, but because what it has is enough to ensure the complete annihilation of Pakistan, which is geographically a much smaller country.

For its part, China has moved on from NFU to a doctrine now called “credible minimum deterrence.” But how much is credible?

Mercifully, nuclear doctrines these days are couched in such abstractions since MAD requires a degree of predictability, ironically ensured by opacity. The United States’ “single integrated operational plan” (SIOP) began with the ominous words that its objective, after the outbreak of a general war with the then Soviet Union, was to turn it into a “smoking, radiating ruin.” This was written by its certifiable US Air Force chief, General Curtis Lemay Jr, based on whom the character played by George C Scott in the Stanley Kubrick classic Dr Strangelove  was created.

But it was people like Lemay who gave MAD credibility. Since no one of a sane frame of mind would even contemplate the enormity of the disaster of a nuclear war, uncertainty of use was a key element of MAD. It has been written that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev used to have sleepless nights thinking of a man like Richard Nixon with his finger on the button.

India’s nuclear strategy documents in detail who the nuclear command would devolve to in the unlikely event of a decapitating first strike on New Delhi with the aim of eliminating its national leadership. It is said that the chain of nuclear command keeps descending to a major-general, a modern-day Raja Parikshit so to say, who will perform the final obsequies.

At last count India had more than 600 military officers at that level. Decapitating all of them is a near statistical and physical impossibility. It would take tens of thousands to precision nuclear weapons to annihilate India’s military chain of command, and it can be speculated whether even America or Russia could achieve that, let alone Pakistan.

Ironically, the evocative acronym MAD is an eminently sensible doctrine. Good sense should tell us: Enough of this madness, and leave MAD alone.

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Mohan Guruswamy

Mohan Guruswamy is a distinguished fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi, and a visiting professor at the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad.

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