India considers its emerging anti-missile system an absolute necessity. As each day passes, the signs of instability in Pakistan become more troubling and the drum beat grows louder from Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a militant culture is taking root which is neither tolerant nor passive in nature.
Beijing cannot be happy about India's anti-missile plans and what this might mean for China's long-term strategic interests in the region. More than anything else, it is the uncertainty of the outcome that is causing it such discomfort. The US seems determined to surround China with US-built anti-missile systems. Using North Korea as a valid excuse at first, the US anti-missile footprint could soon extend from Japan - including Japanese cruisers stationed offshore - and South Korea to Taiwan and India.
Sure, China's trade with India is growing quickly, but that may prove to be inconsequential. According to Dr Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, besides substantial progress in Sino-Indian relations and defense cooperation, trade between the two countries grew to more than US$38 billion in 2007, and the target for 2010 is $60 billion.
China is keenly aware that India's ties to the US and Japan have grown even stronger at the same time.
Writing in World Politics Review in late November in the article "Chinese Perspectives on a Rising India", Yuan said, "Beijing is also wary of New Delhi's eastward strategy of developing greater economic and military ties with Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries. Indeed, the increasingly warm ties between New Delhi and Tokyo have been carefully watched by strategic analysts in Beijing."
Having transformed Seoul and Tokyo into perhaps the best-defended capitals in Asia as far as anti-missile capabilities are concerned, the US is now a persistent player behind the scenes in New Delhi. (See India and the US talk missile defense, Asia Times Online, Jan 14.)
Among other things, just days ago, Foreign Policy magazine designated the US-India joint anti-missile program as number four on its list of the "The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2008." The magazine's team wrote:
[A] US-facilitated missile shield in India could become a flash point for great-power struggles for decades to come. The plans are likely to add to fears in Beijing that the United States is attempting to temper China's growing influence in Asia. [US Secretary of Defense Robert M] Gates's trip to New Delhi was part of a tour of three of the region's democracies - India, Australia, and Indonesia - which could be used to counter China's regional ambitions if relations with the United States turn frosty. Even more troubling, an Indian missile shield risks triggering a crisis in the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan.
A year ago, V K Saraswat, a senior India Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) official, told the Associated Press that India was on track to start comprehensive tests of its own missile defense system in 2009 using radar technology for tracking and fire control which the DRDO developed jointly with Israel and France. The DRDO did not respond to questions from Asia Times Online.
According to Subrata Ghoshroy, a research associate at the Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who heads the Promoting Nuclear Stability in South Asia Project, India has already demonstrated its ability to track missiles and launch an interceptor fairly accurately, and also the capability to perform onboard data processing to handle ground-based radar updates until an autonomous seeker can take over for the homing phase.
"India has conducted two intercept tests with an interceptor that is basically a Prithvi missile, their workhorse. I do not know how scripted the tests were. The target surely was not maneuvering," said Ghoshroy.
According to Eric Hagt, China program director at the World Security Institute in Washington DC, India's successful test in a two-tiered system - an exo-atmospheric and the more difficult endo-atmospheric anti-ballistic missile defense systems - "does not necessarily make these systems operational as more tests under more stringent conditions are needed for that, but these successful tests still send a strong message that India is dedicated to acquiring a multi-tiered system, and is making substantive progress toward that goal".
In addition, two new anti-ballistic missiles that can intercept intermediate-range ballistic missiles and inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are in development, according to Hagt.
"These missiles, the AD-1 and AD-2, are being developed to intercept ballistic missiles with ranges of 5,000 kilometers or more. Test trials of these systems are expected some time in the next two years," he said, adding that India's significant work on its support infrastructure for operational missile defense systems - on the ground, in the air and in space - is attracting very little attention as this unfolds.
When China conducted its controversial anti-satellite (ASAT) test in early 2007, India lit up immediately. Dr Sharad Joshi at the Monterey Institute Center for Non-proliferation Studies wrote at length about India's reaction to this ASAT test in his March 2007 special report for the journal WMD Insights. He mentioned Jasjit Singh's role in shaping the debate. A well-known Indian military expert, Singh called attention to the failure of India's military to become engaged in India's space program.
"He expressed concern that China's anti-satellite expertise and its increasing focus on anti-missile defense capabilities could significantly degrade India's strategic nuclear deterrent," wrote Joshi. "He also highlighted the potential threat posed by China's growing cooperation with Pakistan in developing multi-mission satellites, which will increase Pakistan's surveillance capabilities, even as China's anti-satellite weapon capability makes India's emerging space-based surveillance system more vulnerable.
"The analyst also stressed that while China's military related space capabilities are being expanded as a response to US dominance in space, Beijing's growing prowess in this environment could easily be used against India in a future confrontation."
Mindful of China's space might or not, not everyone in India is so willing to endorse a combining of India's military and civilian space teams.
"I do not believe that the India Space Research Organization's (ISRO) success will have any direct impact on the missile defense program. ISRO seems to be focused on demonstrating advances in space technology and missions in direct competition with China and also commercialization through Antrix," said Ghoshroy. "The ISRO brass is still very much civilian and would like to maintain its distance from the military."
At the same time, the ISRO's proud space record has instilled a definite sense of confidence in India's high-tech defense sector.
"The US is hoping to sell India the Patriot Advanced Capability(PAC)-3 missile defense system, [but] the Indians are more interested in building their own systems than buying some from the US," said Victoria Samson, senior analyst at the Washington DC-based Center for Defense Information. "They have had some tests of an air defense system that they built themselves, but this used "proximity fragmentation" instead of a hit-to-kill interceptor. They have approached the US about collaborating to develop a hit-to-kill capability."
Earlier this month, reports about any US-Indian anti-missile cooperation were quickly dismissed by the US Department of Defense.
"China obviously is following this with great interest, since a close US-Indian cooperation in missile defenses not only is an indication of their shared strategic interests, but also has implications for China since they can defend against both Pakistani and Chinese missiles," said Yuan. "Beijing now is more confident that India is not very likely to cede its autonomy in foreign policy and be - and be seen as - part of a US-orchestrated scheme against China. China may not like what it sees, but can live with them."
India has ordered Akash surface-to-air missiles from Bharat Electronics Ltd, which Nathan Hughes, a military analyst at the Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, labeled "an important act of financial investment, even if the [Indian] military reportedly continues to have reservations about its capability".
"The limitation for India has not been the lack of a desire to field the systems, but the technical limitation that they are not ready. Even though it is buying the Akash, it is not at all clear that the missile has meaningful operational capability against Pakistani missiles and Pakistani cruise missiles which present a very different targeting challenge," said Hughes.
"One cannot overstate the technical complexity of sufficiently capable missile defenses," he added. "New Delhi still has years and years of development work to do. The more limited range of Pakistan's arsenal simplifies things somewhat, but places much higher demands on reaction speed."
While India can benefit by studying the different paths being taken recently by countries such as Japan and Turkey, for example, the fact that Israeli satellites are so welcome at ISRO's launch facility on India's southwest coast points to a dynamic and potent partnership.
"[India has] a relationship with Israel that some are worried may lead to [Israel] selling missile defense technology to them. If they did, that would be the Arrow Weapon System which the United States co-developed with Israel and a move which Washington would have to approve - at least for all of it to be sold," said Samson. "If India decided it wanted to buy a missile defense system instead of developing it indigenously, it could follow Turkey's move. Turkey has been coy about its intent for its missile defense system and has been assiduously courted by the United States and Russia to buy their missile defense systems."
According to Hagt, although attempts by India to acquire the Israeli Arrow II have been unsuccessful thus far, the accompanying Green Pine radar system was sold to India.
"Indian sources have also [said] that New Delhi has agreed to pay $2.5 billion to co-develop an air and missile defense system with Israel," said Hagt. "The project envisions a network of 18 batteries that could intercept incoming missiles, aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. India and Israel are natural partners as India needs missile and air defense systems, where Israel is strong, and Israel is short on space-launch facilities, where India has an advantage."
According to Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, India has designed a system to counter short- to medium-range Pakistani missiles and does not appear able to able to counter Chinese intermediate or inter-continental range nuclear missiles
"While there have been reports of Indian interest in longer-range Russian anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems like the S-300V, that has not been realized. India's current priority has been to acquire technologies that it can absorb to develop its own missile defenses, and so far, it appears that India's preference has been to cooperate with Israel and perhaps France," said Fisher.
The George W Bush administration's attempts to sell India a US missile defense system began more than five years ago, and it has been an uphill climb from the start. One viewpoint portrays India as a very cautious if not downright stubborn party, not at all eager to retire Russia as its chief arms supplier despite recent signs of US enthusiasm for a much closer strategic partnership. Ghoshroy disagrees with this view, and detects a definite shift in attitude towards Russian weaponry.
"The new strategic partnership with the US is playing a big part in this shift, including the US-India nuclear deal," said Ghoshroy. "Among the scientists and engineers, there is close collaboration with Israel. Curiously, there is talk of an Israel, India [and] South Africa nexus to thwart the US. This might seem far-fetched, but each of these countries despite their ties to the US, dislikes it for many reasons."
On the other hand, India may simply be reluctant to shake its Cold War apprehensions of US policy, and missile defense cooperation may develop only after a warmer consensus emerges in Delhi.
"Even though India may currently be coy, it remains in US interests to aid the emergence of an Indian missile defense capability," said Fisher. "First, this can help deflect a regional concentration on offensive weapons, and if there is then an offensive-defensive balance, the chances for negotiated limits will increase. This dynamic can also eventually help China to consider that a declining utility for offensive nuclear weapons can increase the attractiveness of negotiated verifiable nuclear limits."
No matter in what direction India turns, China can be expected to sell Pakistan a corresponding anti-missile capability, according to Fisher.
"Pakistani sources already expect that China will sell a future anti-theater ballistic missile defense or (Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense) ATBMD-capable version of the HQ-9 surface to air missile," said Fisher. "India's development of missile defenses is likely to increase the People's Liberation Army's desire to break out of its now 'stealth' ABM program, likely being done in parallel with its anti-satellite program. China will likely deploy an anti-ICBM capable ABM system before India does so."
China no doubt sees India's anti-missile defense effort as destabilizing. Among other things, as India moves to deploy its system, China fears that Pakistan might counter "by changing its nuclear weapons deployment posture by moving them closer to Indian border for quicker reaction time and making them more difficult to defend against, or by putting them on higher alert status by mating warheads with delivery vehicles, etc. Whatever the reaction by Pakistan it will lead to greater destabilization", said Hagt.
"Some in China suspect that India ultimately has ambitions to become a dominant player in the Indian Ocean and even further afield in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, along which energy and other interests lie. As such, India's nuclear build-up and missile defense targets China's nuclear force," adds Hagt. "The fact that India is working on a range of intermediate and longer range systems beyond the requirements of addressing Pakistan security concerns, appears to support this theory."
In addition, any integration of India into the US global missile defense system, whether it involves interceptors, or the stationing of tracking infrastructure would profoundly affect China's own security.
"China sees this as part of US strategic encirclement of China. This is particularly sensitive for China since its northeast and northwest regions are currently blindspots for US radar systems," said Hagt. "That will disappear with Indian-American missile defense integration. The region would be 'thoroughly exposed', thus vastly decreasing China's 'strategic depth' advantage in this region. This, in essence, would be another 'Poland of the East' in terms of having another overseas missile defense base, this time pointed at China's heart."
Despite what was said earlier about ISRO wanting to maintain its distance from the DRDO team, any missile defense system would dovetail neatly with India's bold space objectives.
"Let us not forget, missile defense systems can be used as ASATs as well, as the US-193 NRO satellite shootdown last year demonstrated," said Hagt. "There is only indirect evidence that India has this in mind in developing missile defense, but the lessons of the Chinese ASAT test were certainly not lost on the Indians."
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from Maine, USA.
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