Indian missile defense: Many miles to travel

Sudha Ramachandran 

With a successful missile-interception test last week, India has taken a significant step toward joining an elite club of countries that possess an incipient missile defense capability. While the test demonstrated India’s technological capability and has been acknowledged by even critics as a considerable achievement, India is still a long way from deploying an effective anti-missile shield. 

At 10:15am on November 27, a modified Prithvi missile simulating the “adversary’s missile” was launched from the Interim Missile Test Range at Chandipur in the eastern state of Orissa. Within 30 seconds, the missile was picked up by monitoring radars. 

Twenty seconds later an interceptor missile - the medium-range and nuclear-capable Prithvi II - was launched from Wheelers Island off the Orissa coast. The target was then acquired and destroyed in 30 seconds at a height of 48 kilometers. The missile interception was in the exo-atmospheric zone (upper layer of the atmosphere). 

The Defense Ministry described the test as “a significant milestone”. According to K Santhanam, a former technical adviser in the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, “The mid-air interception is a breakthrough in terms of experimental validation of the design.” It was a significant step in the technology-development chain from design, development, testing, validation and later production. 

“The technology is hard and you have to be working for years,” Robin Hughes, the deputy editor of Janes Defence Weekly, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “If they have done that in the first test, it is an exceptional advance in technology.” The project for developing missile-interception capability began three years ago, according to the DRDO. 

The successful missile interception is a feather in the DRDO’s cap. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Criticism of the organization’s performance has peaked in recent months, especially after the failed test launch of the intermediate-range Agni-III missile in July. 

If the interceptor missile can be transformed into a viable defense system, India will be among the few countries that have working missile shields. Only the United States, Russia and Israel are capable of this so far. 

Encouraged by the successful interception of a missile in the higher atmospheric zone, DRDO scientists are planning tests wherein incoming missiles will be intercepted closer to the Earth’s surface. Vijay Kumar Saraswat, chief controller of the DRDO’s Missiles and Strategic Systems Division, has said the DRDO is planning to carry out another missile interception, this time in the endo-atmospheric zone, in the next few months. 

The decision to intercept a missile at 48km (30 miles) in the recent test was made in view of the likely threat from intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), but India would have to have a mix of exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric interception capabilities to match short-reaction threats. To this end, “India is developing a complete suite of air-defense missiles to destroy all types of hostile missiles,” Saraswat said. 

India has demonstrated the technology to defend against incoming ballistic missile threat. Another half-dozen tests are required to validate it. It will take another three to four years to develop a full-fledged anti-missile shield, Saraswat said. 

While admitting that a great deal of hard work remains to be done before one successful flight trial can be turned into fieldable system, Santhanam told Hindustan Times that “all this should happen within a reasonable time frame”. 

But given the DRDO’s long record of delays on critical projects - it is 23 years since the Light Combat Aircraft project came into being and the first fighter aircraft is yet to take off - few expect a credible missile defense to be in place any time soon. The DRDO’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program has been described as “a venture matchless for its repeated and expensive failures”. The low-altitude Trishul surface-to-air missile has been abandoned and the Akash surface-to-air missile and the Nag anti-tank missile are nowhere near series production. A plan to achieve 70% weapons indigenization has been a dismal failure. 

However, it is not just questions over the DRDO’s capacity to deliver soon that is raising doubts over whether India should be popping the champagne corks after last week’s successful test. Analysts doubt whether ballistic-missile technology has reached that level of maturity wherein any country can feel relieved that a credible shield is in place. 

Bharat Karnad, research professor at the Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, told Asia Times Online that a foolproof ballistic-missile defense is difficult to realize because “physics is against it ... There are all kinds of technical reasons why it will be impossible for an incoming missile to be intercepted inside the atmosphere,” he said. 

It is easier to intercept a missile under controlled conditions, when you know the parameters of the flight of the missile. “But this is a far cry from a ballistic-missile defense in battlefield conditions where one doesn’t have the parameters of the incoming missile. The adversary is not going to feed you information regarding from which direction the missile is coming, the altitude or the kind of maneuvers it can perform,” Karnad pointed out. 

Karnad also drew attention to the fact that no missile defense system, including the US Patriot PAC-3 or the Israeli Arrow-2, has reached a technological level where it can stop every missile that comes in. Even these advanced systems have a kill capability of only 60-70%. So, he asks, if 30-40% of missiles will slip through, what’s the point in having this kind of defense? And an adversary is not going to fire just one missile but will in all likelihood launch a salvo of them. 

There is a danger that possession of a missile defense system will instill a measure of false confidence in the country that it can deal with all incoming missiles when in fact it cannot. There is a danger too that if India were to claim capability to blunt missile attacks it would prompt an adversary to seek to overcome the claimed shield by firing more missiles. 

There is also the cost factor. The US has poured billions of dollars into its missile-defense project. Can India afford to invest so much in a system that is not foolproof? 

And then there is the question of whether such a system that is based on point defense, ie, defense of specific cities, is compatible with the principles of democracy. A missile defense system will be deployed to protect the national capital, New Delhi. This raises troubling questions. Why should Delhi have a missile defense system when other towns and villages do not? Because its rulers live there? Should hundreds of billions of dollars be invested in a system that will defend at best a city or two? 

With its successful interception of a missile last week, India has demonstrated that it has taken a step toward building a missile defense. But it has many miles to travel and several hurdles to cross before it can feel relieved that it has a credible shield against its adversaries’ missiles.