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|May 16, 2001||
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
'India jumped the gun and had to eat its words in endorsing the BMD'
The initial Indian reaction to George W Bush's philosophical exposition on Ballistic Missile Defence was marked by singular but uncharacteristic euphoria, though later it was moderated to qualified support. This is both a reflection of the strategic reorientation of Indo-US relations as well as India's comeuppance as a nuclear weapons state, which now sees for itself a chance to wriggle into the exclusive nuclear club.
The BMD blueprint consisting of Theatre and National Missile Defence, represents a fundamental shift in the time-tested if not trusted theory of nuclear deterrence. Shorn of nuclear jargon this meant: if you hit me, I will hit you back, and harder, so you dare not. Implicit in this concept is a sense of vulnerability for both sides.
So what is the paradigm shift? According to the Bush people, the Cold War is over, old foes have become friends and the new threat is from 'rogue states'.
Dealing with this challenge requires moving from offensive to defensive strategies. But this does not reckon that it will unhinge the existing nuclear deterrence, at least between the US and China. In marketing the BMD, the Bush camp points to three other virtues: it would lead to a scaling down of nuclear stockpiles, enhance global security and not trigger an arms race.
The anti-BMD campaign, which includes the Chinese, has turned these arguments on their head and said that despite quixotic costs there will be no real benefit.
The new administration, in announcing sweeping security changes, has been guided by domestic compulsions, not least the Republican campaign promise to install the NMD. Thanks to Star Wars, the American people are paranoid about threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The fear is most pronounced after the Oklahoma bombings and sundry threats to the continent of the United States, not to mention terrorist attacks on US embassies in East Africa and US nationals outside.
Opinion polls in the US have indicated that a missile defence cover for the US is as much an internal security concern as it is a strategic goal for the US gaining nuclear supremacy. The results on the BMD poll were neatly trisected: one-third in favour, one-third against, and one-third undecided. The ayes who have now swelled from the 'undecided' simply want to feel safe and secure no matter what the system or its cost.
For the American people, it is NMD; for friends and allies, TMD. Surprisingly, no one has asked what or who will deter hand-held mini-WMD. The technology reality is that BMD is still a distant dream. So who's fooling whom?
The BMD, as the Chinese would say, is two models, one system. A tactical model, the TMD, and the strategic NMD version. The limited TMD is designed to protect allies and US forces deployed in the Far East. NMD is for the defence of the US mainland against missile attacks from rogue states like Libya, North Korea, Iraq and Iran.
Recently India made a fleeting appearance on this list. The 'C' word, the world's most populous country that the US regards as not only the real threat and adversary but also the one that is a $100 billion market for US trade and investment, remains on the unarticulated list and is the enemy.
Under the Bush plan, NMD will have a triad of land-, sea- and air-based capability of shooting down incoming missiles. Targeting missiles in the 'boost' phase, when detection is easy by offshore ship-based anti missiles, is more cost-effective than later interception by space-based systems.
Theoretically, there are two more layers of interception after the boost phase. The first is the laser-based platform or aircraft to destroy in-flight missiles. The second is the land-based Green Pine technology-based anti-missile system.
The unstated strategic objective of BMD is not only to dominate space, but also to contain China and degrade the Chinese nuclear deterrence so that it is forced to accept nuclear asymmetry. China's nuclear weapons inventory has at least 20 ICBMs. There is one missile-monitoring network based at Alaska, site of the first NMD tests, which can track up to 35 ICBMs. But as the spy plane row has shown, China is unlikely to be cowed down by the NMD.
Going beyond the capability and performance of BMD is the larger question of the unravelling of the existing nuclear regime and security doctrines. The 1972 ABM Treaty will be the first casualty. Other missile regulatory treaties are likely to be dismantled, which will open a Pandora's box. Assuming that with suitable inducements Russia can be brought on board the BMD, China will stick out like a sore thumb.
The Chinese have described missile defence as a threat to world peace. Any accretion in their ICBM capability is likely to undermine India's minimum nuclear deterrent, which in turn will ruffle Pakistani capability.
Clearly, India jumped the gun and had to eat its words in endorsing BMD even before its minutiae is known or consultations are held. It has put to risk its tenuously refurbished relations with China. After half a century of either sitting on the fence or being in the opposite camp, it looks as if India my be contemplating a paradigm shift: moving towards a strategic partnership with Uncle Sam. This would bring a windfall. Lifting of sanctions, supply of military hardware, trade and investment and, who knows, maybe even a missile umbrella.
India's double-quick appreciation of the Bush Missile Defence has payoffs. But what is the price tag for this?
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