Missile vs Missile

Missile defences strengthen India’s strategic deterrence

Failure to understand how deterrence works is a common error. Wholesale application of the Cold War era nuclear arms race in today’s South-Asian geopolitical context is another. And analysts assuming every Indian strategic platform is exclusively targeted at Pakistan is yet another. Jawed Naqvi’s recent article in Dawn makes all three, when he criticises India’s progress towards development of a missile defence system.

Maverick explains—like only he can—why Naqvi’s arguments are wrong. Strategic deterrence is first and foremost a mind game: its objective to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used. Any system that increases the chances of non-use increases stability. In the case of the missile defence system, pointing out that 4 minutes is way too little for Indian anti-missile missiles to do their work misses the target. The system needs to be good enough make a potential adversary think “What if the first strike fails?”. In combination with India’s possession of a second-strike capability, a missile defence shield enhances nuclear stability.

More importantly, it’s ironic that Pakistanis, whose rulers (and their nuclear/missile benefactors) have done so much to put nuclear weapons within reach of any state that wants them, should think that India only thinks of them.

From the archives: Defence against the dark arts; and Kind Word Defence

12 thoughts on “Missile vs Missile”

  1. All that a missile system does is that it guarantees that an opponent will not launch a single strike. It will actually launch multiple simultaneous strikes to ensure a hit. This massively increases the risk and the threat level in case of a strike.

  2. The simultaneous use of multiple missiles overawe the missile defence systems of today. To negate Indian missile defence systems, Pakistan (or other adversaries) would move to acquire additional missile capability, enough to overawe the system. This, almost axiomatically, would lead to an arms race, with India acquiring additional missile defence systems …

    ….

    This vicious circle would continue …

  3. I doubt the reliability of missile defense system. They are expensive and not completely reliable. Few missiles, if the initial launch is large, can always penetrate the system. And even couple nukes are enough to wreak havoc. We don’t even have reliable missiles deployed for offensive purposes yet. And we need to have them to deter or maybe attack China in self-defense. Against Pakistan we don’t have such compulsion. The only viable deterrence against them is demonstrated capacity and will of total annihilation post nuke strikes by them. Our missiles don’t even reach Beijing, and the one that is supposed is still in works. Agni II reaches Beijing from Himalayas; I would be skeptical of relying on something so close to Chinese occupied territory.

  4. ..but lets not base our views/biases against or even for BMD, on American experiences with missile defence shields.

    Sure it will turn into a race, that is inevitable. The idea is to win it. Take the cost of engaging in a race beyond a threshold which cannot be crossed by the other side.

  5. Missile defence may play a limited role in deterrence. But it also sends out the wrong message and can encourage weapons building on the other side. One message you are sending out with missile defence is, “We can deflect many of your weapons. Build more”. Moreover, it can send out the message that we will have more confidence in launching a first strike since retaliation will be thwarted. In practice however, missile defence was shown to a technically flawed concept in case of the US and the Soviet Union. The debacle of Star Wars is well known. I have yet to read details of the planned system here, but in case of multiple ABM defence systems planned in the US throughout the 60s into the 80s, it was repeatedly demonstrated that the enemy could easily overwhelm any such system using suitable decoys. Moreover, the cost of decoys will be much lesser than the cost of building such a defence. In other words, it will be financially very expensive for the side employing the defence and much less so for the other side. And is is noted above, it takes only a few weapons to get across to cause catastrophe, something that will happen irrespective of the sophistication of the defence. Also, I think it should be clear that the greatest threat ceased to be from ballistic missiles a long time ago. It still could be from short range missiles, but more importantly could be from a dirty bomb or a weapon delivered through diplomatic pouch.

  6. Ashutosh

    One message you are sending out with missile defence is, “We can deflect many of your weapons. Build more”. Moreover, it can send out the message that we will have more confidence in launching a first strike since retaliation will be thwarted.

    It’s good to send out this message. Build more, and waste more of your money building missiles that you are not likely to use instead of feeding your people, etc. That’s the real lesson of Star Wars, actually. The broken Soviets just couldn’t meet Reagan’s spending challenge. The Pakistanis can’t too. And if they are getting money from the United States, then that money comes with strings attached as far as nuclear weapons go.

    Moreover, it can send out the message that we will have more confidence in launching a first strike since retaliation will be thwarted.

    The second point, I think, is an incorrect extension of Cold War/US thinking into the India-Pakistan context. Most commentators unconsciously think about these issues from the US perspective, perhaps because the literature is so widely available. The US had a first use policy.

    So why is it wrong to apply it in the India-Pak context? Because of India’s declared no-first use policy. These are only words, one might counter. But these are very important words. That’s not the only reason though. There are good reasons why India won’t launch a first strike. Some of which have to do with the distance between urban centres and nuclear reactors, which makes the smallest amount of risk unacceptable.

    Do read what Maverick’s commentators say about the dirty bomb thing.

  7. Nitin, you probably know that it’s a misunderstanding that Reagan ended the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviets through nuclear weapons building. The Soviets spent very little money even experimenting with defence systems. It was the essential nature of the Soviet Union that finally ended it. In fact, Gorbachev was going to considerably cut defence spending and had already started. And as noted, much less money has to be built devising countermeasures to missile defence. If they decide, the Pakistanis would not actually have to build nuclear weapons to counter the system. Building cheap countermeasures will be enough. So in theory while they could be bankrupted into building more nuclear weapons, in practice they probably would not have to and would do well with simple and cheap countermeasures. In addition, many authors have pointed out both the technical and political futility of Star Wars. In fact, Richard Rhodes in his new book points out that Star Wars was the single greatest hindrance that Reagan advanced in the securing of peace between the US and the Soviets. But that’s another story. I am not advocating completely against missile defence. A limited version might be ok. But pursuing the kind of grandiose missile defence dreams that the US pursued for 40 years would most probably not work. I do appreciate the fact though that we need to apply different standards to different situations and analyze them independently.

    Don’t know if you read my review of Rhodes’s book, just as a related side-point:
    http://ashujo.blogspot.com/2007/10/how-rational-thinking-led-to-insanity.html

  8. >>It’s good to send out this message. Build more, and waste more of your money building missiles that you are not likely to use instead of feeding your people, etc. That’s the real lesson of Star Wars, actually. The broken Soviets just couldn’t meet Reagan’s spending challenge. The Pakistanis can’t too. And if they are getting money from the United States, then that money comes with strings attached as far as nuclear weapons go.

    It costs far far more to build a missile deterrence system for 10 missiles than to build 10 missiles. Of the order of a 100 times more, if it is even possible.

  9. Ashutosh,

    At the risk of being accused of violating my own injunction against wholesale application of Cold War models I’d say that we should not underestimate the Reagan parallel. Budget constraints are real for anyone, but they can throw bad systems of organising society into a tailspin. So it is not in terms of specific issues of arms race in specific types of munitions or systems, but in overall national terms. As Atanu Dey wrote in his analysis of dollar games, the India’s strategy should be to deliver credible signals that it can bid high.

    As for the size of the system: I think Western analysts are presuming India’s postures will emulate theirs. That’s very unlikely. India didn’t go in for thousands of warheads like the US did, choosing a minimum credible deterrent instead. India’s didn’t go in for the presumably superior method of PALs for C&C, choosing to keep the weapons in a de-mated state instead. So it’s not likely that India will choose to develop thousands of missiles to protect its cities. The objective itself is different: it is about introducing FUD in the mind of the adversary, rather than defending a city.

  10. Rishi,

    Perhaps those are the costs. But that’s neither here nor there. Sunk costs don’t matter. Only marginal costs do.

  11. I think the tragedy of Reagan is that he wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons and feared nuclear war, but still would not give up on Star Wars which was largely his own idealised fantasy not rooted in reality. For one thing, it was technically flawed from the start but sold to Reagan by right-wing idealists like Edward Teller. By the way, are you aware of some article that expounds technical details of our planned missile defence? I would be quite interested in reading it and comparing it with articles on 60s-80s American ABM systems which I have. It would be best to comment after reading these details.

  12. >> Perhaps those are the costs. But that’s neither here nor there. Sunk costs don’t matter. Only marginal costs do.

    The major cost for any defence equipment is the sunk cost. So I dont get your point.

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