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US's missile defence: implications for South Asia

Paper No. 243     21.05.2001

by Rajesh Kumar Mishra

The recent proposal of President Bush has two components- arms reduction and missile defence (TMD & NMD)- India’s enthusiastic support is to the former and not to the latter.  This distinction has been overlooked by many analysts who are more concerned of India being out of step with other countries rather than looking into India’s national interests perse.  Director

United States has reaffirmed its security objectives with George W Bush’s call for unilateral nuclear arms cuts and a determination for Missile Defence deployment.  Global reaction on his call for a “new framework” for security and stability is a mix of confidence and apprehensions.  While few states want to look for new arrangements in the prospective American strategic thinking, others may find an excuse for military building.  

After the Malta conference (George Bush-Mikhail Gorbachev meeting and the subsequent declaration of the end of cold war), for the first time US has come out openly to change the rules of the game with provisions for a flexible approach.  Today, the once conceived notion of the Star Wars and subsequent critical prediction of its oblivion in future has come again to limelight.  Though this scientific endeavour saw several ups and downs in the past, presently, it has gained an accelerating scope of relevance. 

Realism in international relations has various facets to reckon with.  Concepts and definitions in the domain of international affairs also keep on broadening their prescriptive parameters with the change of time and contemplative realities.  Such is the change at hand in the contemporary transitional international security system.  National missile defence (NMD) programme as proposed by the Americans is a reflection of one of those changing realities of the post cold war international security environment.  Accordingly, the Bush administration has been looking forward to a new definition of deterrence in the global security dynamics and pressing hard for an associated mechanism to strengthen its national security.  

In his remarks at the National Defence University in Washington, on May 1, 2001, Bush has ventured to declare his intentions for bringing required changes in the country’s defence and so in the global perspectives.  Following are few important points in his speech (emphasis in italics,

* Today’s Russia is not our enemy.---The Iron Curtain no longer exists.---Yet, this is still a dangerous world, a less certain, a less predictable one.

* Unlike the Cold War, today's most urgent threat stems not from thousands of ballistic missiles in the Soviet hands, but from a small number of missiles in the hands of these states, states for whom terror and blackmail are a way of lifeThey seek weapons of mass destruction to intimidate their neighbors.  In such a world, Cold War deterrence is no longer enough.

* We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces.  Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation.  Defenses can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation.

* We need a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world.  To do so, we must move beyond the constraints of the 30 year old ABM Treaty.

* This new framework must encourage still further cuts in nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons still have a vital role to play in our security and that of our allies.  We can, and will, change the size, the composition, the character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the Cold War is over.

* I am committed to achieving a credible deterrent with the lowest-possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs, including our obligations to our allies.

* Several months ago, I asked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to examine all available technologies and basing modes for effective missile defenses---- The Secretary has explored a number of complementary and innovative approaches.  The Secretary has identified near-term options that could allow us to deploy an initial capability against limited threats.

* When ready, and working with Congress, we will deploy missile defenses to strengthen global security and stability.

* We are not presenting our friends and allies with unilateral decisions already made.  We look forward to hearing their views, the views of our friends, and to take them into account.

* We'll also need to reach out to other interested states, including China and Russia.

* This (ABM) Treaty ignores the fundamental breakthroughs in technology during the last 30 years.  It prohibits us from exploring all options for defending against the threats that face us, our allies and other countries. That's why we should work together to replace this Treaty with a new framework that reflects a clear and clean break from the past, and especially from the adversarial legacy of the Cold War. ---And perhaps one day, we can even cooperate in a joint defense.

* I want to complete the work of changing our relationship from one based on a nuclear balance of terror, to one based on common responsibilities and common interests.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld while facing reporters at the Pentagon said that any U.S. missile defense system "need not be 100 per cent perfect…" Rumsfeld mentioned that "the first choice is not to prevail in a conflict, the first choice is to be arranged in a way that you can dissuade somebody from engaging in hostile acts, and therefore you've deterred a conflict from occurring." The missile defense system, Rumsfeld said, "is a new set of capabilities to be sure to dissuade or deter ... as well as to defend against a growing threat in the world." (

The US policymakers and analysts are now preoccupied with diplomatic consultations and reading the international ramifications of the proposed missile defence.  The logic and politics of the Americans converge on a common assumption that the present international security environment is less predictable with manifold threats.  And so, as a preventive strategy, they are determined to go for a new missile defence system.

This missile defence programme is based on developing a “hit-to-kill” capability that would work in a way that the proposed interceptor physically hits an incoming ballistic missile in order to destroy it either at the booster phase or in the space.  This technical defence phenomenon is commonly described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet”.

However, due to several constraints, mainly technological, the deployment of defence missiles is not so easy.  Its execution and efficacy are yet to follow.  Even if the Bush administration is ready to move away from the ABM postures, Washington can not fix a period for NMD deployment for technical reasons.  Already, the integrated flight tests have failed to deliver at estimated due dates in the past.  This is the reason that the committee, headed by Larry Welch, to review the national missile defence programme, had pointed in its recommendation to consider more on “feasibility” rather than “readiness” decision.  Though technological advancement is little understood, it is generally believed that US would be able to deploy a limited number of missiles by 2015.

In the mean time, US needs to address several facets of speculations raised by the world community.  Few of them are:

* Defining the threat perceptions more clearly including the distinction and relationship of threats within and outside the political sovereignty of a state;

* Is US still under the influence of cold war psyche? If so, with lessons of Cold War as how to have an edge over the adversary, has Washington found a new way to neutralise its adversary or a potential one by engaging in qualitative military building competition and thus to let the opponents die their own economic death?

* Experience of other countries with similar threat perceptions and what would be the US response when its own national interests are not directly threatened?

* Need for broadening the agenda of self-defence of a country in terms of indigenous technologies related to defence and development and distinguish it from those who develop and spread WMD related technology to other countries.

* Pragmatic examination of the fall out of deployment in the prevailing regional conditions.

* If the concept of deterrence is to be changed, what changes does US foresee of the regional nuclear powers till the total elimination of the weapons of mass destruction from the earth is achieved?

Though, the immediate reaction to the President’s call from different countries reflect nothing much different to earlier assumptions, the future may follow a few significant reorientation in international relationships, especially related to Russia ,China and South Asia.

Indeed, the political aftermath of the US determination is yet to follow, but the media reports are not so supportive of US decision.  Diplomatic parleys are have just begun and have to go a long way.  It has been reported from Moscow that the diplomatic language on both sides suggested that there had been much detailed talking but little if any change in positions.  (Reuters, Martin Nesirky, "Russia unconvinced on missiles but talks to go on”, Moscow,11.05.2001)

The Russian Concern

Russia is still to decide the future course of action.  Recent changes in the mood of Moscow indicate altogether a different future policy negotiation trend in the international environment.  It will be a little too early to call this change positive or negative.

Domestically, national polity and the country’s constitution are undergoing transformation in Russia.  The office of Presidency itself has been facing nationwide debate on its legislative and executive  functioning.  On the one hand, ruling elites of the Soviet era are reluctant to give up the residuary political power, and, on the other neo-elite sections of post disintegration phase are pressing hard to resist the no-changers.  The new wave of democratic upsurge has also been trying tough to bring several constitutional reforms according to the change of national and international polities.  In addition, the Russian economy is also running through a considerably bad weather and aspiring for maximum outside support mainly from the US and developed countries.  Overall, the domestic challenges, today, that Russia needs to address are the expectation of its citizens and responsiveness of governance.

Despite prevailing domestic troubles, Russia still cloaks on the superpower mentality for its commendable military heritage from the Soviet empire, especially the nuclear and missile stockpiles.  Vladimir Putin’s coming to the office of presidency and his subsequent reiteration for government’s primacy to strengthen national security measures reflect the balance that Russians want between the domestic compulsions and international aspirations.

The Russians already feel threatened by NATO’s expansion closer to their border to now include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.  They were critical of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia without authority to do so from the United Nations Security Council.  If the Russian veto in the Security Council will not protect them from an attack by NATO, they believe they need to pay more attention to their effective defences.  “They distrust the United States, yet do not have the funds to build either a strong conventional defence against NATO’s conventional forces or a strong missile defence against US missiles.” (Bunn, George. Does NMD stand for “no more disarmament” as well as “national missile defence”, Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No.42, December1999,pp.11-12)

Senior Russian officials have acknowledged that “70 per cent of Russia’s early warning satellites are either past their designed operational life or in serious disrepair and 58 per cent of Russian ballistic missiles are well past their operational life span”. ( Jump-Start: Retaking the initiative to reduce post-cold war nuclear dangers, Report by the Committee on Nuclear Policy, Arms Control Today. Volume.29, No.1, January/February 1999, p.15)

Taking into account its moral superiority towards commitment to arms control by ratifying START II, Russia views the post cold war US-Russia relations as much closer and not commensurate with the current American approach to ABM Treaty.  Russian President has long been insisting that “ we are told that the situation in the world has changed drastically within past three decades---This situation has changed indeed, but not to the extent of justifying destruction of the existing system of strategic stability through emasculating the ABM Treaty”. (

Similarly, referring to the ABM Treaty as foundation to mutual confidence and strategic disarmament, the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, in one of the Foreign Affairs Journals (The Missile-Defence Mistake: Undermining Strategic Stability and the ABM Treaty, Foreign Affairs, Vol.79, No.5, September/October 2000, pp.15-20) had expressed his views mentioning that:

* This effort resulted from a universal recognition of the strategic stability concept, the cornerstone of which is the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty.

* The strategic stability stemmed from mutual renunciation of strategic defence systems against intercontinental ballistic missiles, which eliminated incentives for the Soviet Union and the United States.

* If the foundation is destroyed, this interconnected system will collapse, nullifying 30 years of efforts by the world community.  By planning to deploy a national antiballistic missile prohibited by the ABM treaty, the United States is heading in the opposite direction.

* China could be expected to take countermeasures.  A new nuclear arms race could be expected in South Asia and other parts of the world.  Europe would be affected too.

* “Problem” countries should be given a real alternative of positive engagement in global and regional security systems.

* The importance of strategic stability for international security is so great that it must not be made subject to politics, domestic considerations, or unilateral foreign policy.

It will be premature to predict exactly what track Moscow will take in case of US’s determination to go ahead with missile defence deployment.  Options available before Russia are probably quite few in numbers.  Some of the options are:

* To move beyond the “ABM Treaty”, Russia may put forth new demands and must assure a  balance between its needs (economic and technological) and expectations (to maintain an alter ego to US influence around the world).

* Russia may fit into the American scheme to joint and mutual close ties to deter the belligerent states or non-state actor(s) and at the same time, it may look for developing its own defence too.

* In case of non-compatibility with the American “framework”, Russia may follow a tough posture.

* To have a check over the expanding US interests, Russia may look for closer strategic partnership with China or India or any other regional power.

* As a matter of last resort, Russia may also think and act upon to revisit the cold war hysteria bearing any cost.

Considering the prospective strategic and foreign policy needs, Russia has been busy, today, in exploring all the possible options at hand.  Moscow, before taking any policy decision, has been showing a positive attitude to sort out the mutual misconceptions and mistrust by confidence building dialogue bilaterally with the US.

Chinese Response

China’s reaction was not unexpected.  The first round of talks between the US emissary and the Chinese officials ended with sharp difference of opinion.  Expressing its concern over the American perceptions on missile defence and ABM treaty, Beijing had categorically criticised the US’ moves in its White Paper on National Defence, 2000.  It had mentioned that “China expresses its strong opposition to such moves on the part of the United States, for they will undermine the global strategic balance, severely hamper the nuclear disarmament process and international non-proliferation efforts, jeopardize global peace and regional stability, and may even touch off a new round of arms race”.

China fears that US missile defence would render Beijing’s existing weapons ineffective and so it will lose to realise aggrandising ambitions in Asia and particularly in South Asia.

China is left with quite a few options available but most of them are worrisome.  Despite glaring economic and technological limitations, China is unlikely to be deterred in its ongoing military modernisation programme.  Neither it can pose a cold war like threat to US unless Russia acts otherwise.  Instead, without direct confrontation, Beijing could disturb the existing non-proliferation architecture.  This may cause more trouble in the regions like South Asia where China together with Pakistan acts to affect the US-India relation adversely.  Also, as a matter of protest to the US and its ties with Taiwan, Beijing may increase missile and nuclear technological support to Pakistan to make the situation more volatile in the region.

South Asia

Pakistan, while getting wary of the increasing closer US-India relationship, has stepped up diplomatic parleys with China.  Reacting over the US moves, Pervez Musharraff has been quoted indicating that “ it will lead to a resumption of the nuclear and missile race”. (Don’t write off our key ties: Musharraff tells US, The Times of India, 17May2001)

Similarly, in a panel discussion to proposed missile defence system by the Arms Control Association in March, 2001, the executive director, Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr. mentioned that “this would certainly increase the pace of China’s modernisation of its strategic forces, which would in turn impact India’s future plans in the nuclear field”.  (Evaluating the criteria for NMD deployment, Arms Control Today, April2000)

For long, China and Pakistan together have followed a common and fundamental regional goal to destabilise the Indian security and tranquility.

In welcoming the new US proposals was India a little hasty?  India was perhaps looking forward to a reorientation in regional dynamics.  Or is it a reflection of New Delhi’s concerns against the prevailing Chinese policy of diluting India’s security interests? It is still not clear, but a detailed introspection is now called for.  It should be said that India always has preferred a change for good.  There is no paradigm shift as is made out of India’s long term goal of total elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

Criticism has been more on the manner in which the political response was given to the US decision on missile defence rather than on the substantive issues.  If all the political parties as well analysts of strategic institutions are critical now, one would like to know what inputs they had given to the government on the important issues of NMD and TMD of USA and what impact these would have on Indian security?  The government on the other hand should not feel that it is the repository of all wisdom and should make use of institutions like the National Security Advisory board and other non-governmental ones to study these subjects in greater detail.


With so many ifs and buts around the proposed US missile defence system, world community is yet to know more on the American scheme of things.  Till now, Russia has been acting moderately.  Any amicable solution through dialogue would contribute a great deal to international and regional peace and security.  Though, China may find it difficult to have direct confrontation with the US, Beijing will continue with its policy of mystery and fear in the international environment.  India may face a tough time ahead for possible increased China-Pakistan hostile nexus against New Delhi in the South Asia region.  Till, the scenario becomes clear the international actors are likely to play with careful and controlled caution.