Colonel Anil Athale (retd)

The American proposal

We live in an age where sequels are the order of the day. Witness the success of the sequel to Gone With the Wind, other movies like Home Alone etc, etc. It is tempting to class the latest American resurrection of the Star War concept of the 1980s in a similar category. It will be a mistake to dismiss President Bush's announcement as a gimmick. Far too many ignoramuses of the Indian media are already at it.

The move is significant, coming as it is from a traditionally isolationist party like the Republicans. In the long run it shows that not only is the US prepared to act as a global cop, but a global marshal, American style. Securing the US against potential 'baddies' is the aim. Naturally, the enforced peace is basically meant to secure the peace and prosperity of the Americans and its allies and friends.

Echoing the words of Ronald Reagan, President Bush made the point that the US needed 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. Defences can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation.

He made it clear that the US would not take a unilateral decision and would consult allies and friends. Three top functionaries of the US are visiting various countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada. In Asia the US envoy is scheduled to visit India, South Korea and Japan.

Reagan's Star Wars and BMD: Differences and similarities

There is a temptation to link the present American proposal for BMD to Star Wars of the Reagan era. On March 23, 1983, Reagan made a similar plea to move away from solely retaliation based strategy to defence against ballistic missiles. At that time the measure was solely aimed at countering the threat of Russian land based missiles. It was understood that the systems being then thought were not effective against either low flying cruise missiles or submarine launched ballistic missiles.

There was a mention of theatre missile defence in Europe only as a sop to the disquiet felt by the European allies. As expected the Russians opposed it tooth and nail and the Americans promised to only carry on research and did not deploy these systems. In 1983, many sceptics doubted the efficacy of the technologies then available. There was a major worry of some that while the US developed and deployed these defences, a threatened Soviet Union may well decide to pre-empt it.

The proposal of the Bush administration is different in its emphasis and content. The BMD program's objective is to:

The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization is established by the Department of Defense Directive 5134.9.

From this it is obvious that the emphasis is on protecting the land and naval forces of the US as priority number one. While the main criticism against Ronald Reagan's Star Wars proposal was that it did not cater to the threat of short range missiles and thus left Europe and NATO unprotected.

The main concern then was to deal with the threat of Soviet land based missiles (over 2,000) by developing technologies to destroy these in the boost phase, cruise phase and terminal phase. With the shorter time of flight of tactical missiles, TMD was a more difficult proposition. It appears that the research that has been going on in the US for the last 17 years has managed to overcome these problems.

Like the 1983 proposal that had a specific target country, the Soviet Union, this time around it seems that China and its threat to Taiwan is the specific contingency for which the TMD is designed. In addition, with a sea based version of TMD, the US capacity to intervene in a regional crisis worldwide will be enhanced.

The other factor that has been at the back of this consideration is the fact that today many countries have managed to obtain or build short range missiles (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and possibly Libya). While very few countries are able to develop and deploy Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs that can reach the mainland of US (Russia, China at present and N Korea and India after 5 years).

World reactions

Like in 1983, European countries are not enthusiastic about the BMD. There are two reasons for this, first and foremost is the fact that this American ability will devalue Europe's importance to the US as the Americans will be able to act unilaterally.

The unspoken European apprehension is that that the Americans will offer the system to Europe but at a price. For the last nearly 50 years the Europeans have got accustomed to a 'free ride' and are loath to pay for their defence. The Europeans also fear that through the device of BMD, the technology gap between the US and Europe will increase further in the fields of avionics and space. But after some hard bargaining and getting a share of the technology development budget, European countries will come round to supporting it.

The Russians are uneasy for reasons very similar to the fears expressed by the Europeans. The BMD is as yet not effective against the submarine launched ballistic missiles and to that extent the Russian 'deterrence' is safe and un-affected. But since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union and end of US-Russia rivalry, the Russian 'deterrence' was being maintained not for any security reasons but for the sake of prestige and increasingly challenged position of Russia as a super power.

However, with the never ending conflict with Islamist separatists in Chechnya, the Russians may well see merit in collaborating with the Americans. It should be remembered that the two, US and Russia are already partners in the international space station project. Many of the technologies in peaceful application are of relevance to the BMD as well. There would be some advantage, specially if the US were to be prepared to 'buy' some to the Russian technologies for BMD, for a cash strapped Russia.

China is the country that will be most affected by the BMD. With theatre missile defence, it can well bid good bye to using force against Taiwan. Its puny 'deterrence' based on less than 50 odd ICBMs, will be made redundant. More than its actual military value, this put paid to the Chinese ambition of becoming a super power as it will have no means to counter the American pressures in the economic and political arena should a push come to shove. This will force China to divert her resources to building a bigger nuclear arsenal, at an economic cost that may well slow down her economic growth.

India is irrelevant in this 'big league' and our support or opposition is of no consequence to the US. But out of all the countries, it is India that faces a direct and immediate threat of a 'rogue' state on its borders. BMD and theatre missile defence is needed by India if she is to survive a 'nuclear' Kargil!