DEBATE ON NUCLEAR MISSILE STRATEGY-Part I

By

Lt. Gen. Eric A. Vas

 

US Proposal To Change The Existing System

By Lt. Gen. Eric A. Vas [Retd]

For the past thirty years the main stay of nuclear weapon [NW] strategy of the two most potent NW powers has been based on a meticulously monitored balance of terror between their respective arsenals of bombs and missiles, which were grouped into three categories: the Inter-continental Ballistic Missile [ICBM], the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile [IRBM] and the Short Range Ballistic Missile [SRBM].

ICBMs have a range of between 2000 to 5000 km; IRBMs operate between 1000 and 3000 km and SRBMs are for targets located at a distance of less than 2000 km. The missiles travel at approximately 5 minutes per 1000 km; thus the flying time of these missiles varies from about 20 minutes to 10 minutes depending on the range being traversed. All these are land-based missiles, which can also be mounted on submarines and are then termed a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile [SLBM].

The aim of the five NW states during the Cold War was to control the spread of NW and missile technology. They joined hands to ensure that under the Non Proliferation Treaty [NPT], no outsider was allowed to join the nuclear club after 1968. India’s explosion of a nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974 was designed to demonstrate our ability to manufacture a 10-Kt fission-type NW. At the same time, India said that it supported a total ban of NW and declared that it would not manufacture NW unless its security was threatened. Nevertheless, the NW states refused to grant India membership of the nuclear club. On the contrary, the US and others imposed technology sanctions on India.

The Concept of Deterrence

Military power is composed of two elements: the defensive and the offensive. In a balanced force you will find tanks and anti-tank weapons, fighter air raft and anti-aircraft guns, warships and submarines, and so on. When the balance between the offensive and defensive elements in two opposing armies widens in favour of one side, then the other becomes vulnerable and is in danger of facing military defeat. Because there is no creditible defence against a missile carrying NW, the NW states were forced to rely only on the offensive aspect of missiles. Thus the Deterrence Strategy adopted by them was based solely on the destructive capability of NW; a strategy aptly termed Mutually Assured Destruction [MAD], which resulted in a balance of offensive terror.

This strategy deliberately avoided counter-missile defences so that both the Soviet Union and the US remained equally vulnerable to each other’s NW. This concept was enshrined in the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile [ABM] Treaty that forbade the USSR and US from acquiring a credible Ballistic Missile Defence [BMD]

Some American strategists were unhappy with this state of affairs and kept projecting the need for a defensive missile shield. To begin with they proposed the Sentinel Safeguard System. In the 80s they proposed a Global Intercept System. .In 1982 President Reagan made a plea to move away from a solely retaliation-based strategy to a defensive strategy to counter the threat of land-based Soviet ICBMs. American scientists planned to destroy in-coming missiles using a three-phased technology. In phase I, land- or satellite-based radar would detect the launch of an in-coming hostile missile. In phase 2, land- or satellite-based counter-missiles would be launched. In phase 3 these would be directed towards the in-coming missile and either be made to collide with it or fire a solid projectile to destroy it.

European allies criticised the system because it relied on untested high-fidelity radar and high-speed guidance technology, which they assessed were unlikely to be effective against the long-range ICBMs. They therefore declared that these would certainly not be fast enough to destroy the shorter-ranging in-coming SRBMs, which were the real threat to NATO and took less than 15 minutes to reach their targets. Sceptics dubbed the proposals as "Star Wars". The American persisted in their research. Twelve years later after spending 20 billion dollars, they admitted that the technology required to neutralise in-coming missiles had proved elusive, and the project was closed down.

During the Gulf War for Kuwait, Iraq fired short range Scud missiles carrying a one ton conventional explosive war head against military targets in Saudi Arabia and civilian targets in Israel. The US responded by deploying their experimental Patriot counter-missile missiles. These were able to intercept some of the in-coming Scud missiles. However, American and Israeli scientist learnt much from those operations, which helped them to improve their detection and guidance systems against SRBMs.

By this time both the super-powers had come to accept that their huge stockpile of NW was not cost effective; the concept of MAD was no protection against a missile carrying a NW fired by a rogue state. The 90s saw both the super-powers agreeing to carry out arms cuts at the strategic level through a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START]

START 1 and 2 agreements saw a small reduction in American and Soviet NW but this did not undermine their overall strategy, which remained deterrence and the prevention of the spread of NW. One of the pillars of this non-proliferation system was the preparation of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] designed to prevent any state from carrying out au underground nuclear explosion. India refused to sign the CTBT and found itself isolated in the world community.

When India carried out a second series of nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998, it demonstrated its ability to manufacture a thermo-nuclear device with a yield of over 40 Kt, and miniaturised war heads under 1 Kt. India then imposed upon itself a unilateral ban on further testing. Pakistan followed India and carried out a series of nuclear test explosions proving its ability to make a fission-type 10 Kt nuclear device. America and its allies imposed sanctions on both countries. A quick audit of America’s technology denial regime against India would suggest that it has been an irritant but not an obstacle for India, which still has access to dual-use technology from Russia and Europe.

Post Cold War Structure

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a shift in American strategic thinking, which no longer anticipated any NW threat from Russia and considered that China was not in a class to pose a credible MAD threat. Their strategists felt that it was time they took a radical look on how security and stability can be achieved in a different world where the major threat was from rogue or less than responsible nations to whom "terror and blackmail were a way of life". Under those circumstances, they believe that there is no point in clinging to the ABM Treaty as it prevents the two super-powers, no longer sworn enemies, from dealing with new threats.

On 1 May 2001, President Bush, made a speech in which he outlined a new framework for US missile defence. He stated that the US aim is a secure world with the lowest possible number of NW consistent with US security needs, including their obligations to their allies. He calculated that America best achieves this through unilateral cuts rather than long-winded weapon talks with Russia. Bush wants America to lead by example and believes that the unilateral deep cuts of NW by the US will serve to reassure his allies, Russia and China that such an arms control revolution. can bring big benefits to the world.

He believes that scrapping the ABM Treaty is essential so as to build new defences for America and its allies, not against Russia or China, but against less predictable though limited missile threats form places such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In order to evolve the technology and managerial structure of the new BMD system, a new BMD Organisation has been set up by the Department of Defence. Echoing the words of ex-President Reagan, Bush made the point that the US needed new concepts of deterrence that relied on both defensive and offensive forces. Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation and a "balance of terror".

There is a temptation to link the American proposal of a BMD shield with Reagan’s Star Wars proposals of 1983. Star Wars was aimed solely at countering the threat of Soviet land-based ICBMs. It was then accepted that Reagan’s proposals would not be effective against IRBMs. Moreover there were doubts about the effectivenss of technology then available. The proposals put forward by Bush, which obviously have the backing of confident American scientiests, is different in purpose and content. The first priority of the BMD will be to develop a shield against SRBMs. The second priority would be to develop a National Missile Defence to protect the US and allies against the threat of ICBMs. Meanwhile the BMD Organisation will continue to carry out research and develop better technologies for its defensive missiles, and managerial skills for the proposed structure.

. Critics could see the logic of US strategy. Separated by two oceans and without a missile-power neighbour next door, Americans believe that a BMD structure would add to their national security. Nevertheless the scheme initially caused offence all round. Bush’s recent attempts to cut funds for programmes designed to stem the leakage of know-how and bomb-making materials from Russia’s nuclear complex, to make way for his tax cuts have not reassured critics that he has his security priorities right. They warn that while wanting to be radical it is important to be right. Critics ask, will the BMD plan bolster US defences at the expense of others? Is it likely to leave every one worse off?

Some arms control experts felt as if Bush had dropped a nuclear bomb on their world when he opposed ratification of the CTBT and questioned the need for further START agreements. Today, irrespective of whether a nation has signed or ratified the CTBT all have foresworn testing. The international monitoring system not only encourages openness but also assumes that some may indeed try to cheat. The system detects cheats and if necessary deters them. Critics say that the Republican rejection of the ratification of the CTBT in 1999 was a partisan vote and should be rescinded because it is vital for the US and it s allies to know what is happening in Chinese and Russian testing sites.

Republican experts respond by reminding their critics that the CTBT permits zero-yield nuclear testing. China, Russia and even America are all doing this from time to time. There are suspicions that China is carrying out nuclear test explosions so small that even America’s sophisticated detection equipment cannot pick this up. Anyway, even when explosions of under a 5 Kt yield are detected one cannot tell if this is a chemical or a nuclear explosion. What good is a Treaty if it cannot be verified 100 per cent?

Un-voiced comments of America’s reluctance to ratify the CTBT state that this is because the huge US stockpile of NW will become less safe without frequent testing and it is not in America’s interest to ratify this for the present. There are others who say that the Republicans have an almost pathological aversion to any treaty that could curb America’s freedom of action in the future. This is evident not only in their approach to the CTBT and future START agreements but also with the Kyoto Accord on steps to curb global warming.

Consultations with Allies and Friends

The US made it clear that it would consult its allies and friends about its proposals. Several top officials of the Bush Administration were sent to Europe, Canada, Australia and Asia. Touring delegates made it clear that the Bush proposals are aimed at re-writing deterrence and lifting the nuclear thraldom that has enslaved the world since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The proposed formula makes no reference to disarmament as a goal but arms reduction is identified but clearly states that a Cold War scenario and thinking about an arms race involving the US Russia and China is out dated. The US is evidently attempting to shift from MAD to a philosophy of defensive deterrence and invest their strategy with moral undertones.

. The US deputed Mr Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, for the tour to Asia, which included a visit to Japan, South Korea and India. Armitage’s visit to India in May was followed by the arrival of General Henry Shelton, in New Delhi in July. This was the first visit ever by a Chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff. His presence signalled the revival of the Defence Policy Group that had fallen into oblivion in 1997, even before India’s 1998 nuclear test. The General expressed hope of establishing a "strong" military-to-military relationship with India, which is a "major power with global influence" and added that "his trip [and meetings between India’s Defence Minister and the US Defence Secretary]. reflect our desire to broaden and deepen our engagement with India on defence issues." General Shelton’s visit was followed by the arrival of Ms Christina Rocca, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. Her visit is expected to give a better sense of the steps being taken in Washington to lift the sanctions imposed on India after 1974 and 1998.

 

 

Part 2

International Reactions to US Proposals

Although the Americans gave an assurance that their first priority would be to produce a missile shield against SRBMs, European nations, as was the case with Star Wars in 1983, were not enthusiastic about the BMD scheme. To begin with they questioned America’s technical ability to produce an effective anti-missile missile because a test carried out in early 2001 failed to achieved its objective.. Then in mid-July for the first time US carried out a successful test when a dummy missile fired from California was tracked, intercepted and destroyed by a counter-missile fired from a base in the Pacific region.

Apart from doubts about technology, there are other reasons for Europe’s hesitation to accept the scheme. Europeans know that this American initiative will devalue Europe’s importance to the USA and enable the Americans to act unilaterally. There is an unspoken apprehension that America will offer the system to Europe but at a price. Europeans have got accustomed to a "free ride" for the past fifty years and they are loathe to pay for their defence. Lastly, they fear that through the device of a BMD system, the technological gap between the USA and Europe will widen further in the fields of avionics and space

Despite these reservations, once the US displays a consistent technical ability to deal effectively first with ICBMs and later with SRBMs, there seems little doubt that Europe will come around to supporting the Bush proposals after hard bargaining and getting their share of the BMD’s technology development. In the quest for a shield against SRBMs

Russian Reactions

Russia is no longer America’s enemy. Though it remains a rival, it has much to gain from deeper political and economic engagement with the West. Since 1991 and the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s nuclear deterrent was being maintained not for any security reasons but for the sake of prestige and the increasing challenge to the position of Russia as a great power. NW are one of Russia’s few remaining claims to parity with America. Their scientists know that the BMD plan is not likely to be effective against SLBMs and Cruise missiles in the coming decade. To that extent Russia’s deterrent is safe and will not be affected by the BMD Scheme. Nevertheless, the Russians are very uneasy with the Bush proposals for reasons very similar to the fears expressed by the Europeans.

Russia wants to be a power in Europe, but it wants a Europe with its old-fashioned spheres of influence with one sphere reserved for Russia. Hence they view the lengthening queue of countries eager to join the European Union and NATO with dismay. Russia knows that if hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people of Eastern Europe, it must offer a hand of reconciliation to those countries rather than a resentful fist. In order to achieve this and prove his credentials, Putin knows that he must not do anything foolish while dealing with America.

Moreover, Russia’s never-ending conflict with Islamist separatists in Chechanya may well necessitate closer collaboration with the Americans. They are already partners in an international space station project. Many of the technologies being applied there are relevant to the BMD. There are big advantages for a cash-strapped Russia, specially if the USA were prepared to buy some of Russia’s technologies for BMD. For these reasons, Russia is not against missile defence or collaboration with the US in principle.

After months of stone-walling President Putin signaled interest in exploring America’s offer of some sort of strategic bargaining, which could be to cut both sides’ unwieldy arsenals down to a more affordable size. Both want this so that they can explore limited defences against smaller but less predictable threats. For both such a deal is worth a serious try.

Spokesmen of the US Administration have said that America is prepared to set up a BMD plan on its own if it fails to achieve international consensus. Putin has warned America against doing this on its own. But he knows that Russia has no veto on American defence. However, it has a legitimate interest in Bush’s proposals because it would break the ABM Treaty which, in order to preserve strategic stability in more hostile times, sharply limits the sort of defences either side can deploy. Some Russian strategists have cleverly suggested that any unilateral American reduction of its NW stock pile and withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would provoke Moscow to follow suit and reduce its arsenal but at the same time put more war heads on its remaining missiles.

Russia does not object to a limited missile shield aimed at countries like North Korea and Iran. It is just as threatened by them as America is. Its opposition is based on fear that a defence shield might some day be capable of protecting America against Russia’s nuclear deterrent. If that happened the shield would neutralise Russia’s nuclear forces and its remaining pretensions to being a great power.

Russia has only two options to head off that threat. The first, to oppose BMD and revise its policy of decommissioning its NW. However American think-tanks assess that even if Russia wants to retain 3,500 war heads, it does not have the money to maintain more than 1000 or so. Moreover, it becomes hard for Russia to adopt a hostile attitude to BMD when NATO countries say that they are willing to join the USA to explore technologies for a defensive shield. The second course is to agree to a shield with limited capability. This is difficult because it is impossible to define "limited" and both countries have strong domestic constituencies opposed to compromise.

Apart from this, the top priority of Russia’s General Staff is to modernize the conventional weapons of the armed forces. They do not have much money for this. It would help if they could avoid a missile race with America. It would be better still if they took part in an international effort to develop a missile shield financed largely by America.

Bearing all these complex and sometimes conflicting factors in mind, Putin has taken a decision to talk with America on BMD. At the last summit with Bush in June 2001, there were indications that both were prepared to negotiate over BMD before a final design is determined and a time-table for its deployment is drawn up.

China’s Reactions

India’s welcoming the Bush proposals disturbs China. As the subaltern power in the Washington-Moscow grid it feels left out of the international consensus being negotiated for a BMD. It has been most vocal in opposing the new Bush policy. It has warned that dire consequences will flow if the ABM Treaty is tinkered with.

China’s current deterrence is based on 50 ICBMs. Its offensive forces are supported by the same number of IRBMs, which can threaten Taiwan [and India]. The BMD plan would counter a threat to Taiwan. Although China has not been listed as one of the likely rogue states, it has no doubt that one of America’s primary aims is containment of their modest arsenal, which is already rendered redundant. This hampers China’s bid of becoming a military super power.

China has three options, all of which have direct relevance to India. First, to increase its offensive capability by building more IRBMs with multiple warheads, some of which will be decoys to overwhelm BMD software. Second, to redesign their missiles to evade the shield through stealth features that enable them to defeat the US electronic sensors. In the case of both these options, US scientist admit that physical laws limit the amount of information radar and ultra-red sensors can gather. It becomes difficult to process enough data to differentiate between real warheads and decoys. The third option is to have more mobile land and submarine-based missiles that can survive a US strike.

All these options will force China to divert its resources to building a better and bigger missile arsenal at a cost that may well slow down its economic growth. This will also impede its on-going plans to expand and modernize its conventional forces, a process, which started even before Bush’s announcement of BMD. In mid-July, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation in which they reiterated their mutual opposition to the BMD and the US threat to scrap the ABM Treaty. US analysts welcomed the Treaty and said that it was unlikely to develop into a deeper security relationship, which threatened America.

China has no means to counter America’s pressure in the economic and political arena should a push become a shove. Washington has a 100 billion-dollar trade with China. It is unwilling to engage in a Cold War type of face off with Beijing as it did with Moscow. Nor does it feel that this will be necessary. The US is not interested in an arms control agreement with China. It is confident that with the passage of time, the technology gap between the US and China would grow and not reduce

India’s Reactions

The Indian government was one of the first in the world to welcome and endorse the Bush initiative. In an exuberant statement a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs declared that there was "a strategic and technological inevitability" to support such a move. Some politicians from opposition parties see this prompt acceptance of BMD as "an erosion of Indian autonomy". There were others who failed to see the new environment.and harked back to the Cold War era when non-alignment was a strategy to deal with conflict between the two super powers;

India appreciates that the threat of missiles targeted by rogue states against the USA is still some years away. But today, for India this threat is very real a very immanent and not academic. Pakistan for the past two decades had been floating on a sea of US aid pumped in for the conduct of a "jihad" against the Soviet Union. Now that aid has ended. A bankrupt and politically unstable Pakistan, with a population growth of over 5 per cent, is exporting its socio-economic problems in the idiom of jihad to neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir [India]. With its economy likely to grow at less than 3 per cent, this failed state is ruled by the military, which also controls its nuclear installations and has declared a policy of first use of NW.

In this situation, India urgently needs a shield against the threat of Pakistan’s SRBMs. It would therefore be foolish in the extreme if India were to spurn American advances, which seem to guarantee that we can cope with a missile threat. In early May while Mr Jaswant Singh, India’s Minister of External Affairs, was visiting Washington, President Bush. took him aside for an impromptu meeting at the White House. After this , Mr Richard Armitage, US Deputy Secretary of State, was sent to tour Asia and explain the BMD plan to its friends and allies. India, along with Japan and South Korea, was included in Atmitage’s itinerary. This tour was followed by the visits of the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and the Assistant Secretary of State South Asia. By these gestures the US was sending clear signals that India was at least a friend if not an ally.

Armitage, whilst in India, made it clear the new programme has four facets: non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, missile defence and US willingness to reduce its strategic missile arsenal unilaterally if necessary. The delegate said, "I’m baffled by comments about a new arms race. The US is suggesting that it will unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal below the START 2 treaty levels." George Bush talks about deep reductions from the existing 8,500 plus level to possibly 1,500.

On being asked to spell out the rogue nations, Armitage named Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea "and some in India’s neighbourhood". Elaborating on the countries in India’s neighbourhood he said, "We have questions about Pakistan. It is well known and you and your colleagues will know even better. These we refer to as hard cases."

On India’s status in the BMD system, Armitage said the plan "will make unnecessary some states producing their own missile as a response to a threat from neighbours…. We look forward to a robust and congenial relationship with India."

Good relations with the US is an important element in India’s foreign policy. Just as the Indo-Soviet convergence of interest lasted for nearly five decades, the new Indo-US convergence of interest is based on an equally sound footing. The absence of any conflict of interest and the current state of relations make this a reasonably easy goal.

In 1974, the Pokhran-1 explosion should have secured India formal entry into the nuclear club. The US Administration joined hands with China in refusing to allow that that to happen. The Bush Administration apparently has a less closed mind. It repudiated the CTBT [another India-hostile treaty favoured by Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton]. The Bush Administration has virtually torn up the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] by proposing the BMD system. Unlike China, outsider India has no reason too mourn the demise of the NPT.

Since the NPT does not allow the expansion of the nuclear club, the two sides will perforce have to look for other ways to expand their co-operation in this field. The advantage of BMD is that it "kills" treaties that grossly discriminated against India. It offers the country a choice of becoming part of the new security architecture that the creation of a full-fledged missile defence system will entail. Indeed, together with the European Union, Japan and the US [in case Russia and China do not sign on] India can form one leg of the new system in exchange for equality at the nuclear table.

The threshold levels for entry into the BMD scheme is high, calling for top-of-the-line skills. India with its mix of first and tenth world has the capability of signing in as a partner in the development of the system. Indeed its software skills and consequent fluency in simulation and fabrication, as well as its geographic location and skills in tracking make it almost mandatory for the US to have India on board in order to create a system that can be Asia-effective. If India drives a hard bargain as a price of such co-operation, the flow of technology from the US that has been halted since 1974 [whilst being supplied to China in abundance] can resume. This would result in a quantum leap in the nuclear energy programme as well as in satellite carriers.

Conclusion

A chess game on the future of BMD has begun and will take a decade or more to be finalised. Presently, the Bush Administration had allotted only a small percentage of its military budget for Research and Development [R & D]. But let us not underestimate the scale of the BMD structure that America is plotting in the coming decade. Effort is being directed to improve the tracking and interception capabilities of the anti-missile missile to that it can operate efficiently within a ten-minute time frame. Even if technological obstacles can be overcome and this target is achieved, America will still need to proceed with caution. Technology seldom works flawlessly. Moreover, apart from missiles there are many other ways of ways of delivering nuclear, chemical and biological bombs.

Future strategic defensive plans have to work in ways that strengthen deterrence and diplomacy- the traditional way of dealing with threats to peace, and not undermine them. Hence a need to win a consensus from Russia, China and Europe to prevent a wider arms race. The hope is to gradually draw China , the most secretive NW state, into serious arms control talks. Unilateral scrapping of the CTBT and ABM Treaties, which were ways of what nuclear and non-nuclear nations were up to, could result in the worst of all worlds; one in which suspicion and rivalry, not security and stability, become the name of the game.

Equitable global disarmament and the protection of core security interests have always been the abiding goals of India’s reluctant NW quest. Pakistan and China loom large in Indian calculations, and Beijing’s reactions to the BMD scheme remain of concern to us..

The Cold War has ended and the world is entering a new security paradigm. Assessing this in terms of non-alignment or a continuation of super power bi-polarity will be a grave error. A better analogy would be with Pax Britanica, when industrial Britain was the sole super power because of its dominance over the oceans. A US-dominated world may not be to the liking of some non-Americans. However, in the next decade, US dominance over the rest of the globe in technological, military, economic and political terms is inevitable. The only possibility of some balancing power and influence emerging, is if Russia and China get their act together. Given China’s political centralism, one wonders whether this is likely.

New Delhi missed the NPT bus in 1968. Hopefully it will not repeat its mistake by refusing to get aboard the BMD train that is crashing through the existing India-negative NPT. At the same time let us not forget that blind support for US schemes will not buy India a ticket to the table of world power. That can only come, as it came to China, because of India’s economic engagement with the US. Above all else, good governance and internal stability is the key to international acceptance.

 

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