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How inevitable is an Asian 'missile race'?

Following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistanin May 1998, some analysts have considered a regionallydestabilising missile race between the two inevitable. PravinSawhney looks at the systems and doctrines of the two countries andexamines whether such fears are well founded.

INDIA HAS inducted indigenous Prithvi missiles into the army; test-fired its Agni II missile and declared it ready to be inducted into its armed forces; released the nation's ambitious draft nuclear doctrine; and suggested that it can make neutron and hydrogen bombs. Pakistan, meanwhile, has inducted Hatf I and Hatf II missiles into its inventory and has fired its Ghauri I, Ghauri II and Shaheen I missiles. Considering the advantages missiles enjoy over aircraft as delivery platforms, there is concern -especially in the West - that overt nuclearisation and missile proliferation, coupled with geographic proximity and unrelenting tension between India and Pakistan, could inadvertently lead to a nuclear missile exchange. Such fears have been exacerbated by suggestions that the military take-over in Pakistan has brought the danger of a nuclear armageddon nearer.

How real are these apprehensions? A short answer is 'not real'. A longer explanation would require an examination of the suggested missile race and the regional instability following the nuclear tests.

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervais Musharraf, has spelt out his nuclear weapon and missile policy in two significant statements. In one he stated: "For our security, we will ensure minimum deterrence in the unconventional and conventional fields." Read along with his earlier declaration that "Pakistan would not try to match India in respect of the number of missiles produced, but would retain just enough missile capacity to reach anywhere in India and destroy a few cities, if required", the implied policy is as follows:

- the conventional and unconventional (nuclear) levels of war are two different media of warfare with different rules and dynamics. Minimum deterrence in a conventional war implies a parity at the operational level of war: something the Pakistan military has consistently endeavoured to retain against India. Regarding nuclear weapons, no such parity needs to be maintained; Pakistan's nuclear weapons should simply be enough, and credible enough, to deter the escalation of a conventional conflict by India;

- equally significantly, Pakistan has ruled out a missiles race with India. General Musharraf's confidence in doing so is premised on two factors. Firstly, India believes that Pakistan acquired the capability to manufacture Chinese M-11 missiles, renamed Hatf IIs, sometime in 1996. The slow-rate production of Hatf IIs, likely to have conventional warheads only, has started and efforts are underway to procure improved guidance systems from China. Should the need arise, Pakistan can match India's Prithvi production with its own Hatf II, thus nullifying India's advantage of the early 1990s when it produced large numbers of Prithvis to tilt the conventional firepower balance in its favour. Secondly, Pakistan does not need to match India's Agni missile or its manufacturing capability. Instead, it requires a few long-range mobile missiles that can reach any target in India. These will be armed with nuclear warheads for deterrence purposes. Pakistan's Ghauri series serves this purpose.

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist, has claimed that work is in progress on another medium-range missile called the Ghazni (Ghauri III), which has a range of 3,000km. It is obvious that Pakistan's search for a longer-range delivery system for nuclear deterrence purposes is not over. The Ghauri and Shaheen I are good enough, but the Ghazni (or the Shaheen II) would be better because of its improved range and potentially better accuracy.

To understand whether a missile race is imminent, two basic questions need to be addressed. Firstly, do ballistic missiles enhance national security by deterrence or actual use? Secondly, is it operationally sensible and cost-effective to induct large numbers of ballistic missiles into the war-fighting doctrines of India and Pakistan? Because China is central to India's strategic and military thinking, any talk about missile use, proliferation and a stabilisation regime in South Asia should examine Beijing's role in the subcontinent. China, after all, has been mentioned by India as a major reason for undergoing its own nuclear tests.

Ballistic missiles

Approved in 1983, the Rs7.8 billion (US$179 million) Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), under the supervision of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, is progressing fitfully. The IGMDP was to develop a 2,500km Agni intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), a 150km-range Prithvi battlefield support missile, the Akash and Trishul quick-reaction surface-to-air missiles, and the Nag anti-tank missile. Modifications were made to the programme for political and operational reasons: the Agni was termed a 'technology demonstrator', implying that the political decision to manufacture and integrate the potential IRBM with military forces would be made at a later date; the Prithvi would have several versions (a 150km battlefield missile and 250km and 350km medium-range missiles); and the Akash was proposed to be modified for an anti-missile role. There is great interest in the Prithvi and Agni missiles because they do not replace an existing weapon system and hence retain surprise in employability.

The Prithvi, costing $1 million per missile, will be produced in three variants for each of the defence services. All versions are mobile and nuclear-capable. After 13 test flights, the 150km-range battlefield support missile with a payload of 1,000kg has been inducted into the army's newly raised 333 Missile Group under the 40th Artillery Division. Production, however, has not stabilised and is unlikely to do so for a number of reasons. For example, the army wants the liquid propellant of the Prithvi missile to be replaced by a solid propellant. Handling the highly corrosive liquid propellant in the field is dangerous, time-consuming and leaves the system vulnerable to enemy attack. Preparing a launcher to fire takes about 25 minutes, with 18 logistics vehicles needed to prepare a troop of two launchers. The entire operation, from receiving orders to firing, takes about two hours. While pre-filled missiles would be preferred for certain operations, the problem is that after 48 hours the propellant starts to corrode the missile, which much then be destroyed. Emptying a filled missile is highly dangerous. As a first step to fixing this problem, the Prithvi's logistics train will be reduced to two vehicles per troop.

Another drawback of the missile is its accuracy. The Prithvi lacks a proven terminal guidance system. Notwithstanding claims made by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that the Prithvi has a circular error probable (CEP) of 40m at its maximum range of 150km and other estimates giving the CEP as 150-200m, the army has sought good missile accuracy with conventional warheads. The artillery's refusal to compromise on missile accuracy is indicative that actual CEP differs from the claims made.

The Prithvi variant for the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a medium-range missile with a warhead weight of 500-750kg and a range of 250km. After four technical tests, the missile awaits clearance from the user, which is understood to have listed, among others, the same two major drawbacks as found in the army version.

The third Prithvi version, produced for the navy and called the Dhanush, will have a range of 350km and a warhead weight of 1,000kg. This will be achieved by using a boosted liquid propellant to generate a greater thrust-to-weight ratio. The DRDO has designed the missile stabilisation system needed to launch the Dhanush from a moving ship, but the requirement for at least one missile test-firing from a ship awaits government clearance.

According to the government, the Agni IRBM (Agni II) is ready to enter the armed forces. It will be a rail- and road-mobile weapon system available in solid- and liquid- propellant configurations. It is claimed to have a range of up to 3,000km with a 1,000kg warhead and cost Rs300 million ($8.5 million) per missile, making it cost-effective only with a nuclear warhead.

It is proposed that the Agni will have variants with increased ranges up to a maximum of 5,000km with both liquid and solid propellants. A modular construction will demonstrate its sophistication, easy preparation and combat readiness. Development of one additional 1.8m diameter solid booster, with a 40-ton propellant and with indigenous Space Launch Vehicle-3 subsystems, would meet the requirement to reach 5,000km. While India has no plans to make intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the near future, preparations are afoot to test-fire the Agni III, with a range of 5,000km, and possibly a three-stage separation rocket instead of the two-stage one.

In summation, the Prithvi needs better accuracy, a solid propellant and a reduced logistics train with liquid propellant before its stabilised induction into the armed forces. Agni, on the other hand, will be a mobile IRBM with increased accuracy, a longer range and preferably a solid propellant. As opposed to what the government said, the production and induction of the Agni IRBM will commence only after Agni III capabilities are proven.

Pakistan surprised everyone by announcing a sudden breakthrough in developing ballistic missiles. The army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, said Pakistan successfully tested its indigenous Hatf I missile, with an 80km range and 1,000kg payload, in 1989. He added that Pakistan was developing the Hatf II missile in collaboration with "our friendly country", meaning China. According to Gen Beg, Pakistan's missile programme was initiated in early 1987: "[On] the explicit information gained that India was on the road to pursue its missile development programme ... it was decided to build missiles of short- and medium-range capabilities."

Pakistan's missile programme, as disclosed by Dr Khan and Dr Mand, is being undertaken at two research centres: the Khan Research Laboratories (for liquid-propellant missiles) and the National Development Complex (for solid-propellant missiles).

Nuclear doctrines

A nation's nuclear declaratory policy is not only the first but also perhaps the most important aspect of its nuclear strategy. On 27 May 1998 Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee stated in Parliament: "We do not intend to use these [nuclear] weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country. These are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race." An examination of this policy statement suggests that:
- nuclear weapons will not be part of war-fighting,
- a 'no-first-use' strategy of nuclear weapons has been adopted,
- only a minimum number of nuclear weapons is likely to be produced,
- putting nuclear forces on a high-alert status is not implicit.

In a news conference on 29 May 1998 then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said: "These [nuclear] weapons are to deter aggression, be it nuclear or conventional. [India's nuclear testing] has led to the collapse of existing deterrence and radically altered the strategic balance in our region." This statement suggests that:
- nuclear weapons could be part of war-fighting,
- a 'no-first-use' nuclear strategy is not acceptable,
- a minimum number of nuclear weapons may be kept in a state ready for use,
- an alert status for nuclear weapons with a good command and control system is implicit.

Considering that the nuclear declaratory policies of India and Pakistan are dissimilar, the employment policies - which deal with military aspects and provide the strategic rationale for the nuclear force structure, the targeting norms and actual use of nuclear weapons in a conflict - ought to have different force structuring and targeting norms. The manpower resources and training required for a possible 'first use' nuclear policy would be higher. Besides creating complications, dissimilar nuclear declaratory policies could also prove detrimental to a nuclear stabilisation regime; they could give rise to more tension and uncertainty.

This, however, is not true. Pakistan is certain to retain parity with India's conventional forces at the operational level to obviate carrying out its threatening 'first use' nuclear option. Pakistan knows a nuclear counter-strike would be devastating to its existence. Considering Pakistan's nuclear policy, weaponisation options and command and control of nuclear assets are likely to be the sole responsibility of the General Headquarters; the chances of a war escalating to nuclear level would be a professional, conservative and well thought through decision. A pre-emptive nuclear strike or an early employment of nuclear weapons in a conventional war is ruled out. In short, despite dissimilar declaratory policies, nuclear employment policies of India and Pakistan will be similar. A clear distinction must be made between Pakistan's threat to use nuclear weapons and actual use of them.

In India, nuclear weaponisation of a low order will follow. It is significant to note Prime Minister Vajpayee's statement that: "[We] do not need to, or intend to, replicate the kind of command and control structures which they [nuclear weapon powers] operate." These are clear indications that India's nuclear weapons would be non-deployed with a 'de-alert' status.

Critics of this thinking say India's recently released draft nuclear doctrine is rather ambitious and portends a nuclear arms race. It is worth noting that the government has disassociated itself with the contents of the draft doctrine - it is a consensus document prepared by the non-statutory National Security Advisory Board with little access to classified matters - and has called for a national debate on the subject. The messages conveyed by the BJP government by the release of the draft doctrine are:
- nuclear weaponisation is irreversible,
- India, unlike other nuclear weapon powers - including maybe China, is unlikely to stop producing fissile material ahead of the fissile material cut-off treaty being formalised,
- a greater push will be imparted to indigenous nuclear and missile technology research.

Missile use

What will the Prithvi with conventional warheads do? Considering the limitations of the missile, it can best be used for disruption, harassment, delay and loss of time to the enemy. (Such firepower is not traditionally appreciated in such a role because it is normally used to effect destruction and attrition.) For such tasks, a large number of ballistic missiles are not needed. There is no operational requirement for India and Pakistan to raise more than one missile group/rocket regiment of Prithvi/Hatf IIs.

It is clear battlefield Prithvi missiles have a limited use; they do not pose an overwhelming threat to Pakistan's territorial integrity and may instead widen the war without any accompanying benefits. Moreover, given the visible Indian nuclear option, there is a danger of Pakistan misreading the warhead used in the Prithvi. Thus, neither side will gain much by using Prithvi/Hatf IIs with conventional warheads.

The IAF wants to use its Prithvi variant for interdiction purposes. However, the high cost, low delivery content and possibility of collateral damage (considering the missile is not very accurate) will limit target options. Deploying the Dhanush on a surface ship is operationally desirable, but with a price tag. With a high signature, the Dhanush would give away the ship's location to the enemy. The Prithvi with conventional warhead is an under-employed weapon system, and hence not cost-effective.

If the Prithvi is not a cost-effective weapon system against Pakistan, then why have it at all? A large number of senior Indian artillery officers feel the Prithvi, with both conventional and low-yield nuclear warheads, would be ideal for use against China on a Himalayan battlefield. With the improvement of infrastructure - roads, tracks and defence structures - right up to the Line of Actual Control, India can move and store its Prithvis for possible use against China. The Chinese have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, M-11s and M-9s, deployed in Tibet and are believed to also have tactical nuclear weapons.

A missile race?

There are two main 'missile race' issues: whether there is a need for a missile race; and how to check missile proliferation. Certainly in economic terms neither country can afford a missile race. India and Pakistan have the awesome responsibility of preparing for three very different conflict scenarios: terrorism, high-intensity war and a nuclear threat. The two extremes of the conflict spectrum can be successfully handled only if an operational parity is maintained regarding the middle one. Otherwise the stronger side would be tempted to start a high-intensity war. In tangible terms, this implies that various weapon replacement programmes progress smoothly and troops train regularly.

The two armies have been forced to maintain large conventional forces. Between India and Pakistan, the quantity of equipment is more important than its quality. Considering the two nations' defence budgets are limited, the two armies have difficulties replacing even old equipment, let alone entering into an arms race. Under such circumstances the consequences are clear: buy more ballistic missiles that have a limited operational role at the expense of other equipment replacement programmes. Alternatively, buy a few ballistic missiles - which are very expensive compared to tanks and guns - and keep the remaining conventional forces in a fit state. The second option is the preferred choice.

Both countries have the additional burden of maintaining a small stockpile of nuclear weapons. These nuclear weapons will not replace the two sides' conventional capabilities, but will be in addition to them.

For India, there is yet another reason to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles. New Delhi has embarked on an ambitious programme to develop and consolidate a strong scientific and technological base. This is all the more important because acquisition, control or denial of technology are fast emerging as the principal tools of diplomacy. Between 10-15% of the Indian defence budget has been recommended for the DRDO to pursue independent R&D with other friendly countries, notably Russia.

China's dismal track record concerning proliferation of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan is well documented. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) limits were revised in 1993 after it was found that China gave a number of short-range missiles, permissible under the MTCR, to Pakistan in 1992. Even after its 1992 pledge to abide by the original MTCR guidelines, China has repeatedly been caught exporting missiles and missile parts to Pakistan. China has also encouraged North Korea to sell missiles to Pakistan.

Regional instability

It is one thing to avoid a missile race; it is another to ensure both sides abide by certain rules to ensure miscalculations regarding even a limited use of ballistic missiles are avoided. Thus there is a need for a mutually acceptable ballistic missile stabilisation regime between India and Pakistan.

A peculiar aspect of Indo-Pakistani relations is that whenever a destabilising factor is introduced into their crisis-prone relationship, confidence-building measures (CBMs) are sought and outside help is welcomed (particularly from the USA) until both learn to live with the situation. In the 1980s the destabilising factor was Pakistan's nuclearisation; in 1990 it was the beginning of the insurgency in Kashmir; and in the late 1990s it is ballistic missiles. Within the first decade of this new century, anti-ballistic missile systems are likely to present another destabilising dilemma in the sub-continent. Between India and Pakistan, confidence-building is not a process that helps to make changes in the broader security relations possible. However, it is change that makes confidence-building possible. The Lahore declaration signed between India and Pakistan in April 1999 is to be seen in this context. It has less to do with the festering Kashmir problem; it is more to seek mutually acceptable measures to check nuclear and missile proliferation and to find ways to establish a missile stabilisation regime, however modest.

The operative portion of the Lahore declaration seeks to: engage both sides in bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines; provide advance notice in respect of missile tests; undertake measures to reduce risks of accidental/ unauthorised use of nuclear weapons; pledge a moratorium on nuclear tests; and prevent incidents at sea. In terms of regional arms control leading to a missile stabilisation regime, the Lahore declaration provides a unique opportunity.

It may be recalled that after the nuclear tests, the leadership in both India and Pakistan immediately expressed an encouraging commitment to restraint and rationality. A B Vajpayee indicated that his country's nuclear doctrine would be qualitatively different from that of other nuclear powers, while Nawaz Sharif spoke of "urgent steps for mutual restraint and equitable measures for nuclear stabilisation". The then Pakistan army chief, General Jahangir Karamat, while talking about "restraint and rationality", suggested that deterrence is based less on the number of nuclear devices and their yields than on the demonstrated capability to deter the other side.

The two states' sincerity of intent can be gauged by the fact that, after the Lahore declaration, both sides gave the agreed advance notification to their neighbour when test-firing the Agni II, Ghauri II and Shaheen missiles. There is already a hotline between the two prime ministers and the two director-generals of military operations, which, unlike earlier similar circumstances, was not discontinued during the Kargil war in May 1999. The latter hotline is indicative of two professional militaries being aware of their nuclear weapon status.

In his first press conference after taking over as Pakistan's chief executive, General Musharraf announced that there would be no change in matters of foreign policy; since Pakistan's foreign policy is largely India-centric, this implies no real surprises for India. More specifically, he said, Pakistan would continue to pursue a policy of nuclear and missile restraint. Once the new military ruler is seen to settle down and international pressure on his regime begins to fade, India is certain to talk nuclear and missile issues with Pakistan.

From an Indian perspective, however, China's continued proliferation of missiles and materials to Pakistan strikes at the root of a regional stabilisation regime. Immediately after the May 1998 tests, the USA compounded problems by suggesting that China become a facilitator to bring about stability between India and Pakistan. China, however, is clearly 'running with the hare and hunting with the hound': even after the USA's unprecedented series of talks with India following the Pokharan-II nuclear tests, China insists there is no case to discuss with India regarding nuclear issues. Unless China abides by its MTCR commitment, there can be little role for the USA in helping bring about a missile stabilisation regime in South Asia.

Ballistic missile controls in South Asia provide the first opportunity to eliminate a destabilising factor rather than just contain it - and without outside help. Unlike the many CBMs suggested by scholars and non-governmental organisations that did not work, a ballistic missile stabilisation regime stands a good chance of early success. The issue directly affects the Pakistan Army - which is responsible for the nation's defence policy. Should it come about, this would be the first, definitive regional arms-control victory. As any talks would involve serving military leaders, it would help the process of 'knowing the enemy' - a greater achievement than 'track-two' diplomacy or other contacts. Such successes could even lead to fruitful talks on conventional arms reductions between India and Pakistan.

The possibility of a nuclear and missile crisis stability regime between India and Pakistan already exists. Neither side is expected to perceive an advantage in using nuclear weapons and missiles with conventional warheads first, even if war seems likely. As neither side would see a trade-off between nuclear and conventional weapons, or between conventional ballistic missiles and other conventional weaponry, a missile race can be ruled out. Both sides are likely to keep nuclear weapons and missiles under strict command and control and security to make them immune to accident, theft or unauthorised use. As long as parity in conventional arms at the operational level of war exists between India and Pakistan, neither side needs to keep its nuclear missiles in an alerted state. Both sides are also likely to restrict their nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems to the minimum level necessary for effective deterrence.


Agni flight               Technology                           Remarks 
A 1-1                     Stage 1: solid fuel                  Technology demonstrator 
22 May 1989               Stage 2: liquid fuel                 Achieved 1,000kg/1,400km 
Road-mobile               (SLV-3 + Prithvi)                    Designed for 1,000kg /2,500km 
Length 19m, diameter 1m   Strapdown inertial navigation        Cost: Rs300 million per unit 
                          system with on-board computers 
A1-2                      Same propellant as A 1-1             Failed because of design 
29 May 1992                                                    problem in stage separation 
A1-3                      Same propellant as A 1-1             Successfully tested 
19 February 1994 
A2-1                      Stage 1: solid fuel                  IRBM ready for entry into service 
11 April 1999             Stage 2: solid fuel                  Achieved 1,000kg/2,000km 
Rail-mobile               (SLV-3 + new stage)                  Designed for 1,000kg/3,000km 


Missile                Payload    Range        Status 

Ghauri I/Hatf V        600kg      1,000km      Fired once to range of 700km, 
(single-stage)                                 claimed ready for production 
Ghauri II/Hatf VI      700kg      2,000km      Fired once to 1,500km, 
(two-stage)                                    claimed ready for production 


Missile                   Payload       Type       Range        Status 

Hatf I                    500kg         BSRBM      80km         In service 
Hatf II                   500kg         SRBM       300km        In service 
Hatf III                  500kg         SRBM       600km        Unclear 
Shaheen I (Hatf IV)       1,000kg       IRBM       700km        Test fired once. Claimed ready for induction. 
Shaheen II (Ghazni)       1,000kg       IRBM       2,000km      Under 
Tarmuk                     -            SRBM       600km        Unclear 


Type                     Technology                    CEP                Status 
P-1 (battlefield         Liquid propellant,            DRDO claims 40m    Inducted into 
support missile),        strapdown inertial            at 150km.          333rd Missile Group/ 
150km/1,000kg            navigation system,            Estimates vary     40th Artillery Division. 
                         on-board digital              from 150/200m      Production not 
                         computer,                     at 150km           stabilised 
                         warhead does not 
                         separate from body, 
                         long logistics train 
P-2 (medium-range        Trade-off between                                Not yet accepted by 
ballistic missile),      range and payload                                the user, the IAF. 
250km /500-750kg 
P-3 (Dhanush),           Boosted liquid/solid                             One missile firing 
350kk/1,000kg            propellant                                       from ship needed