November 28, 2006Security

Defence against the dark arts

India has a home-remedy against ballistic missiles

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

A Prithvi II missile, modified to simulate an incoming ballistic missile, was fired from one location of India’s east coast. Within a couple of minutes, it was brought down by another missile. Just like on Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, except that these missiles were not flying several times the speed of sound. The expression on some faces was not unlike the one on Arvind Trivedi’s face when his best arrow was neatly knocked down by Arun Govil’s.

The thing is—the interceptor that brought down the dressed-up Prithvi-II yesterday is a big deal. Not just because the test itself was successful, but because India has demonstrated that it has a few cards of its own in the anti-ballistic missile game. The interceptor was not part of the DRDOs Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) that developed Agni and the Prithvi series. Neither it is a joint venture effort of the kind that produced BrahMos. DRDO has stated that the interceptor is indigenous. The inverted commas who sneer at such claims should ask themselves what it means for a country to share anti-ballistic missile technology with another, when the latter has nuclear weapons, missile systems and a good technological base. In the global deterrence game, it is in the nature of a self-created handicap. Such sharing is sticky between the closest of allies. No country that has anti-ballistic missile technology is likely to share it with India. It is useful to recall that the United States had offered Patriot missiles to India. Not Patriot missile technology. There’s a big difference.

Again, one successful test does not give India an operational air-defence or an anti-ballistic missile shield overnight. There’s certainly some way to go before that happens. Moreover the best of today’s anti-ballistic missile systems are expected to work satisfactorily under limited deployment environments. But the use of missiles and rockets has become sufficiently common in contemporary security environments that not investing in anti-missile defence technology borders on criminal negligence. It appears that the Indian government began to take anti-missile defence seriously since the late-1990s. The DRDO programme that led to the launch of the mysterious interceptor—called the AXO (sic) Atmospheric Intercept System—began over six years ago. It should also explain why the Vajpayee government enthusiastically supported the Bush administration’s missile defence initiative.

DRDOs breakthrough comes at a time when it is under concerted attack in the media over allegations of poor performance. It is tempting for some journalists to suggest that it conducted this test to shake off its criticism. To them it should be said that if DRDO can pull off such a challenging technical feat at such short notice merely in response to media criticism, then surely, the criticism leveled against it is unwarranted. Imagine what they can do if faced with something more hostile than newspaper reports—an enemy attack, for example. It takes much longer to design, produce and test an missile interceptor than to write and publish a series of newspaper articles.

The Acorn has previously called for a reform of DRDO to separate out its numerous roles and eliminate conflicts of interest. Such reform is essential to ensure that the defence budget is well spent on the armed forces modernization project. The central government’s inability to sort out DRDOs place in the world should not come in the way of crediting the organisation where it is due. For on the anti-missile front, it deserves a round of applause.

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