India’s quest for regional hegemony and the existence of great power politics has increased the fragility of South Asian strategic stability. Its continued development of missile programs in quantity and capability is likely to affect the battlefield as well as challenging the prevailing strategic equilibrium in the region. India’s fast track missile testing in recent months is an attempt to establish assured retaliation against China. It simultaneously has the potential to instigate uncertainty in Pakistan’s threat perception due to India’s growing counterforce temptations. Its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), and shifting nuclear strategy comprised of offensive notions of “escalation dominance” and “splendid first strike,” has repercussions for the balance of power and deterrence dynamics of South Asia.
India’s Missile Tests Flurry
In the past two and a half months, India accelerated the deployment and modernisation of its strategic forces. India extensively conducted missiles tests from September 7 to November 24, 2020. The tests included:
- Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV),
- Nuclear-capable Prithvi-II missile (two tests),
- Laser-Guided Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) (two tests),
- Extended-range variant of naval and air launched versions of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile tests (two tests),
- Land-based nuclear-capable Shaurya missile,
- Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART) system,
- New-Generation Anti-Radiation Missile (NGARM),
- Failed test of sub-sonic cruise missile Nirbhay,
- Stand-off Anti-Tank (SANT) missile,
- Pinaka rocket system,
- Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missile (QRSAM) tests to boost air defence capabilities,
- And the latest two consecutive tests of land-attack version of BrahMos, on November 24 and 25, 2020 to enhance precision strike capabilities of the Indian military.
India’s strategists portray the two-front war and the transformation of India’s deterrence posture against China as a key reason for its growing missile testing. However, due to the existence of tri-lateral security competition and the domino effect, it is essential to explore the impact of India’s fast track missile testing on the neighbouring states. It is especially important when successful testing of HSDTV and the extended-range variant of supersonic missiles create new challenges to the regional security landscape.
Recognising the challenges to South Asia’s strategic stability, it is evident that the development and deployment of India’s missiles have the potential to impact the complex geometry of deterrence, arms control, and crisis stability in the region. India’s growing capabilities and shifting nuclear policies can have a ripple effect on the whole region, especially Pakistan. Indigenously developed Prithvi-II, supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, NGARM and nuclear-capable Shaurya missiles are intended to launch pre-emptive counterforce strikes. The missiles seem to result in deterrence and crisis instability while increasing the arms race among nuclear adversaries. Above mentioned missiles may tangle the defender state in a “use them or lose them dilemma” to maintain the heightened readiness concerning the recent reinterpretation of India’s no-first-use (NFU) policy.
New Delhi portrays that it is advancing its missile capabilities due to the recent border tension with China. Still, these capabilities will increase the risk of escalations among neighbouring nuclear rivals, as well as pose a substantial danger to the deterrence stability of the region.
Subsequently, India has joined the race of hypersonic missile with the successful testing of HSDTV on September 7 2020. The HSDTV technology will assist India to develop hypersonic missile, BrahMos-II. The hypersonic missiles capability will enhance the freedom of action of the possessor state. It will allow India to contemplate the first strike while developing the risks of accidental, deliberate or unauthorised use. The developments of such technologies provide the ability to hit the time-sensitive targets (TST) due to the manoeuvring capability to deliver payload at Mach 5. It is termed as an offensive weapon that can reduce decision-making time of the opponent and is capable of penetrating the adversary’s missile defence system and supporting capabilities. The hypersonic vehicle is likely to fulfil India’s aspirations to become a “space power”. It will augment India’s space program, especially Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) weapons. Therefore, New Delhi’s quest for the development of hypersonic capability will severely undermine regional stability.
Also, rapid advancements and testing of India’s supersonic missiles are a clear indication of its aggressive designs. Since October 18, India conducted four tests of air, naval and land-attack versions of the supersonic cruise missile BrahMos to enhance its precision-strike capabilities. The supersonic BrahMos is capable of carrying large warhead combined with an engagement range of 400km with high precision and low cruising altitude. Another significant dimension of the threat is that it will allow India to deliver substantial danger to the neighbouring state without penetrating the nuclear paradigm due to the ability to carry conventional warheads. It will force the regional states to maintain a high level of readiness and preparedness. New Delhi portrays that it is advancing its missile capabilities due to the recent border tension with China. Still, these capabilities will increase the risk of escalations among neighbouring nuclear rivals, as well as pose a substantial danger to the deterrence stability of the region. Along with the politico-military benefits, the supersonic missile of India comes with commercial advantages as well. Many Southeast Asian states showed interest in buying BrahMos.
Strategy to counter the supersonic missile threat could be the acquisition of supersonic capability and its dissemination in the land, sea, and air to deter the dangers of such weapons. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production’s (MoDP) disclosure for 2017-2018 revealed that Pakistan is developing supersonic missiles.
Factors Accelerating India’s Missile Program
India’s recent missile tests demonstrate that India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has achieved a kind of self-sufficiency to perfect the desired missile program. Though, India’s missile program is shown as entirely indigenous; yet, multiple factors enable DRDO to indigenously procure a variety of missile-related components to develop defensive as well as offensive missiles. First, the India-United States (US) civil nuclear agreement (2005) and India-specific Nuclear Supplier Group’s (NSG) waiver (2008) enables India to sign commercial arms deals and import nuclear materials. It is believed that the civil agreement and NSG wavier will accelerate India’s missile program in future. Second, India’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has played a significant role in enhancing its missile and space program by providing access to missile-related technology and hardware. Third, India’s inclusion in Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement played a significant role in mainstreaming India in the global nuclear order.
India’s growing missile ambitions are undermining the objectives of non-proliferation regimes and posing challenges to regional stability.
Consequently, Indian membership of these nuclear clubs enables transfers of strategic arms, dual-use goods and technologies to further modernise its forces and boost its hegemonic designs. Fourth, the most crucial factor is the India-US defence cooperation to counter-balance China. The US geopolitical and economic goals in the Indo-Pacific region lead Washington to support India’s modernisation and militarisation program and overlook proliferation concerns in the region.
India’s offensive posture calls for Pakistan’s counter-strategy to ensure its security and maintain force balance against India. To counter India’s aggressive designs, Pakistan has a Full Spectrum Deterrence. Along with it, Pakistan’s short-range Nasr, Medium-range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) Ababeel equipped with Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) technology, and nuclear-capable Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) Babur, is a viable policy.
In conclusion, India is using the Chinese threat as a pretext to justify its fast track missile testing spree. However, deployment and modernisation of its offensive missile systems and high level of readiness to hold strategic targets are likely to increase the chances of inadvertent missile escalation in the region. Also, India’s growing missile ambitions are undermining the objectives of non-proliferation regimes and posing challenges to regional stability.