The rapid development and deployment of cruise and ballistic missile capabilities in recent years has raised the security stakes on the South Asian subcontinent. The three major nuclear states—India, China and Pakistan—have been sharpening their respective missile capabilities and stockpiling a growing arsenal, while simultaneously developing/acquiring ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability to defend against potential threats. China has also developed a potent nuclear triad (i.e. strategic bombers, land-based missiles, and ballistic missile submarines) that Pakistan may be able to acquire given the close relations between Beijing and Islamabad, India will soon achieve this capability after the nuclear submarine INS Arihant is commissioned. The on-going missile race has the potential to severely undermine regional security and necessitates greater transparency among the three Asian nuclear states.
Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University (NDU) made the observation that India still lags behind China in missile technology by more than a decade and "It’s [sic] still unknown when the Agni-III will be deployed by the Indian army, though they claim the missile is ready for use. And it might take at least another five years to ready the Agni-V." He has also set aside the notion of an Indian missile threat and stated, "In developing its military technology, China has never taken India as a strategic rival, and none of its weapons were specifically designed to contain India" (Global Times [China], February 12).
RA Zhang’s statements were in response to India’s Chief Military Scientist V.K. Saraswat’s comments that, "After Agni III and Agni V, as far as cities in China and Pakistan are concerned, there will be no target that we [India] want to hit but can’t [sic] hit" (Zeenews.com, February 10). Further adding fuel to the fire, Sarasvat, the chief of DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization)—one of Asia’s largest government owned defense contractors and a leading missile developer—also noted that, "We [India] feel our accuracy is better than China’s DF-21" (TibetanReview.net, February 13). The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, has played down the verbal duel between the two experts and observed, "The China-India relation is friendly and cooperative. China will not be a threat to India, and nor will India pose a threat to China" (Expressbuzz.com, February 14).
On February 7, India conducted its third consecutive successful launch of Agni III, a land-mobile ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting targets at a distance of 3,000 to 3,500 km (Deccan Herald, February 11). India announced plans to test Agni V (5,000 km range) by March 2011 thus joining the elite club of militaries possessing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability (Indian Express, February 11; The Pioneer, April 16). The Agni Program Director Avinash Chander reportedly stated that Indian missiles are quite accurate and can strike within ‘a few hundred meters’ of the target (Indian Express, February 11).
It is a well-known fact that both Agni III and Agni V were designed with China in mind and can reach targets as far as Beijing and Shanghai (The Times of India, Jun 20, 2009). The earlier variants Agni I (700 km range) and Agni II (over 2,000 km range) are in different stages of induction in the Indian defense forces and can easily strike targets anywhere in Pakistan.
Chinese Missile Deployments in Tibet
The growing militarization of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) also have deepened Indian concerns over Chinese military capability after the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps began positioning a variety of sophisticated missiles in the Himalayas. In 2001, there were reportedly about eight ICBM, 70-medium range and 20 intermediate-range missile sites in Tibet (News.Indiamart.com, March 19, 2001). Over the years, liquid fuel missiles such as the DF-4 that required longer preparation time for launch have been replaced by more sophisticated solid fuel medium-range ballistic missile DF-21 (single warhead of 200-300 kilo-tons yield), which can hit targets at a distance of 2,150 kilometers (Dnaindia.com, May 16, 2008). These are located at the Delingha site in TAR, which is about 2,000 km from New Delhi  and are under the command of 812 Brigade of the SAC . Similarly, there are other missile sites in Tsaidam at Terlingkha, the headquarters of a missile regiment and Amdo bordering Sinchuan . There is also other DF-21 missile site located at Kunmin in the Yunan province (Indian Express, May 17, 2008). Moreover, China now has a potent long-range missile inventory of DF-31 and DF-41 inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that can strike targets at 6,000-10,000 km. Therefore, several north Indian cities including New Delhi are within the Chinese missiles range.
Missile Developments in Pakistan
Pakistan has acquired an impressive array of missile that includes the ‘Hatf’, ‘Hatf I’, ‘Abdali’, ‘Ghaznvi’ in the short-range category; ‘Shaheen I and II’ in the medium-range category and the long-range ‘Ghauri’ . It also has the land attack cruise missile ‘Babur’ and the air-launched cruise missile ‘Raad.’ Pakistan and China enjoy an ‘all-weather’ relationship that also involves the supply of military hardware including missiles. A large proportion of Pakistan’s missile inventory is of Chinese origin and Beijing is reported to have facilitated the transfer of North Korean Taepodong and Nodong ballistic missiles to Pakistan (Business Standard [Delhi], December 31, 2006). New Delhi is also concerned about the close degree of military cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad on nuclear cooperation, including the transfer of technology and joint development of military equipment.
Ballistic Missile Defense
At another level, India has been attentive to Chinese successes in anti-satellite (ASAT) system tests in 2007, and the more recent ground-based mid-range anti ballistic missile tests on January 14. Apparently, India has completed the ‘building blocks’ for an ASAT weapon system but there are no plans to make these operational (The Hindu, February 11).
India is also developing technology to intercept incoming ballistic missiles that may be launched by either China or Pakistan. In 2007, soon after the Chinese ASAT tests, the then-chief of the DRDO M. Natarajan had disclosed that the indigenous program of ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield had made a technological breakthrough and a ballistic missile was intercepted at a height of 50 km (The Tribune [Chandigarh], February 20, 2007).
In November 2006 and December 2007, India conducted successful "exo-atmospheric," "endo-atmospheric" tests and incoming missiles were intercepted at 40-50 Km and 15 Km altitudes respectively (Asiatimes.com, January 15, 2009). Further, the DRDO has claimed that by 2011-12 it would have developed the BMD capability to neutralize incoming missiles with ranges in the order of 2,000 Km and in the near future it will be possible to field systems that can thwart threats from missiles with ranges of up to 5,000 km (Asiatimes.com, January 15, 2009).
More recently, while comparing the Chinese and Indian BMD programs, V.K. Saraswat observed that India’s BMD program started in 1999 (The Hindu, February 11) and "This is one area where we are senior to China" (Indian Express, February 11). Reacting to Saraswat’s rather provocative assertion, Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong retorted "India’s technology for its measurement and control system, which is used to trace launched missiles, remains at a very low level, and they are unable to constitute a complete and reliable missile defense system" (Global Times, February 14).
India is investing a substantial amount of technological resources to develop a robust missile shield. The Indian Air Force and the Indian Army are planning to deploy the Akash (25 km range supersonic missiles; 88 percent kill probability) air defense systems with the associated network of radars along the India China border and the first system is scheduled to be made operational by 2011 (Arunachalnews.com, February 17; Tibetanreview.net, February17).
India is also planning to establish centers for nuclear and missile intelligence that will function under the direct control of the National Security Council (Times of India, July18, 2009). Besides monitoring regional nuclear and missile developments, the centers will also collate information from other national intelligence agencies.
There are significant ballistic missile related developments in the maritime domain also. The Indian Navy is exploring the possibility of equipping its warships with the advanced shipboard Aegis Combat System (ACS) to intercept incoming missiles. (Sspconline.org, May 14, 2009). A few Indian ships of the Sukanya-class are capable of launching Dhanush (250 – 350 km range), the nasalized Prithvi II missile, capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads (Thaindian.com, December 13, 2009).
In response to the growing Indian missile inventory, Pakistan is actively exploring the possibility of acquiring high-altitude anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems from China. According to a Pakistani defense analyst, the Chinese HQ-9/FD2000 developed by the China Academy of Defense Technology is the favorite "since no other supplier will sell these types of missiles to Pakistan" (Asian Defence, April 3, 2009). HQ-9/FD2000 is a sophisticated and potent anti-missile system capable of hitting aircraft, air-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Apparently, HQ-9 draws technology from the S-300s acquired by China from Russian and the U.S. Patriot system obtained from Israel (Asian Defence, April 3, 2009).
India’s ‘Two Front War’
In December 2009, General Deepak Kapoor, the Indian army chief observed that India should prepare for `two-front war,’ purportedly referring to Pakistan and China. Pakistan’s Foreign Office termed his remarks ‘jingoistic,’ ‘irresponsible’ and of ‘hostile intent’ (The Times of India, Dec 31, 2009). Yet, experts have argued that there is nothing alarming in the General’s statement. India had in the past engaged in a ‘two-front war’ during the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars when China had conducted military maneuvers/redeployments along the India-China border, thus preventing relocation of Indian troops to the western borders and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Nevertheless, the Indian Army Chief’s observations merit attention. Pakistan has engaged in covert warfare involving use of terrorist groups to foster militancy in Kashmir (Bbc.co.uk, March 3). It also mobilized Mujahideen along with regular military and waged war against India as seen during the 1999 Kargil Operations. In 2001-02, the Pakistan based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad was responsible for an attack on the Indian Parliament (The Tribune, December 16, 2001). India’s border with Pakistan continues to be active with frequent attempts by the Pakistan Army to facilitate infiltration by terrorist elements under cover of fire.
The India-China border has seen increased border intrusions by the PLA and China is investing significant resources to develop military related logistic infrastructure such as all weather roads and rail links. As noted earlier, New Delhi has watched with great concern the Chinese missile arsenal in TAR. Further, the close nexus between China and Pakistan in nuclear and missile related technology has prompted the Indian defense minister to state: "The nexus between China and Pakistan in the military sphere remains an area of great concern. We have to carry out continuous appraisal of Chinese military capabilities and shape our responses accordingly. At the same time, we need to be vigilant at all times" (Indian Express, November 27, 2009).
What is perhaps most worrisome in the region is the fact that missile superiority for one protagonist is perceived as disadvantageous to the other, which could result in a zero-sum missile race. There are no regional political or diplomatic initiatives in place to slow down the regional missile race. Besides, there is scant public knowledge or debate in the regional media about how to manage the dense missile environment in the subcontinent. At the same time, there are fears that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Jihadi elements undermining regional security, which has been vehemently denied by Islamabad. There is reason to believe that the regional missile race can be addressed through diplomacy and confidence-building measures (CBM) aimed at transparency. China, India and Pakistan would have to collectively address the regional missile developments sooner rather than later and institute mechanisms to prevent accidental missile launches and alleviate anxiety and fear.
[The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Indian Council of World Affairs.]
1. Claude Arpi, "Missiles in Tibet," Indian Defence Review, 23-3, July-September 2008, pp.38-43.
2. Shailendra Arya, "The Train to Lhasa," Journal of Defence Studies, Volume:
2 , Issue: 2.
3. "Tibet 2000: The State of Environment," available at https://www.tibetoffice.org/en/index.php?url_channel_id=&url_publish_channel_id=198&url_subchannel_id=71&well_id=2&cat_free_id=2105.
4. Author’s discussions with retired Indian Army officers on March 4, 2010 at New Delhi, India.