This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.


Balraj Nagal
Lieutenant General Balraj Nagal (retired) is the director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

During the Cold War, mutual vulnerability emerged as a central pillar of strategic stability between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both states took steps to maintain mutual vulnerability by engaging in arms control talks that produced many agreements, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The treaty ensured that mutual vulnerability and maintaining an offensive capability would still be the basis of nuclear deterrence. The treaty allowed both sides to build defenses against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.1 In 2001, the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue the development of sophisticated anti–ballistic missile systems.2 The United States reasoned that it should be able to defend itself and its allies and partners from a limited ballistic missile attack by “rogue nations as well as nonstate actors.”3 Since then, the U.S. program has progressed well, with numerous tests proving the ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability against long-range and short-range ballistic missiles. The program’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units are currently deployed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and in Hawaii.4 The United States is considering deployment of a THAAD battery to West Asia. Four such batteries are on active duty around the world, and a fifth one is set to start training in 2016.5

Since the United States left the ABM Treaty, Russia’s missile defense systems too have become more technologically advanced. Moscow is creating its own equivalent of the U.S. missile defense systems—THAAD and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense—which are likely to deploy in the very near future.6 According to Russian news agency Interfax, quoting a Russian source, “‘Russia is creating an analogue of the missile defense system THAAD, which helps intercept medium-range ballistic missiles and some warheads of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The testing of this system will begin in the very near future.’ . . . Russia is creating an analogue of a different U.S. missile defense system, CMD, which is equipped with GBI missiles. A series of tests has already been performed on this system.”7

Two of the leading nuclear powers now deploy ballistic missile defenses, the United Kingdom and France will both be protected by the U.S. shield system planned for Europe, and East Asia is protected by U.S. sea-based interceptors.8

China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007, destroying a satellite with a kinetic kill vehicle. Although China has not said much about its BMD programs, it publicly announced ground-based, midcourse BMD tests in 2010, 2013, and 2014. Chinese state media stated that such tests are defensive in nature and are not targeted at any country.9 China’s three successful interceptor tests suggest it is on a path to deployment in the near future. Technological developments by the United States, Russia, and China will continue, and are beyond India’s control. These systems are a result of each country’s security policies and are competition- and technology-driven. In light of BMD development by other countries, India’s pursuit of a functional BMD program appears to be a logical continuation of the BMD policies of major powers.

The United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in the early 2000s was likely cause for optimism in India. Some believe that India used the opportunity to place itself in a position to obtain BMD technology and raise its profile as a nuclear power. Nuclear scholars Frank O’Donnell and Yogesh Joshi write: “Moving away from the Cold War concept of nuclear deterrence, the superpower was now endorsing defense against nuclear weapons. India saw this policy reversal as an opportunity to develop its own capabilities. Having been shunted to the backwaters of international nuclear politics, as underlined by its absence from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India grabbed this opportunity with both hands, becoming the first nation to publicly endorse Bush’s new plans.”10 Scholar Rajesh Basrur agrees: “Simple pragmatism backs the Indian position. Since the United States will go ahead with missile defense regardless of what others say, why not hop aboard the bandwagon and try to extract the maximum advantage?”11

Indian Views on Ballistic Missile Defense

Proponents of Missile Defense

BMD has strong proponents in India, who argue for development of an Indian BMD capability in light of the security environment in the region, conceptual issues, nuclear doctrine, and technology drivers.

Threats in India’s neighborhood pose challenges to India and are the primary drivers for the development of new nuclear technology. Nuclear weapons and missiles have already proliferated in India’s neighborhood, and the policies being followed by India’s adversaries combined with the new facilities they are building collectively point to inevitable and fast-paced growth of the nuclear environment in South Asia. The development and growth of new nuclear technologies continues unabated and is rapidly being fielded in new weapon systems in both the conventional arsenals and the nuclear arsenals of India’s neighbors. As India sees it, any delay in developing countermeasures like BMD will result in a technology gap that may not close as easily as it opens, leaving India at a long-term disadvantage.

Many strategic experts agree that the security environment in East Asia and South Asia is complex and uncertain. India has to contend with two nuclear states simultaneously: China, with an inventory of more than 250 nuclear weapons and hundreds of missiles, and Pakistan, with more than 100 nuclear weapons and a rapidly growing arsenal controlled by the army. India believes these threats justify the creation of a BMD capability.12 The sustained growth of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and missile inventory, plus China’s modernization of its nuclear forces and both nuclear and conventional missiles, presents an unprecedented complication for India’s security.13 Further, China is developing new technologies to implement its Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Western Pacific. These technologies also impact targets on the mainland and in Indian waters, so robust BMD is necessary for India to defeat China’s A2/AD capability.14 From Pakistan, the primary threat is that its proxy war through terror could spiral out of control, escalating into a conventional conflict. If India has BMD in place, the prospect of limited war is more feasible, according to former Indian defense minister George Fernandes.15

The specter of an unauthorized or accidental launch of a nuclear weapon cannot be ruled out completely, especially when forces are deployed during a crisis situation. Pakistan in particular poses a threat of accidental launch because it has short-range missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, for which launch authority can be predelegated to field commanders. Without more specific knowledge about the types of positive and negative controls installed on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, it is only prudent for India to develop defensive measures. More worrisome still is the possibility of a suicidal launch based on strategic miscalculations.16 Ballistic missile defense capability will allow space and time for India to evaluate Pakistan’s intent in the event of an unauthorized or accidental launch and, in the event of a suicide strike, may also provide an opportunity to resolve and reconcile, rather than escalate.

India should also not count out the possibility of a bolt-from-the-blue strike. If disorder, strife, or civil war were to engulf Pakistan, launching a strike against India would divert focus from domestic problems. This threat can be redressed with even limited BMD to assuage concerns about survival and retaliation. Rajesh Basrur writes, “More importantly, a limited BMD can also deter a state with revisionist intentions that would want to carry out a bolt-from-the-blue strike. In other words, if generating dissuasion in the mind of the aggressor is central to nuclear deterrence, a limited BMD shield could potentially achieve that in the South Asian context.”17

India must also account for other contingencies, like irrational actions by Pakistan and the growing importance of nonstate and transnational actors in South Asia. There are often debates about the probability of situations such as Pakistan losing its weapons or losing control of the weapons to jihadi or radical elements in the army. Missile technology loss, in particular, is a possibility, given the past efforts of nonstate actors to acquire missile technology from radicalized elements within Pakistan. The A. Q. Khan proliferation network demonstrated the ease of proliferation and remains a great concern. One of the greatest threats to the entire world, and especially to India, is Pakistan losing nuclear weapons that are then used against India by nonstate actors or radical elements in Pakistan. That sensitive nuclear installations have been attacked by such elements in the past is only too well-known.18 A. Q. Khan’s proliferation of nuclear technology demonstrated the dangers that confront nations in the region. These capabilities falling into the hands of inimical elements would haunt the world.19

Ballistic missile defense increases public and government confidence, while simultaneously making an adversary aware that a nuclear first strike may not yield the intended results. This awareness enhances the deterrence capability of a no-first-use state like India. While offensive deterrence is essential for strategic stability, a defensive deterrent like BMD multiplies the deterrent effect and protects against irrational or unreasonable states. BMD protection increases stability and gives India the choice of keeping weapons at lower states of readiness—perhaps even demated—sanguine in the belief that India’s leadership and nuclear forces will survive to launch a retaliatory second strike. Keeping weapons demated, at a lower state of readiness, is a significant confidence-building measure and contributor to deterrence stability.

Having a BMD system in place would also help India negate nuclear coercion or blackmail while still maintaining a no-first-use policy.20 According to O’Donnell and Joshi’s survey of Indian BMD, “India also realized that a limited BMD, especially to secure its political leadership and nuclear command and control against a first strike, would augment the credibility of its second-strike nuclear posture.”21 A. Vinod Kumar agrees, writing that “a nuclear weapon state, backed by a BMD shield, is perceived to have a natural advantage through its ability to offset first-strike from the enemy through its defenses, while also ensuring survivability of its assured destruction and, or, massive retaliation capability through a second strike.”22

The concept of mutually assured destruction does not apply perfectly to states like India and Pakistan because they have much smaller nuclear arsenals than the United States and Soviet Union maintained at the height of the Cold War. Further, a Cold War understanding of mutual vulnerability may not be acceptable to states with a no-first-use policy because they have already displayed extreme restraint, and may see no reason not to undertake defensive actions and eliminate their vulnerability to first strikes. The first-strike capability of nuclear-weapon states with smaller arsenals can be negated by BMD, and because the arsenals of no-first-use states are relatively small, protecting a second-strike capability is an absolute necessity. Kumar writes that “missile defenses were initially seen as an ideal way out of the Mutually Assured Destruction trap. While threats of assured destruction and massive retaliation have primarily guided deterrence equations between nuclear powers, the propriety of leaving space for mutual vulnerability is now finding few takers.”23

The mismatch between Pakistan’s first-use willingness and India’s no-first-use policy creates a dilemma for India, which it addresses by relying on technology, including BMD, that enhances survivability. Absorbing nuclear strikes without protection is not a prudent strategy, so a defensive system is a necessity. During a conflict, India must be able to defeat Pakistan’s initial nuclear strikes by using BMD. India needs to protect both its retaliatory capability and the command and control elements necessary to launch a second strike.

Any form of BMD has value compared to no protection, despite debate among experts about the degree of protection afforded by different forms of BMD. Any successfully tested BMD system, though, will guarantee survivability and defense to some extent. U.S. scholar Christopher Clary argues that “Indian policymakers must be willing to make the calculation that whatever safety comes from missile defenses of dubious effectiveness outweighs the risk that come from a Pakistani nuclear arsenal that is larger than it would be without Indian missile defenses.”24

Alternatively, some argue that Pakistan and China will increase their arsenals to suit their deterrence requirements regardless of whether or not India installs a BMD system. The fissile material and delivery means available to China could, theoretically, be put toward building over 1,000 weapons. Pakistan’s fissile material enrichment capabilities at the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and Khushab plutonium reactors were planned well before India decided to develop BMD. The capability of these facilities indicates Pakistan’s designs for a large arsenal, which India must prepare to address appropriately. India’s BMD plans should not be considered in isolation, especially given the nuclear developments of China and Pakistan. India’s trajectory is a response to the plans of its adversaries.

Opponents of Missile Defense

Those who oppose BMD argue that it is destabilizing and that it could cause a nuclear arms race in South Asia. They argue that BMD can change the nuclear order and alter strategic stability, and can encourage states with BMD to engage in offensive actions, or first strike, on the premise that they are invulnerable to retaliation. BMD increases risk and fuels massive defense spending, and it might not even protect against a nuclear attack.

The principal practical objection is that BMD upsets the concept of mutual vulnerability by making the efficacy of a first strike uncertain. As a consequence, adversaries will likely develop technology to thwart BMD systems and restore mutual vulnerability. These technologies could take the form of larger arsenals, penetration devices, or countermeasures against BMD systems. In short, BMD disturbs the strategic balance by inciting an arms race for more warheads and newer technology to overcome the effects of BMD. This seems to be the track that Pakistan has adopted. For an unstable and fragile state like Pakistan, India’s BMD could indeed be destabilizing, as it would substantially reduce the value of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile arsenal. In response, Pakistan may be tempted to increase the size of its arsenal, argues Indian journalist Manoj Joshi.25

Conceptual opposition to BMD principally revolves around the idea that the existence of any missile shield encourages the shielded state to take offensive actions on the false assumption that it is completely invulnerable to retaliation. Rajesh Basrur writes: “One critic observes that missile defense is not a truly defensive system, but is in fact a ‘means for bolstering offense’ with no design for disarmament, and Indian support for it shows that ‘[w]e have now deflected sharply from the elimination goalpost and are now adrift in the uncertain and dangerous course of a new weapon system.’” The offensive capabilities said to be inherent in missile defense are a source of discomfort for several critics. The same critics are troubled by the possibility that the United States, made less vulnerable by BMD, may become a more aggressive power.26

From Pakistan’s point of view, researcher Hassan Sohail writes that BMD would cause an arms race between India and Pakistan: “With an Indian BMD system, Pakistan would be forced to respond in some way in order to ensure the integrity of its nuclear deterrent. . . . A less costly and more effective option for Pakistan could be a qualitative and quantitative improvement in its nuclear and missile forces and its strategy. This would entail an increase in the number of missiles, both Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) and single warheads.”27 Zafar Nawaz Jaspal agrees, writing, “The introduction of BMD would intensify the arms race between India and Pakistan. The central argument of this paper is that BMD compliments India’s Cold Start/Proactive operations, which is a serious concern for Pakistani strategists.”28

BMD opponents are also concerned about the absence of official statements or policy directives regarding BMD, stating, “Non-proliferation experts are appalled at the lack of any visible political guidance to the BMD.” 29 New Delhi’s deterrence dilemmas are likely to persist, though India could, to a great extent, address these dilemmas by articulating the strategic objectives of its BMD program. At the moment, BMD is not formally part of the country’s articulated nuclear strategy.30

Some point out that even successful BMD could never guarantee a 100 percent interception rate. Therefore, they argue, BMD is not worth the sizable costs or the potentially deleterious effects on deterrence stability in the region.

Cost, in fact, is by itself a common argument against BMD. Indian Air Marshal Narayan Menon described the costs as follows:

The BMD system is a complex entity and many other components are required to make it operational. The financial and strategic costs also have to be calculated to determine if alternatives to BMDs are available to the country. A comparison with the U.S. BMD system would also be useful. The U.S. has the most elaborate BMD system being put in place and there is a plan to extend it further into Europe. The U.S. continental system is estimated to have cost about $100 billion from 2002 till date. The Indian system will cost less but the amount involved will be between Rs 50,000 crores to Rs 250,000 crores. However, even this staggering level of expenditure will not guarantee complete protection. No BMD can assure 100 percent interception and destruction of incoming missiles.31

Some also object to the fact that BMD has not proven its capability. India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has been quite stingy when it comes to releasing test parameters for BMD interceptors for analysis by independent experts. The general belief is that DRDO’s tests under controlled and simulated conditions do not actually prove the system’s capability. When the DRDO’s director general announced that the BMD system was ready for deployment following seven tests, criticism that the system was not fully tested swiftly followed. Specifics about the tests justify this criticism. “First the tests were under controlled conditions and that the users did not participate or validate the tests,” according to Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak.32 The DRDO has a history of overstating its successes, driven by the desire to showcase single points of light that stand out compared to consistent delays or failures in most projects.

Even if the DRDO could deliver on the capabilities it promised, India’s BMD technology might still not be advanced enough to keep up with Pakistan and China’s development of new offensive capabilities. The balance of nuclear technology strongly favors the offensive, which has cheaper, far superior technology that can quickly be deployed to defeat India’s nascent BMD. Compared to India’s defensive system, penetration aids like deception and saturation decoys are relatively easier to make and mount on both single- and multiple-warhead missiles.33 One Chinese analyst, for example, assessed India’s 2012 interceptor test as capable of defeating vintage Chinese missiles from the 1990s.34

As debate among experts endures India continues its quest for BMD. India began developing technologies for BMD shortly after declaring itself a nuclear-weapon state in 1998.35 Progress accelerated in the 2000s, when key technology for tracking, fire control, and interceptor guidance became available from Israel, France, and Russia.36 The program commenced during the administration of former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and continued thereafter during the decade-long United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, indicating that support for BMD existed across the entire Indian political spectrum. As with India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the effort for a BMD system has continued despite changes of political leadership and ideology in New Delhi.37 None of the governments in India that have been in power since 1995 have given any reason why they seek missile defense, and, at times, the issue caused dissent within coalition governments, notably the UPA government, which included communist parties strongly opposed to the idea of buying a U.S.-built system based on the Patriot PAC-3.38

India’s Missile Defense Needs

The argument that India’s BMD lacks political guidance is not supported by facts. In India, political clearance is required for spending on projects like BMD development, but publicizing those projects is not mandatory. Until BMD moves from development to deployment, political announcements about BMD should not be expected. It would not be advisable for India to publicize all of its strategic thinking.

BMD should move from technology demonstrators to a physical system soon, but reports conflict on exactly how soon. Press reports suggest it may be in place by 2016, but the failure of the test on April 6, 2015, has likely invalidated that target date.39 Vinod Anand writes: “The technology revolution of the past few decades has enabled India to reach a state where it can deploy short-range missile defense. In addition to the indigenous efforts, India has launched an extensive technology cooperation program with Israel to develop air defense systems.”40

Given the ongoing missile proliferation in Pakistan and China, the challenge for India’s BMD is to intercept only nuclear-tipped missiles. The adversary will use saturation strikes, mixing of conventional and nuclear missiles and extensive use of decoys to confuse the interceptors, and will attack space, cyber, and ground systems to defeat India’s BMD. The problem of differentiating between nuclear and conventional missiles adds a new and challenging technical dimension to India’s BMD development.

A review of ideas promoted by experts in the science and strategic community provides useful insight to help understand India’s BMD. “Indeed, an effective missile defense network, covering all major military, infrastructure and civilian targets could render the specter of Indian cities being incinerated by a lunatic regime in Pakistan somewhat less likely and would offer a considerable buffer for India when considering the nuclear asymmetry vis-à-vis China,” argues Sanjay Badri Prasad.41 Further, O’Donnell and Joshi recommend a lesser scope:

Development of a pan-national missile interception capability is beyond India’s economic means. Still, it is important to acknowledge that a midcourse interception capability, which is India’s primary intention, can also be employed at a broader level. With increasing competencies in the booster strength of its ballistic interceptors and of ground radars, it is hard not to foresee mission creep in India’s ballistic missile interception program. Logically, only a limited missile defense complements India’s nuclear doctrine, which relies on “assured retaliation” for the purposes of nuclear deterrence.42

Debalina Ghoshal proposes an even smaller system: “[Defend] counterforce targets so that India is able to conduct successful retaliatory launch and also a second strike should the need arise. Moreover, defending countervalue targets reduces the efficacy of the mutually assured destruction strategy on which nuclear deterrence is based.”43 Arguing for a limited cover, Happymon Jacob writes:

A limited BMD system increases deterrence by denial. The deterrent effect of BMD is not only applicable between rational state actors but also when nonstate (rational or irrational) actors target state actors. For instance, if Pakistan-based nonstate actors or rogue elements from the Pakistani armed forces target India with nuclear weapons, New Delhi, considering that such an attack is most likely to be very limited, will be able to properly comprehend and analyze the situation before contemplating an appropriate response. This is only possible if the political decision-making mechanisms and nuclear command and control in New Delhi survive such an attack.44

Continuing, Jacob writes that “the argument then would be that since the country is only going in for a limited BMD (as opposed to going in for a National Missile Defense system which would have given it invulnerability), if it ever becomes a success, it does not want to secure itself completely and then engage in a first strike. In other words, a limited BMD can reinforce India’s NFU [no-first-use] posture as well as make it more credible. Those in India who critique the Indian NFU posture as an inadequate response to Pakistan can be assuaged by the argument that a limited BMD will provide the country with the necessary wherewithal to retaliate in all certainty thereby increasing its deterrence credibility.”45

India’s Menu of Options

Notwithstanding the uncertainty about whether or when the BMD system will pass testing, it is still possible to compare the future deployment options. India can deploy BMD in one of five different configurations. The first option is to deploy a land-based system across the entire country, as well as sea-based deployment for defense against all types of threats. Second, India could deploy BMD to protect critical population centers, command and control centers, nuclear forces, and vital economic zones. The third option is selective coverage of command and control centers, nuclear forces, and important metropolitan cities. The fourth option protects command and control centers, nuclear forces, and New Delhi. Finally, India could deploy BMD only around command and control centers and New Delhi.

The first option is impractical for many reasons, including the diversity and range of missiles fielded by China and Pakistan, and the enormous cost of designing and operationalizing a country-wide BMD. Further, BMD systems deployed near the border regions with China and Pakistan will be vulnerable to ground and air attacks, in addition to missile strikes. Most importantly, though, BMD does not defend against cruise missiles. China and Pakistan, both with large inventories of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, could negate any BMD installations close to the borders. The second deployment option is, like the first, too costly for India to pursue. In reality, India’s choice is between options three, four, and five. India will choose among those options on the basis of both political and strategic imperatives. From a strategic stability perspective, option four makes the most sense for a number of reasons. It will not be destabilizing, it will provide protection to political leadership, and it will ensure continuity of government and military operations. Without requiring unreasonably large expenditure, it leaves adequate vulnerability to maintain strategic stability with other nuclear-weapon states while protecting vital retaliatory nuclear forces against both an unauthorized or accidental launch and from bolt-from-the-blue strikes by radical army elements or jihadists.

India’s BMD system, once deployed, will include sensors, space-based surveillance, monitoring and detection systems, ground- and space-based tracking systems, intelligence assessment centers, command and control centers, and interceptor units. The particular deployment option India chooses will determine the size and scope of the system. Technological gains from BMD have secondary applications in conventional and subconventional conflict that add to the value of developing BMD.

Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability

Experts raise the important question of how BMD will affect strategic stability. Strategic stability can be assessed along three axes: first, the idea of peaceful and harmonious relations in the region; second, the probability of armed conflict between any two nuclear weapon states; and third, the ability of a nuclear-weapon state to deter a preemptive first strike.46

The remainder of this publication proceeds under the assumption that India should choose, according to this author, the fourth of those five possible BMD deployment strategies: deploying BMD to protect command and control centers, nuclear forces, and New Delhi. Regarding strategic stability, BMD mainly affects the third axis: the ability of a nuclear-weapon state to deter a nuclear first strike. The Cold War understanding of strategic stability was based on mutual vulnerability. Strategic stability entails no advantage or incentive for launching a first strike and both states having a second-strike capability. It is reinforced by BMD in a state that has a no-first-use policy. One conclusion is that BMD reduces the incentive for a nuclear first strike, because BMD will protect political leadership and guarantee a second-strike capability. This enhances strategic stability. When confronted with the fear of greater damage, an aggressor state will avoid the temptation of a nuclear first strike. The positive effect of BMD on strategic stability will accrue if India retains a commitment to no first use, as this posture reduces the incentives for both preventative strikes and preemptive ones. “Therefore,” writes Jacob, “those demanding the withdrawal of NFU should consider the potential of a limited BMD system in strengthening India’s deterrence.”47

A selective BMD, like the options proposed above for India, is designed to protect the political leadership and structures associated with situational awareness, analysis, transmission, responses, and retaliation. It improves second-strike capability and also raises the nuclear-use threshold. As long as strategic vulnerability is maintained, the BMD should not be considered destabilizing to the strategic balance.

India and China, both of which have no-first-use guarantees and nascent BMD systems, can theoretically ensure strategic stability in their relationship, but a dialogue is still necessary for understanding and confidence building. In such a dialogue, efforts must be made to explain the rationale of BMD as a concept.48 Lora Saalman writes that, in the China-India context, “respect for capabilities enhances the chances of engaging each other in negotiations.”49 In light of both nations developing BMD, engaging in negotiations is possible if the parameters, limitations, and interception intended by each BMD system are transparent. Open and transparent budgeting—providing funding details, scope, and time of deployment—is another way to improve strategic stability.

With Pakistan, the situation of strategic stability is complicated because India’s BMD program will always be interpreted as an offensive measure designed to thwart Pakistan’s deterrent arsenal. India’s ability to maintain strategic stability and prevent a decapitating strike, while Pakistan is building the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal directly across the border, is enabled by BMD. Even if Pakistan rejects India’s arguments, the defensive aspect of BMD will ensure that the nuclear equation between India and Pakistan does not become unbalanced.

Escalation of conventional war to a nuclear war is a major and deliberate advancement. In India’s case in particular, doctrinal requirements complicate the nuclear escalation ladder. BMD has a definitive role in raising India’s nuclear-use threshold. 

In the event of war or nuclear escalation, the survival of leadership, the continuity of government, and communication—with both the military and the international community—are vital for controlling further escalation. BMD protects these features in the event of a nuclear strike. Stephen Cimbala writes that “leaders would have to survive the early attacks, communicate with their nuclear forces, and impose targeting restraints or even nuclear ceasefires.”50 Destruction of political and military leadership could result in disorder and confusion that could make it impossible to control escalation and limit further damage. To terminate war and prevent further damage, the international community will require communication with the aggressor as well the attacked country. BMD is only a tool to ensure continued communication and provide space for crisis management that will ultimately facilitate modification of the objectives of war.

War-termination theory has focused mainly on conventional war or operations other than war. Nuclear war is, in comparison, a more complex subject. Noted military historian Roger Spiller wrote that “the way in which a war ends, therefore, depends on the strategic and operational context that the war itself has created during its course.” The aim of nuclear war in the Cold War was to win an unwinnable war. In the regional context of South Asia, the situation will not be different. One can speculate that a nuclear exchange may end in one of four ways: nuclear arsenals are exhausted, a ceasefire is instituted after a change of regime, public outrage demands it, or international powers intervene.

Discussion on war termination is not in the scope of this publication. However, if, in spite of escalation control efforts, a conventional war were to escalate to the level of nuclear strikes, then the aims of nuclear war must relate to de-escalation of the conventional conflict. In situations in which nuclear exchanges could occur, BMD is valuable because it protects and secures the leadership in order to provide space for crisis de-escalation and war termination.

While there are disagreements about the ultimate effectiveness and price tag of BMD, building a BMD system clearly provides valuable side benefits, like better intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, detection, tracking and situational awareness. Technology developed for BMD systems can pay dividends in other sectors, including space technology.


There are three primary determinants for the final format of India’s BMD: the deterrence imperative to maintain mutual vulnerability and stability in the face of growing arsenals in the neighborhood; the imperative to protect political leadership; and the necessity of protecting the second-strike retaliatory capability.

BMD’s employability in India may be attributed to a number of factors: the strategic lessons from India’s past mistakes, collaborative nuclear threats, nuclear saber rattling, massive military buildup, and nuclear buildup in the neighborhood. Any capability that contributes to defeating these threats will likely be viewed positively in India. Indian strategic culture is well summed in the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote in the early nineteenth century that “the defensive form of war is in itself stronger than the offensive.”51 Inherent in India’s decision to develop BMD is this preference for defense over retaliatory offense. India’s ballistic missile defense is a result of its defensive strategic mindset, combined with its no-first-use doctrine and the incentives presented by its strategic environment, especially Pakistan’s nuclear development. BMD is ultimately meant to ensure a survivable command and control and a survivable second-strike capability, to guarantee enhanced deterrence in the face of two adversarial nuclear-weapon states in the region.

A BMD system in India, a relatively new nuclear-weapon state with finite economic resources, will be small—definitely not large enough to make the arsenals of India’s adversaries ineffective or useless. The policy of no first use makes India’s leadership vulnerable, so the importance of BMD for making sure the government and the survivable second-strike retaliatory capability are intact after nuclear strikes cannot be overstated. Limited BMD remains vital for India’s effort to maintain strategic stability.

Lieutenant General Balraj Nagal (retired) is the director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.


1 Gary Axton,“Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal from the Nuclear Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,” in A Collection of Papers from the 2009 PONI Conference Series, ed. Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009),

2 Wade Boese, “U.S. Withdraws from ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted,” Arms Control Today, July 1, 2002,

3 Bertel Heurlin, “Missile Defense in the United States,” DIIS Working Paper 2004/27, Danish Institute for International Studies, 2004,

4 “US Army to Field Fifth THAAD Battery by 2015,” Defense Updates, August 17, 2012,

5 Ahuva Balofsky, “US Mulls Missile Defense System Deployment Across Middle East,” Breaking Israel News, March 11, 2015,

6 Sean O'Connor, Russian/Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (Australia: Air Power Australia, September 2009),

7 Interfax, “Russia Creates New Missile Defense Systems,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, December 8, 2014,

8 Sukjoon Yoon, “Are China’s THAAD Fears Justified?,” Diplomat, February 20, 2015,

9 Frank A. Rose, “Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability in East Asia” (speech, Washington DC, February 20, 2015),; Zachary Keck, “China Conducts Third Anti-Missile Test,” Diplomat, July 24, 2014,; Shirley Kan, China’s Anti-Satellite Weapon Test (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, April 23, 2007),

10 Frank O’Donnell and Yogesh Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense: Is the Game Worth the Candle?” Diplomat, August 2, 2013,

11 Rajesh M. Basrur, Missile Defense and South Asia: An Indian Perspective (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2002), 7.

12 Sanjay Badri Maharaj, “Ballistic Missile Defence for India,” Bharat Rakshak, July 2, 2009,; Animesh Roul, “India: Missile Defense Dreams,” International Relations and Security Network, March 27, 2008,; Eric Auner, “Indian Missile Defense Program Advances,” Arms Control Today, January 15, 2013,; Ashok Sharma, India’s Missile Defence Programme: Threat Perceptions and Technological Evolution, Manekshaw Paper no. 15 (New Delhi: Center for Land Warfare Studies, 2009), 2–3.

13 Avinash Patel, “The Challenges and Opportunities in Developing an Indian Ballistic Missile Defence System,” RUSI Defence Systems 15, no. 3 (September 19, 2013); Debalina Ghoshal, “India Conducts Successful Missile Interceptor Test,” Diplomat, May 8, 2014,

14 Kamlesh K. Agnihotri, “China’s ‘Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile’ Based Anti-Access Concept: Implications of a Southward Re-orientation,” Journal of Defence Studies 7, no. 1 (2013): 9–30.

15 C. Raja Mohan, “Fernandes Unveils 'Limited War' Doctrine,” Hindu, January 24, 2000,; O’Donnell and Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense.”

16 Basrur, Missile Defense and South Asia.

17 Ibid.

18 Auner, “Indian Missile Defense Program Advances”; O’Donnell and Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense”; Vivek Kapur, “Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Implications for India,” IDSA Comment, December 19, 2012,; Happymon Jacob, “Deterrence Debates and Defence,” Hindu, April 21, 2014,

19 “A. Q. Khan,”, last modified July 24, 2011,; International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks - A Net Assessment (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007); “A Hero at Home, a Villain Abroad,” Economist, June 19, 2008,; Michael Laufer, “A. Q. Khan Nuclear Chronology,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 7, 2005,

20 Sharma, India’s Missile Defence Programme.

21 O’Donnell and Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense.”

22 A. Vinod Kumar, “The Dragon’s Shield: Intricacies of China’s BMD Capability,” Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, February 25, 2010, 10.

23 Ibid.

24 Manoj Joshi, “Government Baffled Over DRDO Chief's Claim on Missile Shield,” Mail Today, July 18, 2012,

25 Ibid.

26 Basrur, Missile Defense in South Asia.

27 Hassan Sohail, “India’s Hostile BMD Program and Pakistan’s Security Option,” Eurasia Review,September 13, 2014.

28 Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “The Introduction of Ballistic Missile Defense in South Asia: Implications on Strategic Stability,” inNuclear Learning in South Asia: The Next Decade, eds. Feroz Hasan Khan, Ryan Jacobs, and Emily Burke (Monterrey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School Center on Contemporary Conflict, June 2014).

29 Joshi, “Government Baffled Over DRDO Chief’s Claim on Missile Shield.”

30 Jacob, “Deterrence Debates and Defence.”

31 Narayan Menon, “Ballistic Missile Defence System for India,” Indian Defence Review 27, no. 3 (July–September 2012).

32 Joshi, “Government Baffled over DRDO Chief’s Claim on Missile Shield.”

33 Boese, “U.S. Withdraws from ABM Treaty,” 59.

34 “India Interceptor Missile Test for Strategic Deterrence: China,” Press Trust of India, April 29, 2014.

35 “DRDO Ballistic Missile Defence System, India,”, no date,

36 Joshi, “Government Baffled over DRDO Chief’s Claim on Missile Shield”; P. A. Subramanian, “India’s Ballistic Missile Defence,” Air Power Journal 8, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 50; Vinod Anand, The Role of Ballistic Missile Defence in the Emerging India-China Strategic Balance, (New Delhi: Vivekananda International Foundation, 2013).

37 Rajesh Rajagopalan, “India’s Nuclear Policy,” in Major Powers' Nuclear Policies and International Order in the 21st Century, ed. Eiichi Katahara (Tokyo, Japan: National Institute for Defense Studies, 2009),

38 Ibid.

39 Y. Mallikarjun, “Interceptor Missile Test Off Odisha Coast Fails,” Hindu, April 6, 2015,; O’Donnell and Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense.”

40 Vinod Anand, The Role of Ballistic Missile Defence in the Emerging India-China Strategic Balance.

41 Aditya Tejas, “Indian Government Plans Nuclear Missile Defense Shield for Delhi,” International Business Times, April 4, 2015,; O’Donnell and Joshi, “India’s Missile Defense.”

42 Ibid.

43 Ghoshal, “India Conducts Successful Missile Interceptor Test.”

44 Jacob, “Deterrence Debates and Defence.”

45 Ibid.

46 Balraj Nagal, “Strategic Stability – Conundrum, Challenge and Dilemma: The Case of India, China and Pakistan,” Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) Journal 8, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 1–22,

47 Jacob, “Deterrence Debates and Defence.”

48 Ghoshal, “India Conducts Successful Missile Interceptor Test.”

49 Lora Saalman, “Chinese Views on India’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program,” (Chennai, India: IIT Madras Chinese Studies Center, April 2013),

50 Stephen J. Cimbala, “On Nuclear War: Deterrence, Escalation, and Control,” Institute for National Security Studies, April 18, 2013,

51 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, book VI, chapter I,trans. James John Graham (London: N. Trübner, 1873).