US Triggers Arms Race In South Asia

A HIGH-LEVEL US delegation led by Lt Gen Jeffrey Kohler, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency responsible for inter-governmental arms deals, visited New Delhi last week and made a top-security presentation to Indian defence ministry and military officials on three major weapons systems: F-16 fighters, F/A-18 Hornet attack aircraft and the PAC (Patriot Advanced Capability)-3 anti-missile systems. The US has been aggressively pushing sale of the aircraft to India having earlier persuaded it to include them in its short-list for the forthcoming acquisition of multi-role warplanes. However, the main focus of this visit appears to have been on the PAC-3 and various reports circulating internationally suggest that it was India which had expressed interest in the PAC-3 system which is more advanced than the PAC-2 that the US had put on the table. The US Agency’s spokesperson maintained that the presentation did not mean that the US was about to sell the anti-missile system but was “just a briefing”. But a delegation led by a three-star general does not come visiting for a simple briefing, especially when very few countries have been similarly privileged.

So, is the US ready to sell PAC-3s to India? Are there strings attached or, put another way, what does the US really want?  More importantly perhaps, does India really want this anti-missile system? And what impact will such an acquisition have in India’s neighbourhood? Given that the presentation itself has been shrouded in confidentiality, and since India’s intentions regarding acquisitions of military hardware from the US are still mired in uncertainty, answers to these questions can at present only be speculative. Yet there is sufficient evidence to form an informed opinion.


The PAC (Patriot Advanced Capability)-3 anti-missile system is the culmination of a series of significant upgrades of the first generation Patriot system which saw action in the first Gulf War in 1991. The Patriot systems are designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles (projectiles that come down from high altitudes using gravity) in their terminal phase, that is just before they hit the ground. Contrary to popular notion, Patriots can also be used against aircraft and cruise missiles (low-flying missiles that use their own guidance systems along almost their entire flight path). Given this task description, Patriots have relatively short range of about 20km, high speeds of upto Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. While the earlier Patriots including the currently widely deployed PAC-2 used a warhead that exploded when in close proximity to the target missile and may thus only deflect rather than destroy target missiles, the PAC-3 systems physically use a hit-to-kill strategy by physically colliding with target missiles also carrying a high-charge fragmentation warhead that explodes to maximise probability of completely destroying incoming missiles that may also be carrying nuclear weapons.

The ambitious task of anti-missile systems such as the Patriot have often been described as “trying to shoot a bullet with a bullet” and it is no wonder that there is a great deal of skepticism about the very concept. Indeed, the early versions of the Patriot became the object of international ridicule when, during their first battlefield deployment in the first Gulf War in 1991, they notoriously failed to shoot down even a single one of the rather primitive Scud ballistic missiles fired by Iraq into Kuwait and Israel. In fact, the Israelis were further outraged by the fact that even the few Iraqi Scuds that were deflected off their course by Patriots landed in Israeli territory causing extensive damage to property and civilian life.

Of course, major improvements have been made in the Patriots since then Patriots are designed to intercept ballistic missiles at their terminal phase and also aircraft and cruise missiles. Upgraded versions use better guidance systems and radars, as also improved target recognition enabling the system to distinguish the target warhead from debris or similar intentional distractions. In fact, while earlier versions including PAC-2 used the original MIM-104 missiles, the latest operational version uses a completely new (not just improved) missile confusingly also named PAC-3. Being much lighter and more compact, 16 PAC-3s can now be deployed in each multiple-rocket launcher compared to 4 with earlier versions.  Presumably, it is this version that is now on offer by the US to India.

Not that even these anti-missile systems are without their problems. During trials between 1999 and 2002, PAC-3 systems brought down 10 out of 11 incoming short, long-range and cruise missiles but usually using multiple or “ripple” launches to counteract misses. The US Army decided upon a mixed configuration of PAC-2 and PAC-3 systems, with the latter targeting ballistic missiles and the former intercepting cruise missiles and aircraft. Such a system had its first battlefield experience during the recent US invasion of Iraq. While almost all of the few incoming short-range ballistic missiles set off by Iraqi troops were destroyed, the combined PAC-2/PAC-3 batteries failed to intercept several cruise missiles fired by Iraqi forces towards Kuwait city and also had trouble identifying warheads from the debris that old Scuds usually give off.

So all that can be said at present is that the PAC-3 system is the most advanced such anti-missile system currently available but it is hardly infallible. The US and Israeli military have opted for a 2-tier system of the jointly-developed US-Israeli Arrow anti-missile systems for long-range high-altitude interception of medium and long-range ballistic missiles and PAC-2/PAC-3 systems for short-range low-altitude intercepts of ballistic missiles in their terminal phase and cruise missiles. The US has vetoed Israeli sale of Arrow systems to India at least partly because of its 300km range and 500kg warhead, which brings it under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) unlike the Patriots.


Question is whether such anti-missile systems really provide effective defences against incoming missiles or do they provoke others to develop offensive systems, which can overcome such defences, thus setting off an escalating chain of missile proliferation in both quality and quantity. All experience hitherto suggests it is the latter.

Japan has deployed PAC-2/PAC-3 systems whereas Taiwan has deployed PAC-2 systems and is awaiting US approval of PAC-3, a deal vehemently opposed by China. Japan, fearing attack by North Korean long-range No Dong missiles, is rapidly developing its own long-range anti-missile system and has integrated its anti-missile systems with highly advanced US-made Aegis-class battleships and surveillance systems.

To counter these anti-missile systems, China has deployed hundreds of missiles along its coasts against both Japan and Taiwan. China’s missiles include the new Dong Hai-10 with 1500km range and Ying Ji-63s with 500km range besides shorter-range missiles. China has clearly said that it will position many more missiles against Taiwan if the US supplies more advanced anti-missile systems to Taiwan.

In response to fears arising from Patriot failures to date, the US military avers that this would be overcome under battlefield conditions by firing multiple Patriot missiles against incoming ones. But cost is a major factor here as regards effectiveness of such missile shields.

Each PAC-3 missile now costs about $2.5 million (about Rs.12 crore), having been brought down from $4m a few years ago. In contrast, each of China’s missiles cost only $1m so close to 3 offensive missiles can be fired at the cost of each defensive missile of which probably many would need to be fired, thus overwhelming the defensive system. The Patriot system had cost about $7 billion to develop and more sophisticated systems would be even more costly to develop. While ability of offensive missiles to evade interception can be continuously increased, it is far cheaper to counter such systems by simply multiplying considerably less expensive offensive missiles!

Pakistan’s response to news that India may acquire Patriot systems is instructive of spiraling missile proliferation accelerated by anti-missile systems in the strategic environment. In March this year, US offered PAC-2 systems to India which later rejected it. Defence analysts in Pakistan scoffed at the PAC-2s and felt that their Hatf missiles, for which a production line has also been set up, would be more than a match, certainly in numbers and cost. Anticipating Indian acquisition of PAC-3s, Pakistan has stepped up its missile deployment targeting India. Pakistan also unveiled a new cruise missile, Babur, which it (wrongly) claimed was invulnerable to anti-missile systems.

Indian military planners are said to have originally considered anti-missile systems in view of Pakistan’s stated desire to develop a strong nuclear first-strike capability so as to counter India’s conventional military strength and despite India’s declared no-first-use doctrine: such is the logic of nuclear deterrence. But in view of the above discussion, is it really worth it for India to even consider acquiring a PAC-3 based anti-missile system, which would cost totally around $1.5 billion (Rs 6750 crore)?


For all its non-proliferation claims, the US would be quite happy to see India and Pakistan engage in missile race to complement the arms race between the two countries that the US is actively abetting.

Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee has been quoted in the media as saying that India is not interested in the Patriot system since it would prefer to build an anti-missile system indigenously. The Akash system being developed is indeed quite sophisticated but would face all the limitations discussed earlier. It would also take many years to be confidently deployed and, if India unwisely believes an anti-missile system is required, it may well look favourably upon PAC-3 as an interim measure.

However, for any anti-missile shield to be at least as effective as possible, India would also have to consider 2-tier systems with the Arrow or similar systems and also look at boost-phase interception of offensive missiles. All this would imply integration of satellite-based navigation systems such as the US GPS (global positioning system) used for civilian and military operations. And if India somehow gets enticed to adopt anti-missile or other systems based upon GPS integration, which the US could switch off whenever it desires, then India would be well and truly trapped within the global US military straitjacket.

The US offer of PAC-3 is thus only bait with other temptations on the hook too. The US is also offering the Aegis system, which would bring India closer within its net. All this is being done with a view to offer India “transformative” military systems, that is systems to bring about a qualitative shift in India’s capabilities, in keeping with the stated US goal of “helping India become a great power,” albeit as a junior partner of the US.

While some observers, certainly in Pakistan, see a pro-India slant in the US, the US on its part continues to maintain, as stated clearly in a recent official report to the US Congress, that it “would take no actions that could upset the military balance in the sub-continent”! To square this circle, the US is offering an increasingly bigger basket of military hardware to both Pakistan and India. F-16s have been offered to India even while the US eagerly waits to resume supplies of the same fighters to Pakistan. The US is also offering the “transformative” P-3C Orion maritime surveillance systems to India having already given the same to Pakistan! The US delegation is also believed to have virtually clinched the sale to India of the 1971-vintage USS Trenton, a large troop-carrier ship, even while it has given Pakistan free of cost the decommissioned battleship USS Fletcher which, at 9000 tons displacement, is larger than any Indian vessel other than its aircraft carriers. It must be noted that the US has made additional military grants to Pakistan besides making military sales from a $1.5 billion annual loan-assistance package (Rs 7000 crore) provided apart from $100 million monthly (Rs 450 crore) as “compensation” for its role in the “war on terror”.

The US of course is more than willing, in turn, to “compensate” India and help it reach perhaps just that rung higher by selling India matching military hardware or better if India agrees to integrate military with the US. More arms to Pakistan, even more to India! If India gets tempted, or threatened, or blackmailed into accepting the US offers, then Raytheon who is the system integrator of the PAC-3, Lockheed-Martin which makes the Patriot missiles besides the F-16 fighters, Boeing which makes the F/A-18 Hornets and others in the US military-industrial complex who are already rubbing their hands in glee will be laughing all the way to the bank.