NATO’s India Offer

NATO has offered to share ballistic missile defence technology with India. What’s behind the offer?

In a surprise move, NATO has reportedly offered to share its ballistic missile defence (BMD) technology with India. The tentative proposal, premised on the acknowledgement of the ‘commonality of threats’ faced by NATO and India, includes the sharing of BMD technology as well as the possibility of ‘training together.’ There has yet to be any official response to this offer, but its acceptance would make India the only non-NATO ally, apart from Russia, in the alliance.

Russia’s reservations on this issue are well known, and it’s most likely that India, too, won’t be jumping at the bit. This could be attributed to at least three factors.

One, as a non-aligned country during the Cold War years, India maintained its distance from bloc politics. Though the international landscape has changed drastically since then, India has retained its policy of not entering into an alliance with any country, though New Delhi does have strategic partnerships with a record number of nations today. While warming to the United States considerably in the last half decade, India is still unlikely to enter into any arrangement that might be perceived as compromising its sovereign autonomy. It may be recalled, after all, that India hasn’t formally accepted the Proliferation Security Initiative because it’s a US-led initiative. A US-led BMD architecture, then, would also be viewed from the same perspective.

Second, while it’s true that India has been working on the indigenous development of BMD technology, and has conducted four successful interceptions since 2006, there has been no shared commonality of threats with NATO. As premised on the US missile threat assessment, threats to NATO are believed to arise from missile proliferation by problem states. BMD is seen as necessary to defend against limited ballistic missile attacks involving ‘up to a few tens of ballistic missiles.’ The United States and NATO have been categorical in assuring Russia and China that the BMD isn’t designed to degrade their nuclear deterrent.

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For India, the nature of the missile threat is quite different—it arises from its nuclearized neighbourhood. Both China and Pakistan have established nuclear and missile arsenals of substantive quality and quantity. In fact, both have spent the last decade enhancing their missile capabilities in terms of inventory build-up, range, accuracy, survivability, and reliability. In addition, China has invested in its own BMD and countermeasures technology. Therefore, the threats that the Indian BMD will be required to counter are very different from those of NATO, and there’s no clarity over whether NATO would be able to accommodate these threat perceptions.

Third, while the Indian research and development establishment is euphoric over the technological success of four interceptions, two endoatmospheric and two exoatmospheric, the impact of BMD on strategic stability has yet to be completely fathomed. India’s nuclear doctrine is based on deterrence by punishment, which essentially implies the communication of the threat that any use of nuclear weapons would result in assured retaliation designed to cause ‘unacceptable damage.’ Eschewing nuclear war fighting, India has largely been against deterrence by denial and has largely accepted the classical logic of nuclear deterrence that it can best be maintained through the suggestion of mutual vulnerability, which was also seen as best for strategic stability.

But the acquisition of BMD by China upsets the equation. India can’t hope to establish deterrence stability with China’s BMD without having a similar capability of its own. This, in turn, impinges on its deterrence relationship with Pakistan. The latter, meanwhile, doesn’t have the scientific and technological wherewithal to develop a BMD of its own, and is most likely to either increase its missile inventory and equip the missiles with countermeasures (acquired from China) or enter into some type of an acquisition or BMD-sharing arrangement with some of its allies, most notably China.

BMD, therefore, has the potential to upset the deterrence stability in the two nuclear dyads of the region. In fact, the deployment of BMD will impel the adversary toward the development and deployment of countermeasures or advanced offensive capabilities against BMD. This will push the countries into an offence-defence spiral, leading to an arms race not just in earth-based systems, but also in space-based ISR and navigation capabilities as they try to increase the accuracy of their missiles, along with their manoeuvrability, in terminal stages to avoid interception. The automatic tendency, then, will be to develop ASAT capabilities and resort to pre-emption to degrade the space-based assets of the adversary. It therefore appears likely that uncertainties and insecurities will only grow rather than decrease with availability of BMD in all three countries.

As India grapples with finding the best response to its missile threats, the NATO offer to share the ‘technology of discovering and intercepting missiles’ is an interesting development. It comes at a time when the Indian BMD technology trajectory seems to be on an upswing, when the state of Pakistan’s stability is on a downswing, and ambiguities on China’s intentions are on the rise. Is there a deeper message in this offer? India must undertake a careful assessment of all dimensions.