India’s Missile Defense: Is the Game Worth the Candle?
Image Credit: Reuters/B Mathur

India’s Missile Defense: Is the Game Worth the Candle?


On November 23, 2012, Indian scientists achieved a major milestone in missile defense: simultaneous interceptions of ballistic missiles at altitudes of 30 and 120 kms respectively. Such a feat put India on the map of a select group of nations, such as the United States and Israel, who have the capability of engaging multiple hostile projectiles. These tests, declared India’s premier defense research organization – the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) – were done in a deployment mode with higher echelons of the Indian Army and Air Force in attendance, making a strong case for eventual induction of this system into country’s defenses. However, with India’s missile defense capability advancing, questions abound on its strategic and regional fallout.

The History of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in India

In 1983, India initiated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), leading to the research and development of a series of missile platforms from Prithvi to Agni. In addition to these offensive missile platforms, IGDMP also developed defensive missiles such as Akash Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM). Akash was initially planned for air defense measures and equipped with a potential of conversion to Theatre Missile Defense System. Then, in the 1990s, DRDO started conceptualizing a missile defense plan for India. The actual transformation of Akash SAM into an anti-tactical missile defense began in earnest during this period.

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The stated objective of this program was to develop a system that could intercept ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 km by 1997. However, technological incapacity as well as non-proliferation measures by the international community created hurdles in the process. India also was far less enthusiastic in advertising its intentions and objectives in the field of missile defense, lest it invoked American ire. Subsequently, DRDO entered into negotiations with Israel and Russia for BMD platforms and associated technologies. It bought S-300 anti-missile platforms from Russia, developed long-range, phased array radars in collaboration with Israel and built guidance radars with French assistance. As has been the case with all other defense technologies developed by India, its quest for missile defense therefore had both an indigenous component and a foreign one.

In its current iteration, India’s BMD is a two-layered system. Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) is supposed to tackle incoming missiles at ranges of 80-120 km (exo-atmospheric interception). On the other hand,  the advanced air-defense (AAD) mainly consists of Akash Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) that can intercept incoming missiles at ranges of 15-30 km (endo-atmospheric interception). If the PAD system is devised for mid-course interception, the AAD is a terminal phase interception system which can only counter incoming missiles after their entry into the atmosphere. In their present configuration, these systems are designed to counter missiles with range close to 2,000 km traveling at speeds ranging from Mach 3 to Mach 8.

For tracking and guidance, it relies on its “swordfish” radar systems developed in conjunction with Israel and capable of simultaneously tracking more than 200 objects with diameters of no less than two inches at a range of 600-800 km. However, DRDO’s hunger for technological innovation remains unsatisfied. It has recently declared its plan to intercept missiles with over 5,000 km ranges, closing in on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ranges. These systems would be called AD-1 and AD-2 and would aim to counter missiles with far more velocity, up to Mach 12-15. DRDO has plans to extend the range of the “swordfish” radars to 1,500 km. In the future, a series of geo-stationary satellites may also be used for deduction of enemy missiles.

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