The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have not only made these countries full-fledged nuclear weapon states but also increased the importance of their ballistic missiles which are capable of delivering nuclear warheads. This makes it necessary to examine some issues which are raised in the context of ballistic missiles. First, which missile should be called a ballistic missile? Second, what characteristics do these missiles possess? And, third, why have ballistic missiles become the key component of modern military machines and an idiom of a country’s political and coercive power in interstate relationship?
The term ballistic missile refers to a missile which is self-propelled and guided, with a range of many kilometres. Ballistic missiles carry their own fuel and oxidizer propellents (as opposed to aircraft and cruise missiles which must stay in the atmosphere and get their oxidizer-oxygen from it). Ballistic missiles also do not generally need aerodynamic control surfaces.
Ballistic missiles are unmanned, guided-weapon delivery platforms with one or more rocket stages that typically provide propulsion over a small portion of the flight path.
During most of their flight path, missile warheads traverse a free-flight ballistic trajectory which, for longer-range missiles, is partly or totally above the atmosphere. Flight times to targets range from a few minutes for short-range tactical systems to about thirty minutes for ICBM.
Ballistic missiles typically incorporate inertial navigation systems that sense the instantaneous acceleration and orientation of the missile. Prior to launch, the coordinates of the target and launch point are entered into the missile computer; the guidance and control system, using navigation information, steers the missile so that at thrust termination the warhead has the proper velocity vector to reach the target. Unlike aircraft, ballistic missiles are one-shot systems and, once launched, cannot be recalled or reused. Prior to Desert Storm, no developing state had deployed anti-tactical missiles (ATM), and it was generally perceived that ballistic missiles, but not necessarily aircraft, had a “free ride” to their targets.
With the exception of the Chinese CSS-2 missiles sold to Saudi Arabia, which are, semi-mobile, the regional ballistic missile systems are fully mobile and typically deploy from a main operating base or garrison. Mobile missile garrisons have missile garages, maintenance and training facilities and warhead handling facilities. The missiles are transported on vehicles (i.e. mobile launchers) that provide environmental control and system power prior to launch. Other vehicles such as those for command and control and security usually accompany the dispersed mobile launchers. Although a mobile system is inherently more complex than a fixed base system, mobility can assure high survivability under attack, assuming that the mobile launchers are dispersed from their garrisons and that the dispersed launchers are not easily locatable.
The infrastructure for ballistic missiles consists of personnel and facilities for missile storage and handling, maintenance, flight tests, crew training and warhead handling and deployment. As such it is not an extraordinarily complex or expensive activity nor is it dependent on acquiring personnel with the highest levels of technical skill or training. This is in marked contrast to the deployment infrastructure required for maintaining and fielding advanced aircraft systems.
Today, ballistic missiles are the weapons of choice not just for India and Pakistan but for many other ‘countries of the world. So it is necessary to know the capabilities of these missiles. First, ballistic missiles can attack long-range targets in a very short duration. For instance, India’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) Prithvi-I has a range of 150 km but it can cover this distance in just five minutes.
Second, ballistic missiles are very difficult to destroy once in flight. In other words, no counter-measures against them exist. Whatever are there, e.g., the Patriot, have limited effectiveness. Hence, the Western countries, particularly the USA are seriously debating the issue of developing defences against ballistic missiles.
Third, although ballistic missiles have the capability to carry any types of warheads, they are specially developed for carrying nuclear weapons. A ballistic missile is very expensive to build, and there is little sense in using a conventional warhead to hit far-off vulnerable enemy points. Thus, ballistic missiles are primarily treated as nuclear weapon delivery systems.
So, prompt delivery, denial of warning, assured penetration and the ambiguity regarding the nature of the warhead make ballistic missiles valuable military assets. But what makes a ballistic missile even more important is its psychological and political impact value. The symbolic striking of the enemy’s populous headland has psychological bearings and thereby undermines the enemy’s ability to protect its territory. Ballistic missile strikes can also have a very demoralizing impact on the enemy. The suspense and strain of the missile attack make an individual helpless.
For example, even though the Iraqi missiles fired on Iran had only a small conventional warhead, life came to a complete halt in Tehran for five long months. This eventually forced Iran to accept a cease-fire. Similarly, during the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 86 Scud missiles 46 on Saudi Arabia and 40 on Israel-most of which had been ineffective. Yet the coalition forces flew 18,000 sorties-all in vain-to locate Scud launch sites.
Ballistic missiles can yield certain political/strategic pay-offs too. Libya’s Gaddafi was able to restore his image battered by the US air strikes through launching. Scud missiles at the US Coast Guard facility on Lampedusa off the coast of Italy. During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussain was able to proclaim to the Arab world that only Iraq had attacked Israel without Israel striking back. Similarly, China has recently used its ballistic missiles against a helpless Taiwan obviously for political ends. It showed that to make an adversary quiver, the missiles do not have to be armed with live warheads. So effective were the Chinese missiles firing that three of Taiwan’s major ports were shot and the US naval fleet kept a safe distance from the scene of action.
A ballistic missile is also useful economically. With the budget allocation shrinking and the need of protecting the country becoming more and more intense, states cannot afford to spend a colossal amount on a standing army alone. An effective missile system can be an ideal force multiplier.
Besides economic usefulness, ballistic missiles are also seen as symbols of prestige. For example, Indians regard their country’s nuclear and missile programmes as symbols of technical prowess and scientific competence by virtue of which India can be placed alongside the world’s leading developed nations. Similarly, the recent test-firing of the Ghauri missile has brought much smugness and jubilation among the Pakistanis who consider it as a major technological achievement.
It is the deadly nature of the ballistic missiles that makes it necessary to have effective defence against them. One level of defence is through the diplomatic route which involves attempts to convince others of the negative aspects of such weapons and the possible human and financial costs of engaging in missile warfare. This calls for the total elimination of ballistic missiles. As an interim measure, global application of the 1987 INF Treaty between the USA and the erstwhile USSR should be pursued. The diplomatic route, however, has little chance of success if it is the only level or track followed.
Another level of missile defence consists of possessing an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. An ABM system relies on the capability to detect incoming ballistic missiles and activation of air defence system to destroy them. But as yet no ABM system has proven its worth. Even the Patriot employed in the Gulf War was less than successful, despite the best available ballistic missile warning system supporting it. It might be more prudent to deal with the ABM option only as a long-term measure.
Unlike these two options, the third, that of development and development of a number of ballistic missiles, is probably the most cost-effective, within one’s technological reach and promises the maximum. By possessing ballistic missiles, a country would be in a position to deter a potential enemy from using his missiles against any of its assets for fear of retaliatory punishment. For this reason, ballistic missiles are the best form of defence against an adversary armed with ballistic missiles. China is the best example. For 15 years, China has had operationalized some 15 of its DF-S ICBMs that are capable of striking the US mainland. Each is armed with a huge 5-megaton nuclear warhead. China’s rulers apparently feel that a few warheads, each capable of destroying a major American city, are enough to keep the US from interfering in its internal affairs and dominate East Asia.
India has to learn a lot from the Chinese experience. The presence of missiles in its neighbourhood and China’s clandestine help to Pakistan in the nuclear and missile field should be seriously taken into account by our strategic planners. They should also see that the United States, which has pledged itself to prevent proliferation of missile and nuclear technology, is being openly defied by Pakistan and China alike.
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