6 June 2013
Toward U.S. – India Missile Defense Cooperation
By Samir Nair & Guru Amrit Khalsa


The PAD Exo-atmospheric interceptor missile, part of India’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program. The upcoming U.S –India Strategic Dialogue in June 2013, provides an opportunity to revisit high-level discussion on cooperation in this area. Source: Wikimedia commons, by Ajai Shukla, used under a creative commons license.

The U.S.-India military relationship has grown tremendously over the last decade. Bilateral military exercises, personnel exchanges and sales of defense equipment are proceeding at a level that would have been impossible as recently as 2005 when the United States and India signed a New Defense Framework Agreement. This is a healthy and growing relationship with much potential remaining to be tapped.

As such, the two nations will look to new areas to deepen security and defense ties. One promising area of bilateral military cooperation could be engagement in the realm of missile defense. This has the potential to put the U.S.–India defense relationship on a higher trajectory by creating new collaborative opportunities involving state-of-the-art technologies. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated in New Delhi last July:

“[missile defense] is an important potential area for our cooperation in the future … And therefore, the two governments should discuss that strategically before they discuss it technically.”

The United States and India should first engage in high-level discussions on Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) cooperation. Down the road, these consultations could open up possibilities for coproduction and co-development of defense systems, and generate greater two-way defense trade.

The idea of missile defense collaboration has been bandied about for some time. Expert C. Raja Mohan, recently commented that:

“The discussion of possible U.S.–India cooperation on missile defense has been going on for about 10 years. Historically, when [India] wants to do something about this, the U.S. backs up and when the U.S. approaches India, they back up.”

In India, there have been longstanding concerns about becoming too closely entwined with the United States and thereby compromising the country’s ‘strategic autonomy.’ In the United States, concerns within the “nonproliferation bureaucracy” about “the impact of missile defense sales…on Indo-Pak nuclear stability” have hindered progress on BMD cooperation.

For India’s part, missile defense is an increasingly important issue for geopolitical reasons. Both China and Pakistan possess significant ballistic and cruise missile capabilities. As one senior officer in the Indian Air Force notes, “ballistic missile proliferation in India’s neighborhood requires the development of a more capable missile defense system.” The threat of short-range missiles from Pakistan coupled with China’s growing assertiveness in South Asia underscores the salience of establishing a robust Indian missile defense system.

Harsh Pant, an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani chair, notes that developing a BMD shield makes sense for two reasons: 1) Pakistan has refused to commit to a no-first-use policy, and 2) There are lingering concerns about whether the Pakistani military can adequately ensure the safety and security of the country’s nuclear assets.

India’s two-tiered missile defense shield is still under development and is scheduled to be deployed in two separate phases by 2016. India’s most recent missile defense test occurred in November of 2012, when it successfully demonstrated the ability to intercept multiple incoming missiles over the Bay of Bengal. Until recently, India seemed intent on developing its missile shield indigenously. However, within the past few years, India has become more receptive to working with partners including the United States, Israel, Russia and NATO nations on missile defense. India now seeks “the best support” possible even if that means veering away from a strictly indigenous route and integrating outside technology.

On the U.S. side, the Pentagon recently approached both India and Japan to discuss missile defense cooperation, and has previously offered to sell India its Patriot missile system. Both Senator John McCain and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Robert Scher have also voiced public support for U.S. assistance in facilitating India’s development of missile defense architecture. However, while India has “accepted briefings” from U.S. officials on missile defense, New Delhi has not pursued formal cooperation for the time being.

In the near term, high-level discussions on missile defense have the potential to build toward a “common [strategic] vision” in an area of our bilateral security and defense relationship, which thus far has been untapped. Eventually, missile defense cooperation could help facilitate technology sharing through co-development and coproduction initiatives. U.S. BMD cooperation with Israel and Japan could provide a useful template vis-à-vis India.  For instance, Washington has “co-funded and co-developed several rocket and missile defense systems with Israel [and Japan]” which has allowed it to “cooperate [with them] in a way that is highly interoperable.” In addition, the U.S. and India could establish a joint early-warning system to exchange and monitor data on missile launches worldwide in real-time.

However, policymakers must also weigh the potential risks involved. Pursuing missile defense cooperation with India would almost certainly raise alarm bells in India’s neighborhood. Any dialogue undertaken with India on the matter must seek to provide diplomatic reassurance to China and Pakistan. India’s own domestic politics could also prove to be a constraint. Missile defense cooperation could reinforce the perception that India has become too closely entwined with the United States and is compromising its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs.

As a first step to kick starting this cooperation, the U.S. could share experience and know-how with Indian officials through established institutional mechanisms under the Defense Policy Group (DPG), including the Senior Technology Security Group (STSG) and the Defense Procurement and Production Group (DPPG).  The upcoming U.S –India Strategic Dialogue in June would provide a timely opportunity to reignite high-level discussion on the strategic aspects of bilateral missile defense cooperation.

The United States and India have converging interests on the issue of missile defense, and as India develops its own capabilities, the two countries would be wise to ramp up engagement on this important aspect of their growing security and defense relationship.

Mr. Samir Nair and Ms. Guru Amrit Khalsa are researchers with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

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