Updated: September 28, 2010 15:38 IST

Strategic issues for South Asia

  • N. Gopal Raj
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This book is an outcome of a conference held in October 2007 jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the German Federal College for Security Studies, and the Institute of Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. The event brought together technical and non-technical policy analysts, academics, diplomats, and former and current government officials from India and Pakistan, among others.

A compilation of over two dozen papers, the volume provides perspectives from various vantage points on a number of strategic issues relevant to South Asia, from nuclear stability and missile defence to the energy security and the U.S.-India nuclear deal. These are issues of continuing importance to this part of the world, especially given the prickly and often hostile relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan.

What, for instance, would happen if a nuclear warhead, in either of the countries, got detonated by accident? Would the country concerned believe it had been attacked by the other and retaliate with a nuclear strike?

One-point safety

Both the United States and Russia devoted a large number of their nuclear tests to developing “one-point safety” design features so that no one single failure could trigger the detonation of a nuclear weapon, according to Geoffrey Forden. The number of tests the U.S. carried out for this purpose at the beginning of its nuclear programme was many times the tests India or Pakistan has conducted. “We can only conclude that neither country's nuclear weapons are one-point safe,” he notes.

Forden suggests that the international community establish a constellation of satellites designed to detect the launch of ballistic missiles, with both India and Pakistan participating in the satellites' construction and having access to their data. “If there were such an accidental nuclear detonation one day, the country that suffered the calamity could use the information from the satellites to reassure itself no missiles had actually been launched.”

Although many of the papers on missile defence systems relate to the U.S.'s plans, the criticisms and concerns expressed are relevant to India's ongoing efforts to establish a missile shield of its own.

Missile defence

Philip E. Coyle III, who has served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence, notes that America has been working on missile defence for six decades and, by conservative estimates, spent $120 billion on it since President Reagan's “Stars Wars” speech (1983).

Even so, the tests of the U.S. system have not established that it could cope with various decoys and countermeasures that might be employed by an adversary. Tests are also needed, according to him, to establish that the system would work well in a variety of real-life situations. Moreover, an enemy could opt to overwhelm the system by building more missiles or respond through terrorism or insurgency.

The complexity of creating a ballistic missile defence system and the cost it entailed are discussed by Subrata Ghoshroy, a co-editor of this volume. Scientists working on Indian programme could be “justifiably proud of their accomplishments in a short span of time.” But fielding an effective missile shield calls for a big leap from conducting a few successful tests. Consequently, India needs to have transparency in weapon systems development and a proper estimation of costs before opting to deploy such a system, he said.


Ballistic missile defence can also create capabilities to target another country's satellites, especially those orbiting close to the earth. As Nancy Gallagher observes, America's earlier position was that space could not be physically controlled through military means and, therefore, formal and informal rules are needed to protect satellites. This was overturned by the Bush administration's National Space Policy of 2006, which sought to achieve total domination of space.

Such notions of domination of space by one nation are, in Gallagher's words, “science fiction, not responsible policy analysis.” But that policy nevertheless had its own repercussions. In 2007, China demonstrated its anti-satellite capability. China's test, in turn, worried India, which has a large number of remote sensing satellites in low-earth orbit. As a result, India too wants to acquire some anti-satellite capability.

It is hard to disagree with the view of S. Chandrashekar that “it would indeed be a pity if the space domain, which for nearly 50 years has remained largely free of armed conflicts and confrontations, were to become the new battleground of the future.” An international agreement is clearly needed to avoid a situation where everyone loses. This indeed is a book that offers a lot to think about.

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