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Opinion/Gaurav Kampani

Prithvi: The Case for 'No-First-Deployment'

With the induction of the Prithvi missile into the armed forces and recent reports in The Washington Post of its alleged deployment along India's western borders, international attention has once again focussed on the underlying tension between India and Pakistan.

In India, the case for serialised production and deployment of the Prithvi is being made precisely at a time when the prospects of a large-scale war in South Asia are receding on the horizon. No doubt, India and Pakistan still engage in provocative strategic behaviour. But a major war, because of the uncertainty surrounding its outcome, high economic cost, and the potential for escalation to the nuclear level, is very unlikely.

India's ballistic missile programme, at this juncture, seems more driven by the Defence Research and Development Organisation's bureaucratic and budgetary concerns than any conceivable threat to national security.

The Prithvi is a classic case of technological determinism where an existing technological artifact has generated its own demands for a military doctrine as evidenced by the general staff quality requirement debate between the army and DRDO. The fact that an air staff requirement was issued only after the missile came into existence, and the limited number of orders for the Prithvi, India's ballistic missile programme enjoys a very limited constituency within the armed forces and the government.

Again, the missile uses off-the-shelf technologies from an abandoned Indian missile programme -- developed in the 1970s. The liquid fuel -- xylidine -- used in the missile is toxic, corrosive, and non-storable, with the result that the army has evinced some dissatisfaction with the system. The fact that DRDO was forced to use available technologies and unable to secure support for "engine redesign" to incorporate its own superior liquid fuel or the Indian Space Research Organisation's more advanced solid fuel technology, testifies to the limited support for the Prithvi. Similarly, for operational purposes, no military would have wanted a missile like Agni, which is a hybrid of solid and liquid fuel boosters.

Furthermore, the Prithvi is neither state-of-the-art nor does it mark a quantum leap in military capability. To some, the Prithvi is the technological breakthrough from which an operational Indian nuclear capability will emerge. Even though this may be theoretically plausible, it is not so in practice. Designing light and compact nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles is an intrinsically complex task. It is not the intention of this author to suggest that such design and fabrication capability is beyond the capability of India's nuclear establishment. But it is doubtful whether nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles can be designed without a program of 'field tests.'

For ballistic missiles like the Prithvi and Agni, a programme of test explosions will be crucial in designing nuclear warheads. The nuclear warhead will have to be adapted to the specific features of the missile system. In this case the warhead will no longer be considered a "separable" part of the weapon system, a package to be dropped from an aircraft. The size, weight, yield, and even shape of the warhead will have to be tailored and integrated with the delivery system. Therefore, new designs and tests will be essential to ensure the successful integration and optimisation of the weapons design.

Even if new warheads for the Prithvi are designed and introduced without testing, it would scarcely increase capability. No political or military leader will be willing to use a weapon that has not been tested. It would simply not be credible.

The Prithvi, in all likelihood, will be used as a platform to deliver advanced conventional munitions deep into the enemy rear. There is some confusion as to the nature of missions to which it might be eventually assigned. Some observers have argued that the Prithvi will be used to engage 'strategic targets' -- large and static military installations, political infrastructure, industrial clusters, and communication nodes. Others have suggested that the system will lend battlefield support by engaging tactical targets -- bridgeheads, logistics, tank and troop concentrations, command posts, aircraft at forward bases, and so forth. The distinction between 'strategic' and 'tactical' targets is essential in assessing the military utility of the missile. While 'strategic targets' are fixed, their location known, and spread over a large area, tactical targets are mobile, hard, and heavily guarded by air defences. The destruction of the latter targets is also "time critical."

Although 'strategic targets' can be successfully targetted by systems like the Prithvi, the same does not hold true for 'tactical missions.' First, the Indian army's real-time surveillance and target acquisition capability vis-a-vis 'emerging battlefield targets' is limited. Second, the success of a conventional attack critically depends upon accurate delivery. Accuracy in turn is a function of accurate coordinates of the launcher and the intended target. It has been pointed out that to ensure accuracy within a few metres, the launch and target coordinates need to be "surveyed to the last degree, minute and second."

The Indian army could use pre-surveyed sites to resolve the problem of launcher coordinates. But that would severely restrict the mobility of the missile system. Mobility of a weapon system is a basic requirement in a tactical role, but the mobility of the missile, given the Indian army's real-time SATA capability will work against the requirements of accurate delivery.

In addition, the advertised circular error probability or accuracy for the Prithvi -- 0.1 percent -- is insufficient to attain a high probability kill ratio. DRDO has argued that the CEP is acceptable for two reasons. First, the missile will most probably be used over a range of 100 km to 150 km. This will translate into a miss of about 100 metres to 150 meters from the target. Second, the missile will be delivering a heavy load -- 1,000 kg high explosive warhead -- at these ranges. Alternatively, cluster warheads with a controlled spread will be able to saturate an area of 300 meters and override the constraints imposed by a CEP of 150 meters.

But several studies of the probability kill from a 1,000 kg high explosive warhead as a function of delivery CEP for various target hardness to blast overpressure measured as pounds per square inch indicate that the Prithvi's accuracy will have to be improved substantially for it to achieve target kill. For instance, it has been calculated that if the target location is precisely known of 2 to 5 PSI targets -- missile launchers, unprotected aircraft -- a CEP of 60 metres to 80 meters at most is required to achieve 50 per cent probability of kill. Targets such as aircraft in protected shelters and tanks have a hardness of 20 to 40 PSI. Destruction of such targets would require a CEP delivery of 20 to 30 metres.

At this juncture, only advanced combat aircraft and missiles equivalent to the Pershing II employing terrain matching terminal guidance systems are capable of achieving such high accuracies. Furthermore, accuracy for a system like the Prithvi will not be a function of technical characteristics alone. It will critically depend upon command and control, the training level of operators, and availability of reliable targetting information. Astute observers have suggested that accuracy is most likely to be affected by the "fog of war" -- the confusion and misinformation endemic to a real combat situation -- which will make it difficult for the missile to function very accurately.

Finally, there is the question of costs. In the ensuing debate on the effectiveness of ballistic missiles and combat aircraft, the vulnerability of manned aircraft to modern air defence systems has been cited as the single most important factor in favour of missiles. But rough studies, in India's case, have shown that even a high aircraft attrition rate of 5 per cent -- one aircraft lost in twenty sorties -- is not sufficient to make Prithvi a cost-effective proposition for conventional deep-strike missions. Even in a worst case scenario, aircraft are at least twice as cost effective as the Prithvi in conventional missions.

Of course, this is not to deny that ballistic missiles do not offer any key advantages. Ballistic missiles may offer strategic strike capability where targets are heavily defended or beyond the range of strike aircraft. In addition, ballistic missiles could be used in coordination with strike aircraft in certain tactical missions with devastating success. But on the whole, the accuracy and payload capabilities of current generation ballistic missiles like the Prithvi will have to be improved substantially before they become cost effective.

Given the above constraints, India and Pakistan should refrain from either serial manufacture or deployment of current generation systems like the Prithvi, M-11 or the Hatf series. Ballistic missiles, because of their speed, relative invulnerability, and non-retractability after launch are inherently destabilising weapons whose deployment is likely to raise political tensions in the subcontinent.

So far India has made a subtle distinction between "induction" and "deployment". But "induction" of the Prithvi into the armed forces must not be allowed to become an end in itself. If India has "irrefutable evidence" that Pakistan has deployed its Hatf missiles, then it must use the threat of Prithvi deployment as a means to negotiate a no-first-deployment' agreement with Pakistan. An Indo-Pakistani 'no-first-deployment' agreement encompassing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles would go a long way in stabilising and strengthening the prevailing regime of "recessed deterrence" in South Asia.

Gaurav Kampani is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington DC.

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