On the eve of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to India starting Monday, September 8, a Washington think tank has argued strongly against the sale of the Arrow anti-ballistic missile defence system to India.
The system, developed jointly by the United States and Israel, needs American approval before it can be sold to any other country.
While India has expressed an interest in it, but not put in a formal request, Israel, already the second largest arms exporter to India with deals worth more than $1 billion, has sought Washington's permission to sell it to New Delhi.
But a source in the diplomatic corps in New Delhi said the American approval is unlikely to come soon. "It will take its own time," the source said. "America will first settle its issues with Pakistan before agreeing to allow India to have the defence it deserves," he added.
"The Arrow should come to India and it will be understood by America that it is vital for India's long-term strategic interests," Dr Subhash Kapila, a former diplomat and intelligence officer, told rediff.com.
But in a paper titled 'Arrows for India?' prepared for the Washington Institute, Richard Speier, a former Pentagon official specialising in missile non-proliferation issues, argues that the sale of the system to India would backfire on American and Israeli strategic interests.
The paper starts by listing the perceived advantages of such a sale. Geopolitically, India could be an important security partner. India is threatened by radical Islamist terrorists. Democratic India is a logical partner of the United States. A strong India can help balance China's growing power. Being close to the Persian Gulf, India's naval facilities are an attraction for the US Central Command. To discourage possible hi-tech co-operation between India and Iran, an increase in Israeli and American influence is recommended.
Speier also argues that in a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, whoever strikes first would have a substantial advantage. In a crisis, this incentive to launch a first strike could lead to disaster. Misssile defences are one way to create uncertainties about the effectiveness of such strikes.
Israel's recent sale to India of the Phalcon air defence system could be considered the first step towards shifting New Delhi's security orientation.
But, says Speier, the Arrow is not India's only missile defence option. Russia is discussing the sale of the comparable S300V system, and Washington could offer the Patriot missiles, made famous by Gulf War I.
He then goes on to list the disadvantages of such a sale to India. He fears that if India gains the advantage in defence, "it might behave more recklessly toward Pakistan," which would accelerate the South Asian nuclear arms race.
This would also incur Pakistan's displeasure, which could hit US-Pakistani co-operation on Afghanistan and counter-terrorism.
Another important issue America will have to consider is that of non-proliferation, says Speier. The Arrow uses a large, sophisticated rocket motor, which exceeds the threshold set by the Missile Technology Control Regime endorsed by 33 nations, including Israel. The MTCR has already voiced its objections to such a sale. But the US Patriot missile does not come under the MTCR.
Though "rare" exports are permitted by the MTCR, Speier argues that "India and Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes make them dubious candidates for such allowances." The sale of the Arrow will harm the non-proliferation movement and "could also hurt its [America's] efforts to define illicit missile exports in its new Proliferation Security Initiative."
Speier then goes on to assert that "India has a record of diversion of sensitive technology. India diverted the engine of a Soviet air defence missile, the SA-2, to make the offensive Prithvi ballistic missile. It also diverted the design of a US space-launch rocket, the Scout, to make the Agni medium-range ballistic missile.
"Arrow interceptors could be a source of more sophisticated missile technology not only for India but also for its customers. India seeks to export missiles; it has not agreed to abide by MTCR restrictions. Its export control record is spotty; although New Delhi has halted some dangerous shipments, the CIA has reported Indian assistance to Libya's missile programme, and Washington recently imposed sanctions on Indian firms for missile and chemical weapon-related exports to Iraq and, possibly, Iran," says the paper.
"India's missile relationship with Russia raises the additional possibility that Arrow technology could make its way to experts there who would examine it to find ways to develop countermeasures against it."
The fear has been expressed that Russia could then export these countermeasures to Israel's adversaries in the Middle East, such as Iran. The MTCR, to which Russia is also a signatory, does not control the export of most countermeasures.
Moreover, the Arrow employs US command guidance, seeker, and computer hardware and software technology to direct it to its target. Hence, lessons learnt from examining the Arrow might lead to countermeasures that could compromise US missile defences that employ similar technology, says Speier.
In view of these arguments, what are the options before America?
Speier agrees that the US decision on the Arrow sale to India is a difficult one. In case of approval, he strongly recommends the use of diplomacy and export conditions to try and limit adverse consequences such as Pakistani anger.
"Approval," he says, "would offer short-term diplomatic gains for the United States, Israel, and India. It will also leave a long follow-up agenda with an uncertain outcome."
Another option is to deny the sale and strictly follow the MTCR threshold and have less sensitive US and Israeli defence co-operation with India. This option, though certain to cause bilateral problems in the short term, will offer long-term global security advantages.
A third option suggested in the paper is for Israel to offer India "missile defence services" rather than the Arrow interceptor hardware. Israel could keep the interceptors under its control, but deploy them to India with the help of the Indian armed forces. Recently, US Patriot missiles were deployed in a similar way by countries threatened by Iraqi missiles. This would address the concerns of the MTCR and the potential for development of countermeasures.
But since New Delhi will never agree to not have complete control over its defences, the paper argues that the US should 'convince' Russia to restrict any offer of its S300V system under a similar 'services' approach, thus leaving India with no other choice.
Arguing strongly against outright sale of the Arrow, Speier warns, "Missile proliferation may be more of a danger to Israel than to any other nation. Israel should reconsider the Arrow sale and ensure that its actions reduce this danger."