China and India leading Asian missile buildup
HONG KONG: Two decades after developed nations agreed to halt the proliferation of strategic missile technology, China and India are leading the most significant modernization of nuclear-capable ballistic missile and cruise missile forces in Asia since the Cold War, according to arms control analysts.
The growth in the sophistication and number of strategic missiles across the region in recent years, the analysts said, is underscoring the impotence of global missile nonproliferation initiatives and heightening the risk of missile and nuclear force competition between major powers.
"We are on the cusp of a new level of strategic rivalry in the region," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, based in Washington. "India and Pakistan are about to move beyond short and intermediate missile range capabilities. China too is slowly exploring more advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles."
The expansion of Asia's strategic missile might and the weakness of global antimissile initiatives were highlighted in mid-April when India tested its latest long-range ballistic missile design.
On April 12, just a week before the Missile Technology Control Regime marked its 20th anniversary, India carried out the first test of a developmental missile, monitored by navy ships in the Bay of Bengal. With the test of the missile, the Agni 3, Indian officials said they had confirmed a capability to deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead as far away as Beijing.
While the Indian missile test generated a brief flurry of news reports around the world, the anniversary of the 1987 missile nonproliferation initiative, established by the Group of 7, passed days later with barely a mention.
"It has largely failed in its primary objectives," said Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an arms control analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, referring to the nonproliferation initiative. "Everyone thinks their missiles are part of the solution. It's the other guy's missiles that are part of the problem."
Analysts say the impotence of missile control initiatives is most apparent in East and South Asia, where several countries are rapidly expanding arsenals of new types of ballistic and cruise missiles. Few countries in the region are signers to any of the international nonproliferation agreements aimed at inhibiting missile and missile-technology development and exports.
Leading the way in the development of new missiles are the region's established nuclear powers - China, India and Pakistan - all of which have embarked on significant modernizations of nuclear-capable missile forces to improve the range, precision and survivability of weapons. This will bolster the credibility of the nuclear deterrence of these countries in the coming years and underscore their growing strategic power.
But the region also has to contend with the missile ambitions of North Korea and Iran, which have for a number of years invested heavily in trying to acquire long-range ballistic missiles with mixed success. Last year, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test, although it has yet to show it can mount a warhead on a missile. Iran is suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
In addition, several Asian countries that do not have aspirations to join the nuclear club are looking to buy or develop their own conventional strategic missile capabilities, in particular cruise missiles able to strike at targets from distances of several hundred kilometers. The spread of cruise missiles has become an issue of increasing importance on the nonproliferation agenda.
In both the indigenous development of ballistic and cruise missiles, India has emerged in recent years as a formidable power. It is also being looked to as a major supplier of state-of-the-art cruise missiles to friendly countries.
The importance of the Agni 3 test in April would not have been lost on Beijing. Since they fought a border war in 1962, the two countries have established stable relations, despite the unresolved border issue.
The explicit purpose of the Agni 3, with a range of 3,500 kilometers, or 2,200 miles, is to provide the option of targeting Chinese cities and maintaining a policy of minimum nuclear deterrence. Indian defense experts say a second test firing of the Agni 3 is expected before the end of the year. India has also developed a generation of shorter-range missiles to target Pakistan.
Kapil Kak, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in New Delhi, said that India's armed forces were likely to add a submarine-launched ballistic missile to strategic nuclear forces in the coming decade.
He said India was discussing with Russia the possible loan of one or two nuclear submarines to build up technical and operational skills for the eventual domestic construction of a vessel.
Both the submarine-launched missile and the Agni programs were "vital for the credibility of minimum nuclear deterrence," said Kak, a retired Indian air vice marshal.
India has separately developed a supersonic cruise missile that Kak described as a "quantum jump" in cruise missile technology. Built by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia, it is capable of traveling at 2.8 times the speed of sound and has a range of 290 kilometers. By contrast, the U.S. Tomahawk travels at subsonic speeds.
This year, Indian newspapers quoted Sivathanu Pillai, the BrahMos chief executive, as saying that 1,000 of the land-and-sea-launched missiles could be exported over a decade, with the first deal signed as early as December.
Malaysia and Indonesia have been cited as among the potential customers in Asia.
Military analysts say the significance of the BrahMos missile is that its supersonic speed makes the air defense systems on surface ships extremely vulnerable. Aircraft carriers would be forced to operate much further back from potential conflict zones to stay out of missile range.
The Indians are not alone in the region in sharply improving missile technologies. In the field of cruise missiles, China, Pakistan and Taiwan all have well-advanced indigenous development programs.
At the end of August, Pakistan tested an air-launched cruise missile known as Ra'ad, or Thunder, with a range of 350 kilometers. A statement issued by the Pakistani military said the missile was capable of carrying "all types" of warheads and had a stealth design to minimize radar detection. India plans an air-launched version of the BrahMos soon.
Kimball, the arms control analyst, said the availability of cruise missiles with greater range and destructive power was a growing concern after being belatedly added to the agenda of nonproliferation initiatives.
"It might provide smaller nations with less technological capability with a missile capability years in advance of where they might otherwise be," he said. "This is a problem that needs to be addressed now."
But the main international initiatives for dealing with missile proliferation do not offer much hope since they are voluntary and do not include many relevant countries in Asia such as China, India and Pakistan.
The 20-year-old missile control regime aims to limit exports of missile technology to countries outside its now 34-nation membership. It defines missiles of concern as any that can carry a payload of 500 kilograms, or 1,100 pounds, to a range of 300 kilometers.
A code of conduct, agreed to in The Hague in 2002, sought a pledge from member countries to prevent and curb the proliferation of such strategic missile systems, to exercise restraint in their own programs and to share information on their ballistic missile programs. Again, few major Asian countries are among the 118 signatories.
By comparison with cruise missiles, the risks of proliferation of ballistic missiles are regarded by arms control experts as low, but there are growing concerns over competition between major regional powers in Asia and the potential for proliferation.
Both China and India have programs to steadily upgrade the quantity and quality of their strategic ballistic missile forces. Russia too has been developing new types of land-based and submarine missiles, some of which are to be stationed in its Far East.
A Pentagon report to Congress on China's military power predicted that this year or next year China would deploy new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of targeting the United States with either conventional or nuclear weapons. They will complement a small number of existing silo-based liquid fuel missiles that are vulnerable to attack and slow to deploy.
China has also been adding to the number of short-range ballistic missiles facing Taiwan at the rate of about 100 a year, the Pentagon report said. China has about 900 of these in its inventory.
Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at Australian National University, said the Chinese missile buildup was taking place against the backdrop of the modernization of U.S. nuclear missile forces and the development of a U.S. missile defense system.
In a paper published last month, he warned of the risk of escalating missile competition between the United States and China. White said there was a "pressing need" for the United States and China to discuss strategic nuclear issues openly and negotiate a bilateral agreement to stabilize their "nuclear and missile defensive forces at or near current levels."
But Sidhu, the analyst who has been a consultant to United Nations expert panels on missiles, said both China and India had independently decided they needed to improve their strategic missile forces, only partly in response to U.S. actions.
"Both of them feel they need to modernize and upgrade their missile systems," Sidhu said. "They are very much going to keep doing that in the foreseeable future."