July 24, 2012

Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Defense Deals

By Michael Krepon

The 2005 civil nuclear agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was characterized as a boon for U.S.-India relations and a grave threat to Pakistan's national security.  It was widely heralded by U.S. advocates as opening the Indian market to American-designed power plants, combat aircraft, retail goods and insurance companies. The deal was also supposed to usher in a new era of strategic cooperation, as Washington assisted New Delhi to become a counterweight to China. In Pakistan, the deal was seen as the harbinger of a steep build up in Indian nuclear forces. 

Wildly optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the deal have been unwarranted. Seven years after its announcement, Indian policies continue to make it very hard for U.S. firms to invest and to sell their goods and services.  U.S. military cooperation and arms sales have certainly increased – which would have been the case with or without the deal -- but New Delhi remains as vigilant as ever in protecting its strategic autonomy. Indian leaders will continue to resist choosing between Washington and Beijing – unless Beijing becomes belligerent.  Over time, increased U.S. market share in some sectors are likely to be realized, but for now, the dividends are far below expectations.

The only true believers in the civil-nuclear deal, beside its U.S. boosters, were the stewards of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.  Nuclear requirements, which were set high to begin with, appear to have grown higher still after the deal.  Pakistan began construction on a fourth Plutonium production reactor to increase Pakistan's inventory of nuclear weapons, it imposed a veto against negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty, and it explicitly endorsed requirements for battlefield, or tactical nuclear weapons.

The civil nuclear deal added insult to injury in Pakistan, where it was perceived as providing an international escort for India to sit at the high table of states possessing nuclear weapons, while leaving Pakistan out in the cold.  The deal was characterized as a threat to national security because it permitted a significant influx of foreign-origin nuclear power plants and fuel, because Indian authorities stated their intention to build eight new, unsafeguarded domestic power plants, and because India's breeder reactor program would produce a flood of new fissile material.

These worst-case nuclear planning factors have not panned out. India has purchased Uranium from abroad for its power plants, freeing up domestic material for bomb-making, but the Indian Parliament has strongly resisted liability limits for foreign companies, which stands in the way of power plant construction for the United States and other sellers.  Domestic construction of power plants also remains in the doldrums, and the ambitious plans of India's Department of Atomic Energy for breeder reactors are as suspect as those of the Defense Research and Development Organization for the development of tanks, planes and missiles.

DRDO's promises have become even more wildly optimistic under the leadership of Dr. V.K. Saraswat, who is now promising effective, near-term ballistic missile defenses for Delhi and Mumbai.  India appears to have flight tested six BMD interceptors. The United States, in contrast has flight tested 67 interceptors since 2001, 53 of which have very generously been labeled as successes.  Even so, U.S. BMD programs face severe challenges.  If Dr. Saraswat is to be believed, India will not need U.S. assistance for ballistic missile defense deployments. Far more likely, significant U.S. assistance would be required – if BMD deployments are a higher priority for New Delhi than new ships, planes, and improved equipment for ground forces, and if the necessary funding can be found.

All of these premises are dubious, but this need not foreclose Indian requests to Washington for ballistic missile technology transfers.  Limited U.S. BMD deployments and technology transfers in tense regions is warranted where U.S. allies and friends are threatened by the nuclear and missile programs of outlier states. Washington has a responsibility to protect and to demonstrably shore up states that have abstained from acquiring nuclear weapons in this way, among others. In these cases, BMD deployments have the possibility of countering rudimentary missile threats while shoring up the Nonproliferation Treaty.  These arguments don't apply to the subcontinent, where Pakistan and India are already growing significant nuclear arsenals outside the purview of the NPT.        
The civil-nuclear deal and DRDO's record of poor performance suggest that it would be wise to avoid unduly optimistic and pessimistic assessments about Indian missile defenses. Nonetheless, U.S. technology transfers for BMD, like the civil nuclear deal, would have little up-side potential and considerable down-side risk. These transfers would not help India produce an effective missile defense system, nor change New Delhi's embrace of strategic autonomy. They would, however, add further impetus to a three-cornered nuclear arms competition in southern Asia. President Obama has not endorsed BMD transfers, but President Romney might.   
Michael Krepon is co-founder of Stimson and director of the South Asia program.  Another version of this essay appeared in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, on July 23, 2012.


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