Tuesday, 28 June, 2022
HomeOpinionChina's hypersonic missile test got US, India racing. It exposes BMD vulnerability

China’s hypersonic missile test got US, India racing. It exposes BMD vulnerability

What happens when initial nuclear weapons are fired? India must realise hypersonic missile is part of a larger power chase.

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China has carried out a test of a new space capability with a hypersonic missile, as reported first by The Financial Times. The test was supposedly carried out secretly in August 2021. The report relied on experts of the US intelligence community and could be a deliberate leak. It managed to touch the most sensitive cord of any nation’s strategic community—potential vulnerability.

A barrage of commentaries soon littered the information landscape. It mattered little that the development did not create a vulnerability in the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) of the US or any other nation that is deploying it. The vulnerability already existed, and all the efforts of creating a BMD system have been chasing their tail since 2001—when the US had unleashed the BMD arms race as it withdrew from the 1972 Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty with the Soviet Union. The Financial Times report indicated that the US has now been disadvantaged by China’s technological progress. It sits easily with the larger narrative of Beijing’s growing technological and military capability.


Also read: If US sees China’s hypersonic missile test as Sputnik moment, it must help allies, friends


Weakening of mutual vulnerability

One ought to read the articleCool Your Jets: Some Perspective on the Hyping of Hypersonic Weapons’ published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January 2020 to understand the barrage of hype that the report has now unleashed. The reality is that the development of the offensive capability to penetrate the BMD has continued to outpace its capability to defend.

The White House Statement of the George W. Bush administration, on the occasion of the withdrawal in 2002, is revealing—“With the treaty now behind us, our task is to develop and deploy effective defences against limited missile attacks. As the events of September 11 made clear, we no longer live in the Cold War world for which the ABM Treaty was designed. We now face new threats from terrorists who seek to destroy our civilization by any means available to rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. Defending the American people against these threats is my highest priority as commander-in-chief.”

The 1972 BMD Treaty was the outcome of sanity catching up with the unbridled nuclear arms race. It acknowledged mutual vulnerability as the pivot of strategic stability. The premise of the Treaty was that if any party constructed a BMD for protection, it would trigger the buildup of offensive capability by others and a perennial offensive-defensive arms race would ensue. The Treaty permitted the development of defences against short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 introduced the need to protect against terrorists who might come into the possession of missile capabilities. The urge to defend against the terrorist threat weakened the cornerstone of strategic stability—mutual vulnerability. Development of a plethora of missile defence systems ensued. But none of the systems has been able to provide any degree of assurance of protection. The development of offence capabilities has always been ahead of protection against it. The attack on one of Saudi Arabia’s most critical oil facilities in September 2019 was indicative of the vulnerability of defence even against subsonic cruise missiles.

In 2018, Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of hypersonic weapons that were invulnerable to the US’ defences. He noted that the developments were specifically carried out as a response to America’s abrogation of the BMD. China has now joined the race. The US, especially with its military arms, has for long been the votary of hypersonic vehicles. With developments in Russia and China, the Pentagon’s budget request for hypersonic-related research has been soaring. The race is on, and it still remains a chase of one’s own tail. The chase is complicated further by the deliberate reach for ambiguity regarding the payload, which could be either conventional or nuclear.


Also read: In this nuclear arms race, China’s hypersonic missile test is a ‘wake-up call’


India must remain in the race

India is also in the race. According to reports, it is developing a dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle programme. India had successfully tested a Mach 6 Scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020. Before that, in early 2000, after the Kargil conflict, the country had launched a programme to develop a BMD system that aimed to defend against threats from Pakistan. Recent reports have described its deployment. The acquisition of the S-400 Triumf from Russia and its operationalisation in a couple of years will augment India’s BMD capability.

India has not had much choice in joining the race to protect itself from ballistic and cruise missiles. But it should be wary of the limitations of its efforts, as the ability to overpower the defence systems will remain the state of nature category. India must arguably be in the race till sanity returns from an impossible task, and an international dialogue attempts to arrest the present madness of seeking vulnerability in the name of strengthening deterrence.

India must balance capability demonstration with the outgo of scarce fiscal resources. It must view the international developments in missile capability as part of the ongoing dialogue of deterrence between nuclear powers. The dialogue is, in essence, an exchange that carries the message that ‘Any nuclear strike will be responded to and your defences will not be able to protect you.’ It is also the dialogue of the deaf, as everyone knows that there is no answer to the question—‘What happens after the initial nuclear weapons are fired?’ This has been the tale of the nuclear strategy chase that has been timelessly disproportionate to the efforts expended. Hypersonic vehicles are merely the offspring of that chase.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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