This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

India's Own "Star Wars"

(From Dec 2006)

I guess it was just waiting to happen. After all, we are told, we're an emerging superpower (albeit one at the extreme bottom of the Human Development Index) and therefore we should feel, inevitably, properly paranoiac. And what better way of proving paranoia than acquiring our very own anti-ballistic missile programme?
So, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), whose lack of success in the past has been conspicuous, has, on 24 November, "successfully" intercepted a Prithvi missile 50 km over the Bay of Bengal with what is claimed to have been another Prithvi missile. Great. Our cities are all now safe for all time to come.
Time for the celebrations to begin. (Cue in the triumphal music.)
Or is it?
While it is true that with this test, India joins the US, Russia, and the so-called state of "Israel" as the only nations with or trying to develop this technology, perhaps it's time to wonder why other nations are nottrying to develop it?
After all, we are bombarded every day with clamorous claims of how terrorists or "rogue nations" will wipe us all out one of these days with nuclear missiles. So, why do most nations not bother with missile defence systems? Maybe they have a death wish?
Not really.
Anti ballistic missile systems can be faulted on three counts: they areunworkablesymbolic, and suicidal.
First: why are they unworkable?
Anti-ballistic missiles work on the principle of hitting the enemy's missile with your own before it can get close enough to do damage. I'm talking about the enemy's ballistic missiles here, which fall under the force of gravity at several times the speed of sound, not about slower cruise missiles which can be shot down with anti-aircraft fire.
Ballistic missiles work this way: once launched, they rise verticallyinto the atmosphere (as opposed to cruise missiles, which fly like aeroplanes more or less level, and which are really small pilotless planes). Once in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, virtually in space, they fly in a parabola until gravity brings them back down on the predetermined target.
Ballistic missiles can therefore be, theoretically, shot down at three phases of their flight - during the boost phase when they rise above the atmosphere, while they are coasting in the upper reaches of the atmosphere (virtually in space), or in the terminal phase, when what is left of the missile (basically the warhead) is falling to earth under the influence of gravity.
Now, intercepting the missile in the boost phase will be the best option, of course, because it destroys the missile in the earliest and most vulnerable stage; but how the hell are you going to do that? You would need to be close enough to have your own missile fly over into the enemy's territory and knock out a missile going rapidly upwards at several times the speed of sound, and all at a few seconds' notice. No, that isn't going to happen.
While it's coasting? In the first place, the missile, for heaven's sake, will be moving through what we might for want of a better word designate "heaven" - the edge of space. Your own missile will need to be mighty nimble in order to get up there. This phase was in fact the stuff of the fevered dreams of the Reaganite "Star Wars" (more properly Strategic Defense [sic] Initiative) period. I'll devote another post sometime to that fantasy. No space for that dream here; and it was cuckoo-land, pure and simple. Take it from me.
One simple way for any ballistic missile to defeat anti-missiles at this altitude would be to release any number of lightweight decoy warheads. This is extremely easy, because up at this altitude the atmosphere is so thin as to be nonexistent and the heavy warhead and the light decoys will travel at exactly the same speed. They will also be identical in appearance to radar, and radar (space or ground based) is what will remain the only way to detect incoming missiles at this level. So your precious antiballistic missile - if it ever gets up to that height, and fast enough - will lose itself in hunting for the one genuine target in a multitude of fake ones, even if it has just onemissile to counter. And, of course, Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology allows each missile to carry several warheads. A gambler would not like to bet on your chances. Long odds, as they say.
So, your chances come down to just one, and the terminal, phase - the re-entry. But now the decoys will have fallen behind due to their light weight and increasing atmospheric drag, and they will burn up soon enough. What you have is a very small target(s) falling to earth at many times supersonic speed, and you will have to giude your missile to strike it. It's just like hitting a bullet with a bullet. Which, despite Hollywood and the Tamil film industry, is not an easy thing to do.
Now, modern missiles can and probably will be designed tomanoevre in this phase (it's called terminal guidance), and this will make them doubly, trebly, or even more difficult to hit. Even an old missile (like the Scud) can break up and begin to tumble, which makes its trajectory unpredictable and it difficult to intercept.
OK, just what happens if you do hit it?
In Gulf War I, 1991, the much hyped US Patriot missiles were supposed to knock the Iraqi Scuds out of the air like clay pigeons. In reality, Patriots had a success rate, depending on who you believe, of between five and ten per cent. Anti-aircraft fire would have done about as well. Besides the fact that Iraqi Scuds were without terminal guidance anyway, let's remember that this same Patriot, in its user trials, had achieved a 100% success rate - 17out of 17 interceptions! Success in trials has little or no resemblance to success in combat. And of the Scuds that were intercepted - virtually all of them were merely disintegrated by the Patriot, the warhead continuing on down to hit close to, if not on, the original target.
If you're defending a small target, even diverting a warhead can save you. But if it's a city, or if the enemy warhead is nuclear or biological, you'd better finish it or you'll be finished by it even if it lands kilometres away...
So hitting the target might not get you anywhere. In fact, it is unworkable.
Also, think of it. how many targets can you defend? You can't posibly defend every point of a country, even a small one, let alone a nation as large as India. At the most, you might be able to cover the capital (again, without any guarantee of success) and the major cities, at prohibitive cost. So, the defence shield will be only symbolic.
And not only that, it will be suicidal. Imagine what you face in a situation as between India and Pakistan. Any Pakistani missile will take only minutes to reach Indian territory. How long do you have to be sure the missile is incoming/ How fast will you deploy them? Can you launch one fast enough to be sure of taking out even one misile, especially in case of a surprise attack? What happens if you fail?
Now look at it from the other side's view. No one imagines missile defence will ever be 100% effective. The votaries of an ABM shield just disagree about the percentage of missiles that will actually be destroyed, 10% or 99% or whatever. The launching side will have to assume - it will have no alternative but to assume - that the maximum number of its ballistic missiles will be knocked out. In order to ensure its own security, therefore, it will have to build enough missiles to swamp your defences. In any case, they will have certainly, and prudently, overestimated your defence capability. So, by deploying anti-missile defences, you will just guarantee greater destruction to yourself!
And then there is also the fact that when you see what may or may not be missiles launched at you, you will want to get your own ballistic missiles off as fast as possible before the enemy can destroy their launch sites before they can take off. You can't wait long enough to take chances, especially in conditions where the warring nations are just minutes from each other. So, in order to escape the enemy first strike (which will try and disarm you by knocking your own missiles out) you will launch your own ballistic missiles. And if it just so happens that your "incoming missiles" turn out to have been a computer glitch or a meteor shower, your missiles are now gone anyway and will be impacting on the other country in a minute. This is not the sort of situation where apologies will do. Whatever opposition missiles survive (and there will be many more of them than would have been had you not had an ABM shield) will then take off to hit you for a second strike. Your goose is again cooked. (When the adversaries are as close as India and Pakistan, of course, when you launch a missile you are basically guaranteeing nuclear fallout in your own territory, but let's ignore that for now.)
And then there is something else. Most ballistic missile shields would really be worth the expense in only one situation - where the incoming warheads are nuclear. Well, then, there is a great way of circumventing that - the enemy might just make nuclear "suitcase bombs" and smuggle them in. Much easier than complicated missiles and warheads, and besides, a nuclear strike becomes deniable. A suitcase bomb is highly deniable ("terrorists did it"), and you don't even need a suicide bomber - it can be rigged to explode at a phone call. And it needn't be in a suitcase either. Think about it - you don't have to keep its weight down or invest in shielding to keep it safe during flight. you can make it as big and powerful as you please, big enough to fill a truck which can be kept driving round streets as long as necessary...
Therefore, anti-ballistic missiles are suicidal.
Then there is just one small thing further - the little fact that while we've just had a "successful test" of an ABM system,
The upgraded Prithvi ABM interceptor appears to rank with the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 system, Russia's S-300 and Israel's Arrow in its intended ability to intercept short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. However, the Patriot, the S-300 and the Arrow are all deployed, much tested systems. Even after the extremely positive results of Monday's test, the upgraded Prithvi ABM still clearly as a long way to go to achieve that status. (source:
And, of course,
the DRDO had previously "failed to operationalize (sic) the much touted 9-kilometer (sic) (5.4 mile) range Trishul and the 25-km (15 mile) range Akash air-defense (sic) missiles. These missiles have been undergoing 'successful' tests for as long as anyone can remember." (ibid)
It might just be that the groundwork is being laid to buy the American Patriot II missile, just as a stop-gap till our own missiles are ready. The Americans want very much to sell us this missile, and our government is pathetically eager to please them at any cost. Of course, our own missiles will never be ready, which means the stop-gap will become (as planned) permanent. I remember a piece of propaganda in The Times Of India which claimed that while the Patriot I had failed to stop Scuds during Gulf War I, not a single Iraqi Scud had got through the Patriot II screen in Gulf War II. Well of course bloody not. The Iraqis did not have a single Scud to launch in Gulf War II. Had they had any, the Americans could have claimed to have found WMDs!
But, despite all of these factors, India will carry on along these lines. When it comes to defence contracts...
...a lot of money floats around, you know.

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