Image Courtesy: The Guardian
Article No. 06/2019
It was on October 20, 2018, that the US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force or INF Treaty (which is not set to expire until c. 2021) signed on December 8, 1987. This was not surprising because the USA had been voicing its concerns over the violation of the Treaty by Russia since the second term of Barack Obama and in December 2017, Trump announced a strategy being in the works to counter such Russian violations. The US claims that the Russian ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), the Novotor 9M729 (American designation, SSC-8) with a range of 2000 Kms., is in violation of INF Treaty provisions. Russia, after denying the existence of any such missile for years, has recently admitted  to it though it claims it does not violate Treaty provisions. Russia claims that the missile range is only 480 Kms. The shorter version of this missile, Iskander-M (9M728 or SSC-7), which has been deployed, also reportedly violates treaty clauses. The Trump administration has also cited the huge Chinese arsenal of INF-class missiles, which leaves the US vulnerable in the Pacific, for its reason to terminate the Treaty.
The INF Treaty signed between the USA and the USSR (Former Soviet Union, FSU) eliminated the ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of range 500 Kms to 5500 Kms. by June 1991. The Treaty later included those Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Ukraine that separated from FSU but were legacy sites for Soviet INF missiles.
It is not the first time that the US had unilaterally withdrawn from such a treaty. In c. 2002, it had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty concluded along with SALT-I in c. 1972. The US contention then was that it could not depend purely on retaliation or Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) alone for its defence. The ‘Space Operations Force’, announced by Pres. Donald Trump on June 18, 2018, as the latest and the sixth branch of the US military, is a culmination of such a thought.
The abrogation of the INF would put into sharp focus the proliferation of ‘regional missile threats’. Latest reports speak of intended US withdrawal from INF in February 2019 but also asking Russia to drop the SSC-8 project to return to INF which means that the US is keeping hopes of the continuation of INF alive.
An Overview of the Geopolitical situation in Asia
Asia, unlike other continents, is important to the rest of the world for at least three huge reasons. One, it is economically the fastest growing region in the world and has three of the top ten economies (India at Number 6, Japan at 3 and China at 2). It is also the most heavily populated continent. It is also home to the most known and aspiring nuclear powers.
Again, it has the distinction of being the only place with unresolved land border disputes among nuclear states such as India and China & India and Pakistan. There is also a maritime boundary dispute between India and Pakistan. There are maritime boundary disputes, that have frequently escalated to face-off situations, between nuclear-weapon possessing states and non-nuclear states such as between China and several ASEAN countries, China and Japan & Russia and Japan. Asia also has a UN-sanctioned rogue nuclear state, North Korea, that continues to test its nuclear weapons and missiles defying world opinion and threatening other nations with its provocative missile launches, especially South Korea and Japan. There is also a festering wound between China and Japan that goes back to the occupation of parts of China by Imperial Japan early last century and over the ownership of Senkaku (or at times, even Ryukyu) islands and the atrocities committed during the Sino-Japanese Wars. Asia is also home to an almost bankrupt and terrorism-supporting nuclear weapon state, Pakistan, that not only expands its nuclear arsenal at the fastest rate but also recklessly issues nuclear threats. Pakistan is also an anomalous nuclear power as it is the only nuclear state where the military controls the nuclear arsenal. Most dangerously, it does not subscribe to ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy and its thresholds are very low for nuclear use. It also employs tactical nuclear weapons on its Nasr Tactical Ballistic Missile (the Chinese WS-2 Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher – MBRL).
Asia is also the only place on earth where the world’s sole superpower, the USA and the nearest aspirant to that position, China, frequently face off each other as Pax Sinica tries to trump Pax Americana and the latter fiercely tries to ward it off. The on-going ‘Trade War’ that both countries are engaged in, apart from the recent laws enacted by the US Congress such as the ‘US-Taiwan Travel Act’ that encourages visits to Taiwan by US officials, the ‘Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act 2018’ that bans American visas for those Chinese officials who deny visas to Americans from visiting Tibet, and the ‘Asia Reassurance Initiative Act’ (ARIA) which enhances American focus and priorities in Indo-Pacific region in order to maintain American leadership in this area, are cases in point. ARIA, specifically listed the security challenges posed to American interests in the region by China.
There is also the issue of freedom of navigation in the Global Commons of South China Sea (SCS) expressed by almost every country, even as China defies UNCLOS arbitration tribunal awards, militarizes shoals, claims the entire SCS based on imaginary and unilateral nine-dash lines, and imposes Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ in East China Sea).
All these have given rise to several geopolitical and geostrategic moves such as informal alliances, political, military and economic initiatives etc. among and within Asian and non-Asian powers. Countries of the region have come together in informal alliances to counter growing and hostile Chinese assertions. The nascent Quad, comprising of the US, India, Japan and Australia, is a good example. China & Russia have been practically acting as a tag team. India, US and Japan had their first trilateral summit meeting in c. 2018 and conduct ever-deepening military exercises. Initiatives such as China’s BRI and India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Neighbourhood’ policies are politically, economically and militarily motivated too.
For their part, China and Russia have formed an informal alliance to tackle the USA and Russia has been very generous in transferring military technologies to China. China is also trying to woo several small island nations (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Fiji, Western Pacific Island nations) for bases and berthing rights. Of course, China and Pakistan have a long-standing and deep political, economic and military relationship. The Gwadar port on the Makran coast is currently being developed by China as a full-fledged naval base. China setup its first foreign naval base in Djibouti last year. Other opportunistic countries like Iran strengthen this informal alliance.
The West Asian countries are in total disarray with war going on in Syria and Yemen and extremist ideologies taking strong roots. Politically, an unsettled situation exists among most of the countries of the region. The tension between Sunni West Asian monarchies and the Shia Iran continues to peak. Beijing supplies ballistic missiles to both. Saudi Arabia possesses China-supplied liquid-fuelled Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM), DF-3A, and the more accurate solid-fuelled Chinese Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) DF-21. In January 2019, news emerged of a Saudi ballistic missile production facility near Riyadh. While China has supplied some Tactical Ballistic Missiles (TBMs, also known as Battlefield Range Ballistic Missiles, BRBMs) and Silkworm Anti-ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM) to Iran, it has helped the indigenous Iranain missile programme extensively.
It is in this context the withdrawal from the INF by the US and its impact on Asia need to be looked at.
The Nuclear Conundrum in Asia
Setting aside whether someone is a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) or a Non-nuclear weapon State (NNWS), there are five known nuclear powers in Asia, the largest in any continent, including a nuclear superpower in the form of Russia; the others being China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. It is also the only region that had witnessed nuclear weapon strikes (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
While Russia has no political tensions with any other nuclear power in Asia currently, the same is not the case with the other four in the quintet. There are primarily two nuclear equations among the remaining four of Asia’s nuclear powers, one between India and China and the other between India and Pakistan. The one between China and Pakistan or between China and North Korea is one of collaboration, collusion and proliferation. China and Russia have had serious differences in the past but are currently in an entente.
Asia also has a rogue nuclear state under sanctions by the United Nations, North Korea, which purportedly has Thermonuclear weapons.
There are also three ambiguous nuclear powers, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. While Israel has maintained complete secrecy about its nuclear weapons programme, it is nonetheless believed to be a nuclear weapon state . As for Iran, it is believed that it is a mere turn of a screw-driver away from a weapon . Both nations possess a wide variety of weapon delivery platforms, especially missiles which arsenal they continue to grow. For its part, the arch-rival of Iran, Saudi Arabia, is said to have an understanding with Pakistan which allows it access to Pakistani nuclear weapons if a situation arose. In fact, the Pakistani nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s through 90s.
Besides these Asian nuclear weapon states, external powers such as the US and France have extensive bases in the region and have known to have stockpiled nuclear weapons there or used them for testing purposes at various times or have access to port facilities for the berth of nuclear weapon carrying naval and air assets.
Another interesting aspect is the emergence of Japan from its shackles of an imposed pacifist Constitution as a result of WW II. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution states “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. The successive Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments had wanted to change this unilateral and forced decision to forsake war. Finally, on September 18, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, secured the legislative approval for the bill over-turning the decades-old employment of the Japanese forces only for self-defence . Japan also has one of the highest stockpiles of processed Plutonium (Pu) of approx. 50 tonnes, enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons if it so chose. Lately, some voices have been heard in Japan that nuclear weapons were needed for the defence of the nation especially because of the unremitting hostility of China and its cat’s paw, North Korea . The Japanese civilian rocket programme is so well advanced that building INF-class missiles (or even ICBMs) would not be difficult for it, provided there is political will. The increasing apprehension about the US assurances and treaty obligations towards Japan’s defence as well as its steady decline as a superpower are also causing the Japanese a lot of concern.
Similarly, there is widespread support for nuclear weapons (whether of American origin or home-made) in South Korea which sentiment has especially peaked after the rounds of missile and nuclear tests by North Korea in c. 2017 and 2018 .
A Brief History of Deterrence in South Asia
The impact of the disbanding of the INF Treaty on India should be looked at not only individually between India and China and India and Pakistan but also collectively between India on the one hand and China and Pakistan on the other. This is required because of the collusion between China and Pakistan not only geostrategically but also in the field of nuclear weapons and their delivery mechanisms.
On the issue of nuclear doctrine and China’s perception of Indian nuclear-weapons and deterrence, the Chinese thoughts appear to be that India is not a major nuclear threat to it because of factors such as the size and capability of its nuclear warheads, delivery systems, its NFU policy, a usually defensive Indian diplomatic outlook, and its non-aggressive nature . It also believes that it was India’s hunger for a Great power status coupled with domestic politics that led to the 1998 tests. In other words, China believes that both in capability and intention, India is not a threat. It also believes that the technological gap between the two countries in this field is too wide to be easily bridged by India. However, 9/11 and Pres. Bush changed the scenario on its head. China objected strongly to the Indo-US Nuclear deal in c. 2008  because it felt strongly that such a deal was in the overall US scheme of ‘balancing China’. China still believes that India’s nuclear-weapons programme can still be capped and eliminated and for this reason, it wants to keep equating India with Pakistan so that such a possibility could be achieved through a South Asian Nuclear Free Zone. It makes Pakistan constantly harp on this subject. Such a formulation helps its twin objectives, that of eliminating Indian nuclear weapons and keeping India equated with Pakistan. That would, in their calculation, leave China the preeminent nuclear and a preponderant political power in Asia. At the same time, it also believes that Indian distrust to its own nuclear weapons can be removed through better and bigger trade with India. China therefore opposes India in UNSC, NSG etc. because it feels that it cannot be there because its nuclear power status is illegal as it has not signed NPT and is not recognized as a nuclear weapons state (NWS). But it believes that India can be disabused of the notion that Great Power status comes from possessing nuclear weapons by emphasizing that it comes instead from a great economy and China could be its partner to achieve that and once that is achieved, India can join the high table without being a NWS.
Though there is no immediate possibility of a nuclear tension between India and China despite the long-pending border dispute and various other irritants, the biggest problem China faces is the question of Taiwan, where the supreme nuclear power, the USA, can certainly be expected to spoil Chinese ambitions in case Mainland China decided to integrate it by force. In such a situation, a nuclear escalation is a likely scenario.
The nuclear deterrence that holds between two hugely asymmetric powers, India and Pakistan, is subject to frequent revisions and upheavals, either because one side advances technologically (always India) to counter which , the other side (always Pakistan) acquires new technologies, products and missiles from friendly countries (China since the 1970s, North Korea , the US in the 80s and up to early 90s) or the external environment surrounding the two countries undergoes a change (like in Afghanistan or as we are about to see now with INF abrogation).
There are several examples of how Indian technological advances prompts Pakistan to counter them. For example, Pakistan always wanted to move from Uranium (U 235) to Plutonium(Pu)-based nuclear weapons consistent with the Indian developments in this field. As Indian delivery platforms evolved, such as missiles, Pakistan also wanted to match them by acquiring know-how and help from North Korea and China. As India inducted Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) like K15 and completed its nuclear triad in order to establish its second strike capability consistent with its No First Use (NFU) policy, Pakistan too acquired a similar missile, named as Babur-3 a variant of the GLCM Babur-2, from an only-too-willing China which supplied its CJ-10 (also designated HN-2) turbojet cruise missiles to Pakistan. Similarly, as India matured its three-layered Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems, such as AAD and Pradyumna, China supplied Pakistan with Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) technologies and their testing equipment .
As for the ‘external environment’ helping Pakistan too, there are several examples. For example, the US not only turned a blind eye to Pakistani quest for nuclear weapons but also helped it acquire them in return for help in dismantling USSR through Operation Bear Trap. Similarly, as India and the US struck the Civil Nuclear Agreement also known as the ‘123 Agreement’, China ‘grandfathered’ new nuclear reactors to Pakistan  as China wanted to maintain the strategic balance in South Asia. The proposed withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by the USA could be another ‘external environment’ that could see similar Chinese largesse to Pakistan and impact India.
It is now well known that Pakistan was determined to build a nuclear weapon since 1964 and the US in spite of deeply professed nonproliferation concerns turned a blind eye   to the ominous developments of smuggling in nuclear technology and materials by the Pakistani state . It even “protected” a proliferator like Dr. AQ Khan, possibly as a quid-pro-quo for various help Pakistan was providing or had provided in the past such as U-2 spy plane operations over the Former Soviet Union (FSU) from the Peshawar base at Badaber, until 1969, or conceding remote areas to CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US for eavesdropping into the Kazakhastan side of the USSR, or improving its relationship with an isolated but commercially and geopolitically / geostrategically attractive China in the 70s, in keeping a tab on the Iranian revolution and later in the Afghan campaign, Operation Cyclone, in the 80s.
Frequently, the Pakistanis claim falsely that their pursuit of nuclear weapons started after their defeat in the 1971 war and especially after India detonated its first nuclear device in circa 1974. However, Pakistan’s quest for nukes started in late 1964 as soon as the Chinese exploded their first device in October of that year. Pakistan had already forged a friendlier relationship with the Chinese under the then young foreign minister Z.A. Bhutto who even ceded a portion of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK) to them. President Ayub Khan and Z.A. Bhutto began a series of maneuvers with the Chinese to get nuclear know-how. In his manuscript “If I am Assassinated” written from his death cell, Z.A.Bhutto has clearly said that the negotiations with the Chinese started in circa 1965 and Foreign Secretary Late Agha Shahi has since confirmed that.
Evolution of INF
Can we draw lessons from the Cold War Western European theatre?
The closest to the low-threshold that Pakistan has vis-à-vis India was the situation in the Cold War era in the Western European theatre between US & NATO on the one hand and USSR & Warsaw Pact countries on the other.
We can learn from what they went through. In terms of nuclear posture, NATO was (and is) somewhat like Pakistan, hugely disadvantaged by the massive Soviet plus Warsaw Pact conventional forces and very insecure against them. Reaction times were short and Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) were deployed at least by the numerically disadvantaged NATO just as Pakistan has done. The TNWs are classified as ‘sub-strategic’, ‘tactical’ and ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons that are clearly non-strategic in nature and are in the SRBM/MRBM and even IRBM categories. However, there are difficulties in classifying these weapons based on range, yield, target, delivery mechanism etc. because the boundary is blurred between strategic and theatre weapons on all these counts. The NATO wanted to counter the Soviet army through its tactical nuclear superiority. The assumption was that the use of TNWs would not lead to a strategic response. Germany, Holland & Belgium (but mostly Germany) were to house the TNWs and use them against invading Soviet & Warsaw Pact troops. The assumption by the US (and NATO) was that such battlefield-level nuclear employment would not lead to strategic exchanges. The exchange of strategic strikes between the US and the USSR was meant to be averted through other means which included arms limitation talks and superiority of US weapons and delivery systems demanding second thoughts by the USSR. But then, the Russians deployed counterforce SS-20 IRBMs and the NATO had to find more effective counterpunch than merely TNWs, artillery shells etc. The SS-20s were deployed by the USSR facing China as well as Western Europe. These were IRBMs, not strictly theatre-weapons but their accuracy (and hence counterforce) and their targeting necessitated that they be deemed as theatre nuclear weapons. All these SS-20s were based in the USSR, not in East Europe.
But, the issue bothering the West European nations was damage to the self after using a nuke, even a tactical weapon, on one’s own soil or near about. It is then that ‘damage-limiting’ nuclear weapons such as the ERW (Enhanced Radiation Warhead or Neutron Bomb) came into play so that NATO forces didn’t suffer much even after these weapons were used against advancing Russian forces even on their own soil. However, the ERW project was given up by the US later. The Americans instead went for Long Range Theatre Nuclear Force (LRTNF) like Pershings & Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) to deter the Russian SS-20s to strike deep into East Europe, the Soviet & Warsaw Pact troops located well within Poland and all the way up to Ukraine, until SALT-II eliminated or limited all these. These were counterforce weapons capable of evading Soviet defences and reaching long ranges to rear-located Soviet forces in East European countries. Though the US removed/reduced these theatre missiles, NATO was secure that the n-weapons & missiles of the UK & France remained intact in the European context, an advantage not available to the USSR.
The Warsaw Pact countries in East Europe had a depth that the West European countries lacked, another similarity with India-Pakistan situation. In our case with China too, the Chinese forces and bases are deep inside China because their logistical strength enables them to keep them far away. We have to also, therefore, rely on INF-class missiles to take them out.
China and the Missile Race
China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development programme in the world . Except for its DF5 variants and the DF31 & DF41 ground-launched ICBMs and the JL2 Submarine-launched ballistic missiles, all the rest fall under SRBM / MRBM / IRBM categories – effectively INF-class missiles. While the total number of nuclear warheads that China possesses has been variously estimated as only a few hundred, the problem comes from the fact that the hundreds of these INF-class missiles can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. By c. 2016, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) possessed  1100-1200 SRBMs capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. In an ambiguous environment such as this, it becomes difficult, especially in the fog of war, to classify whether the incoming missile is nuclear or conventional-tipped leading to a potentially catastrophic escalation. It was for this reason that India decided to eliminate its Prithvi-I SRBMs which were also similarly dual-role. Though there is no precise estimate of China’s MRBM/IRBM inventory, it is believed that it has about 150 launchers (which can be re-loaded with missiles) of its DF-21 variants (CSS-5) . It also has at least 12 launchers of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) of MRBM variety (~1700 Kms range) on its Xia-class SSBN submarines. Besides these ballistic missiles, China also possesses a sizeable, but unknown, number of DH-10 nuclear-tipped Cruise missiles (surface & sea-launched) and YJ-63 conventional air-launched cruise missiles, both belonging to the IRBM class.
China has transferred the 300 Km SRBM M-11 (Shaheen or Hatf-3), 800 Km MRBM M-9 (Shaheen-I or Hatf-4) and 2000 Km M-18 also known as DF-15 (Shaheen-II or Hatf-6) missiles to Pakistan. Later, it transferred technological know-how for solid rocket propellants, guidance systems etc.  as well as solid-fuel based SRBMs like Haider. Pakistan’s 1500 Km-range MRBMs like Ghauri (earlier called Hatf-V) is North Korea’s No Dong missiles or variants thereof. China is also likely to transfer or lease to Pakistan one or more Xia-class SSBN submarines with its missiles at an appropriate time .
Similarly, China has transferred missiles, missile components, testing equipment and technologies to Iran .
The US-China-India Relationship and the INF
Clearly, both the US and China would differ on any proposed new INF Treaty. The US has already linked the ineffectiveness of the INF to the huge arsenal of Chinese SRBMs and IRBMs also apart from the Russian violation. It might, therefore, demand a new INF Treaty that would include China as well. For its part, China would not like to get entangled in any new nuclear or missile treaty that would cap its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. This is especially so in view of its still unresolved three ‘core interests’, namely, Taiwan, Tibet and its claims over the South China Sea (SCS).
Taiwan dominates Chinese thinking. In his January 2, 2019 address, President Xi Jinping once again asserted the Chinese willingness to use force to take over Taiwan. China wants to be able to dominate in the sea in the area it calls as the ‘First Island Chain’, the series of islands that stretch from Japan in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines to the south to Indonesia in the West, in order to wrest Taiwan. It is for this purpose, it is rapidly transforming its brown-water navy to a blue-water navy. The top Chinese leaders have carefully studied war history, especially the history of Europe as the US Naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan did, and are convinced that sea power is essential for conquering the world and re-establishing the Middle Kingdom, but on a bigger scale than what the Chinese Imperial dynasties visualized. The Chinese PLAN policymakers and the top politicians of the Standing Committee and the Politburo have also internalized the Thayer Mahan doctrine that naval power is essential to achieving great power status. His monumental work is a compulsory read within PLAN. China feels that if it comes to integrating Taiwan with Mainland by force, it could do so in a couple of weeks’ time provided the US Navy is kept at bay. Once Taiwan is integrated safely within, PLAN could project power in Western Pacific and challenge the US. In fact, it could be its calculation that if the US Navy is thwarted from coming to the rescue of Taiwan, the dominance of the US would well and truly have been eclipsed. SRBMs and IRBMs are effective tools for China to forcefully integrate Taiwan. It would use the DF-26 which is an IRBM with precision strike capability meant for the Asia-Pacific Region. This is a counter-force theatre weapon with conventional, nuclear and anti-ship strike capabilities. In early January 2019, China deployed the DF-26 in Inner Mongolia far away from the SCS in response to the US Navy (USN) destroyer USS McCampbell, near the Paracel Islands doing a “freedom-of-navigation operation” (FONOP) . Of course, the DF-26 can target up to Guam, a major air and naval base for the US in Western Pacific hosting B52 strategic bombers. In 1995-1996, China fired missiles across the Taiwan Straits to intimidate Taiwan. This led to the deployment by the US Navy of its Carrrier Battle Groups (CBGs). China would certainly employ its missiles such as CSS-5 Mod 5 (aka DF-21D) which is an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), the world’s first anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) ballistic missile with a manoeuvrable warhead, with a range of 1500 Kms. apart from the 4000 Km range DF-26, if such a CBG deployment by the US comes to pass again. China has also unveiled a new ASBM in November 2018, CM-401, with a range of 300 Kms (the ‘M’ designator and range could mean it is the export variety) with a ‘porpoising’ or skip-glide manoeuvring trajectory to defeat missile defences . India should be wary of this missile ending up with Pakistan which will deter Indian ships operating close to Pakistani maritime boundary. Since Gwadar will become a Chinese naval base, this missile will most certainly be deployed there. The PLAN also is simultaneously improving China’s over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability with OTH radars, which can be used in conjunction with reconnaissance satellites to locate targets such as aircraft carriers at great distances and deploy ASBM like DF-21D to attack them.
Apart from the ‘core interests’, a third reason could also be the fact that such a Treaty would impinge upon the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Overlooking the Taiwan Strait, Quanzhou, a major city in China’s strategic Fujian Province, has emerged as the focal point of the MSR. The city, known to be the starting point of the original MSR, was central to the voyages across South and Southeast Asia, including India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, by Zheng He, a 15th century mariner. Any naval blockade or access denial would be disruptive to Chinese ambitions. Therefore, China would not like to be circumscribed by the limitations of a new INF.
Another ‘core interest’ is Tibet, where China has deployed several SRBMs and IRBMs, targeting India. Unlike India, whose airbases and Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) are closer to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Chinese ones are far away. The Indian airbases are in the plains and its fighter planes can takeoff with maximum weight while the Chinese will have to pay a penalty in terms of weight if they have airbases in the rarefied atmosphere of Tibet at 19000 feet. China would, therefore, depend largely on missiles to take out Indian airbases and air assets in the region. Scores of Medium and Long-range nuclear missiles are located in Delingha and Da Qaidam in the northern parts of Qinghai province as well targeting India. By c. 2016, Tibet boasted of eight missile sites holding an estimated eight intercontinental ballistic missiles, plus 70-MRBM and 20 IRBMs. Another missile site in Tibet bordering Sichuan province houses CSS-4 missiles of 12000 Kms range. PLA has also built underground facility (UGF) complexes at Nagchuka and Lhasa of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). In c. 2011, India discovered multiple missile silos at Xiadulla across the Karakoram Pass in China’s Xinjiang region. The Pentagon reported in late August 2011 that China was replacing its liquid-fuelled CSS-2 (DongFeng 3) missiles along the LAC with more modern solid-fuelled MRBM CSS-5 (also known as DongFeng 21) with 250 kT nuclear warheads. The Chinese, while not denying the development, simply said that it was “normal for the Army to develop and renew weapons and equipment given the progress of science and technology”, thus admitting to the accuracy of the Pentagon report.
Geopolitically too, China will have an interest in circumscribing the emergence of India through conflicts with Pakistan as it does not want to see a potential competitor emerge in Asia. Even though China has been doing precisely this since the early 1960s when it hurriedly signed the border agreement with Pakistan, this may be accentuated by the emergence of the “Quad”. The Quad partners will take the INF development into account and the required missile shields (such as Aegis Combat System, Patriots or THAAD, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), India will be forced to take a positive stand on these systems thereby angering China, even as China is the first country to have flight tested recently the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV), DF-17, which can defeat all these missile defences.
The withdrawal of the USA from the INF treaty has far wider implications than between the USA and Russia in the European theatre alone, where, of course, the US is installing missile shields. While the withdrawal does not affect the security of mainland USA, it affects two theatres, Europe and Asia. Its impact will be felt by India too as the US is expected to forge a replacement INF treaty with a wider gambit both in terms of countries covered by it as well as to account for technical advancements made since 1987.
This poses twin challenges to India.
Whether outliers like India would be covered by the new treaty is just one aspect for Indian planners to worry about, the other being how China will react to it. If a new Treaty emerges within a decade, India needs to catch up on the technological front as testing of newer missiles could be curtailed by the Treaty, a la CTBT. There would certainly be caps on the number of SRBM/MRBM/IRBM missiles possessed by a country. The treaty could even enter into force as it happened with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That would put us under a bigger disadvantage vis-à-vis China which already possesses a huge arsenal of these missiles.
China is at an advantageous position currently. It has a huge stockpile of INF-class missiles with varying ranges, capabilities and applications. China relies on them for achieving its geopolitical and geostrategic goals. In the years ahead of any new Treaty discussions, China can only be expected to increase the size of its INF-class arsenal along with additional capabilities in order to deter mainly the US Navy. Now that the US is withdrawing from INF, China can be only expected to be more obdurate justifying its military aggression on the destabilizing nature of this development. The January 2019 incident of targeting a USN ship in the SCS from as far away as Inner Mongolia is a case in point. Russia will expectedly lend support to Chinese moves.
China can even deploy missiles on the reclaimed islands of SCS. Upping the ante in the escalatory ladder would be seen advantageous by China.
Even if China signs a new Treaty, it will not alter the situation so far as India is concerned. As China is not a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and is unlikely to be one so long as it blocks India for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership, it may collude with Pakistan and transfer some of its deadlier missiles to it in order to hem in India. It has in the past violated the MTCR rules while still aspiring to join it as a member. In the case of Pakistan, China has also innovatively overcome International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) regulations on transfer of nuclear technology through such dubious means as ‘grandfathering’. Therefore, its violation of any new INF Treaty is only to be expected. Increasingly Indian military doctrines are speaking of a two-front war involving both China and Pakistan. China’s massive targeting of SRBM/IRBM missiles from across the Tibetan plateau, combined with similar missiles from Pakistan on our western front would both have to be factored in by our military and strategic forces.
Today, the US possesses no SRBM/MRBM or IRBM. It has either very short-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles (max. range 300 Kms) for protecting its advancing artillery or armour in any theatre or ICBMs and SLBMs such as Minutemen and Trident respectively. Of course, it has cruise missiles like Tomahawk, but they can be vulnerable. It will have to develop a slew of the INF-class missiles mainly in order to protect the European NATO countries and possibly supply to its allies in Indo-Pacific who face Chinese aggression. In the meanwhile, the Pentagon has just announced space-based sensors to catch the missiles in the boost-phase itself, since it is easier to destroy a relatively slow-moving vehicle, rather than at mid-course or terminal phase.
We can expect Russia and China to object to this project, as it happened with Reagan’s Star Wars Program. China has already violated Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty of Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) thrice by conducting Anti Sateliite (ASAT) tests (twice using SC-19 missile, a modified DF-21 and a third time using a new missile DN-2 for higher orbit satellites) without informing the Committee, which flew in the face of China’s support for PPWT (Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects) which it has officially endorsed. For its defence, China can claim that the Outer Space Treaty bans space being used for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) only. As India invests heavily in space-based assets and begins to depend upon them extensively, the Chinese exercise was taken note of by India as it imperils India’s C5ISR capabilities.
The US withdrawal from the INF Treaty can, therefore, lead to missile race, tension and issues in peaceful uses of outer space, another Global Common like the High Seas. Besides, the ‘New START’ agreement (which limits strategic warheads of the US and Russia to 1,550) is also up for review in c. 2021, as was the INF, and if the US withdraws from that too, it might take the world back to the pre-1972 SALT days along with the added nightmare that there are more nuclear and missile players on the scene today.
There is thus a lot of turbulence ahead in our region. India must use all opportunities that the years ahead may present to immeasurably strengthen its missile and missile defence forces as we already have built considerable capacity in this area and are practically self-reliant. The January 24, 2019 launch of Microsat-R satellite which has been placed at a very low earth orbit of just 274 Kms. is speculated to help the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) as an early warning system by capturing the IR Signature of the launched missiles. Several more of these satellites need to be in place to provide reliable and extensive coverage of our immediate vicinity.
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[Subramanyam Sridharan is a computer scientist by training and profession and retired from a leading MNC. He is a keen follower of events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China and is an administrator for a forum dedicated to discussing India’s strategic interests. The views expressed are of the author.]