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B.R. Prakash asked: Indian Navy has a goal of being a net security provider in the IOR. With Chinese SLBM submarines operating, is there a case for developing a sea based ballistic missile defence?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: For operational flexibility, the ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems are not geographically fixed but are deployable. Sea based BMD systems are fitted on suitably modified naval platforms. Even though land based systems are transportable, it requires significant logistics during deployment. In addition, it remains essentially dormant during transit and takes time to be activated on arrival at their destination. In comparison, seaborne systems can readily move in and respond to changing demands for BMD capabilities, evade detection and targeting by enemy forces, and can do so without additional logistics hassle.

    The US Navy has currently around 40 ships with Aegis BMD system. Japan has three naval ships equipped with Aegis BMD system. Four Aegis ships of the US Navy are permanently homeported in Japan due to growing ballistic missile threat from North Korea. The US Navy is also responsible for augmenting NATO’s BMD system through deployment of sea based BMD during crisis.

    Even though sea based BMD system has its advantage, BMD ships get tethered within a narrow geographical box around land which reduces the availability of such ships to conduct other naval tasks including patrolling, assault, land attack, constabulary duties, escort of shipping, and protection of aircraft carrier or amphibious groups. Since naval ships are inherently multi-mission capable, it is argued that employment of naval ships, in a narrow range of role for sea based BMD, is not cost effective. Due to this reason, US is exploring potential use of shore based Aegis complex in order to free up its BMD ships for other naval tasks.

    Chinese SLBM in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) certainly complicates the strategic challenges for India which points towards consideration of acquisition of sea based BMD capability. However, such an approach needs to take into account the acquisition cost of BMD capable ships along with operational limitations highlighted above. Whether investment in building strategic anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability for countering Chinese submarine threat would be a better option is an issue worth careful consideration.

    The argument that India needs sea based BMD as it seeks to be a ‘net security provider’ is an expansive interpretation of the net security provider concept. Preservation of a stable maritime environment in the IOR is certainly a strong incentive for assuming the role of a security provider. However, India’s net security provider assurances are not analogous to treaty obligations of the US that assure comprehensive security to her allies including deployment of her land and sea based BMD systems. India’s net security provider obligations remain limited in the security cooperation domain, which include cooperation on capacity augmentation, capability building, military diplomacy and military assistance.

    Posted on February 14, 2019