The Ballistic Missile intercept problem
India must seek to constantly expand its envelope of missile intercept options and technologies.
Recent disclosures in the Japan Times about the Nodong/Ghauri missile’s INS being not up to the mark may alter the threat perception from Pakistan’s missile program. While the Pakistani missile program has contributions from sources other than North Korea, the Ghauri missile is the longest-range delivery option in Pakistan’s arsenal. The Ghauri missile lends unique capability to Pakistan’s strategic weapons forces.
For the purpose of this discussion, it is preferable to frame the ballistic missile issue in a way that focuses on the warhead trajectory and the launcher survivability. If one has a longer-range missile, one gets two things, the ability to position the launcher further away from the target and a higher warhead velocity. The higher velocity can be crucial in the terminal phase of the missile’s trajectory.
Placing the launcher farther away from the target allows for better survivability. The most effective place to terminate an enemy missile launch is at the launch point itself, either by a direct assault on the launcher or via interference in the post launch navigational correction period. During the first Gulf War, a number of Special Forces teams from the US, UK, and Israel wandered around Iraq seeking out Scud missile launchers. When they could not disrupt the launch, they provided launch warning to Patriot missile batteries in Israel and Saudi Arabia. These forward observer teams were the key to the success of the Patriot missile system and their timely actions saved thousands of lives.
According to reports in the media, India allegedly does not possess the ability to deploy long-range reconnaissance patrols deep within the Pakistani territory. If we assume that somehow this peculiar disability can be overcome in times of crisis, by placing the missiles in heavily guarded Pakistani bases deep in Baluchistan, Pakistan could significantly limit India’s observation capabilities. In a more general sense, a longer-range missile platform can be placed farther away from regions where interference can be easily carried out.
Once the missile is launched, the enemy stands to gain a lot if a depressed trajectory or ‘lofted’ shot is used. Such a shot would dramatically affect the time allowed for the target country to react to the launch. Even if a Special Forces observer team is able to provide intimation of the launch, the exact computation of an intercept trajectory relies on getting accurate information from surveillance radar. The accuracy of trajectory calculations for a depressed trajectory or ‘lofted’ shot is poor.
At present the exact trajectories attempted by Pakistani missile tests is not in the public realm. In news reports of the tests, the Pakistanis maintain a deliberate ambiguity about the exact location of the launch. For example, the Ghauri missile launch complex is commonly referred to as “Tilla Jogian”, “Tilla Satellite Launch Complex” or the “Mashood Test Firing Range”. It is said that missiles launched from this complex, land in “Jiwani, Balochistan” – but the exact location has never been disclosed to the public. It is also unknown if any Indian radar system can track Pakistani missile trajectories during such tests. Clearly Pakistan is adept at using deception at the strategic level and keeping its enemies in the dark about its true capabilities.
Pakistan may also increase its chances of success by employing deception during the actual attack. By deploying decoy launchers and multiple launches, Pakistan can distract the defencive forces of India. These decoy launchers would confuse ground observer teams and lead to false alarms. The multiple launches could easily overload the computational resources of the target country. A simple sequential launch scheme would cause India to devote computational resources to the first set of launches and then lose the ability to track subsequent launches. At present Pakistan has given no indication of what sort of exact missile warfare plans it is contemplating.
From the Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile (ATBM) perspective, there is a small window to sight the incoming ballistic missile, find the warhead in the clutter, compute an intercept trajectory and commit to an ATBM launch. After the commitment phase, it is all about how good the data was at the point of commitment and whether the ATBM that was just fired followed the trajectory programmed into it. At present the best available ABM systems can do Mach 4, that allows for modest success in intercepting slow moving warheads (around Mach 3-4) – provided sufficient time is allotted for the detection, discrimination and commitment phases of the ATBM radar. The exact numbers on range, speed, computation time etc. are not in the public domain.
If the Pakistanis can increase the velocity of the warhead, the ATBM will not be able to make the intercept. It is important to keep track of the terminal velocities of Pakistani tactical ballistic missiles. If the Pakistanis can raise the range of the weapon, then in a lofted shot or depressed trajectory, they will be able to dramatically reduce the time available to India’s ATBM radar to capture information about the incoming threat. These relatively minor adjustments to the existing missile platforms in Pakistan allow it to significantly alter the threat posed to India.
Over the last two decades, India has successfully invested in radar technology and built up a serious ATBM option. The public disclosure of INS problems in Pakistan’s long-range platform will most likely spur the Pakistanis to make exactly the kinds of improvements needed to reduce India’s advantage on the ATBM front. Despite all evidence to the contrary, one cannot pretend that technically competent Pakistani scientists can never exist. Also given Pakistan’s extensive involvement in the black market in missile technology, the possibility of a sudden improvement in their capability cannot be ruled out.
A robust investment in anti-tactical ballistic missile technologies is desirable but developing a false sense of security around these systems is not. Our anti-tactical ballistic missile initiatives should not become the modern idols of Somnath. India must seek to constantly expand its envelope of missile intercept options and technologies.
Sunil S is the former editor of the Security Research Review at bharat-rakshak.com