India and the Phalcon sale
Remote sensing satellites can determine the patterns of enemy forces, detect the gaps and keep an eye on military movements. Indian satellites can therefore become a potent threat, especially during a nuclear standoff
India plans to buy more sophisticated defence equipment from Israel, a country that has already become the second largest exporter of arms to New Delhi. The latest item on the shopping list is the Israeli-manufactured Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS), which will cost India US$1.2 billion. While the deal went through last year, the delivery of the system was delayed after Washington asked Tel Aviv to postpone its deal in the wake of India-Pakistan standoff. Now that the subcontinent is limping towards a peace process, the US, earlier this month, gave Israel a nod to go ahead with the transfer. India plans to mount the system on Russian-built aircraft to watch the border with Pakistan and is “tying up some issues, including with the Russians, before completing the purchase”.
Earlier, the United States had a nearly five-year diplomatic standoff with Israel after Tel Aviv struck a deal with Beijing in 1996 for sale to China of the Phalcon system. Under incessant pressure from Washington, Tel Aviv finally called off the deal in early 2001. US officials have indicated that Washington has no objection to Israel’s deal with India since Tel Aviv needed to be recompensed; besides, the sale would keep the system away from China.
Reacting to the development, Pakistan has warned it would not sit back if the deal comes through. Foreign Secretary Riaz A Khokhar, while addressing the UN Conference on Disarmament, described the unfolding situation as a matter of ‘utmost importance’ to Islamabad. He maintained that the sale would drastically affect the conventional military balance in South Asia, adding that India and Pakistan should strive for strategic stability in the region instead of entering into an arms race with each other.
Sources say, however, that Pakistan is not merely concerned with India’s bid to acquire high-tech military technology. The defence establishment has long been alarmed by India’s efforts to integrate its air defence system with its ambitious space programme — “a mechanism which was either not well in place during the Kargil episode or failed at that time” — to extract maximum strategic advantage in case of a flare up with Pakistan.
India already has an ambitious, though at many places stalled, IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme). But its crust is formed by the Ground Environment System — a cluster of radars along with its western and northern borders — that works with civilian air traffic control to detect unwanted flying objects in Indian airspace while its core is constituted by the Base Air Defence Zones, set up to guard key nuclear and military installations.
Indian defence experts believe the prospects of a penetration into the airspace are negligible. Some of them argue, however, that a “sneak attack” cannot be ruled out. Such a scenario — which, they think, Pakistan is capable of creating — assumes that one or two F-16s, after outmanoeuvring the Indians, can drop a nuclear bomb on New Delhi. But this contention is challenged by another group of analysts which maintains that such a strike would require a greater number of aircrafts — “since the bombers would be protected by the escort planes” — and as the Indians see a formation like that in their airspace they would presume that a nuclear strike is underway.
Sources believe if such a defence mechanism is underpinned by remote sensing satellites — and “almost five of them are orbiting the earth” — it will have major implications for Indian military operations. They recall New Delhi’s claim of sharing “intelligence information” — in a bid to implicate Pakistan as a terrorist state — with Washington shortly after the September 11 attacks took place. Some believe the package contained satellite images of alleged “terrorist camps” in Azad Kashmir, though the US did not pay much attention to Indian evidence “since it not only required Islamabad’s assistance at that time but also knew how countries tampered with such images to pursue their policy objectives”.
Remote sensing satellites can determine the patterns of enemy forces, detect the gaps and keep an eye on military movements. This not only has the ability to minimise an enemy’s options even before the first shots are fired in a war but can also help select appropriate targets for an air attack.
Indian satellites can therefore become a potent threat, especially during a nuclear standoff. While anti-satellite technology is expensive to acquire, it is equally difficult to ascertain the patterns of remote sensors movements, as it can be changed from time to time for security reasons.
Will it have implications for deterrence in South Asia? Experts nod at this question categorically. India’s nuclear doctrine declares that New Delhi is wedded to the notion of “no first use”. This requires it to bolster its defences to reduce the chances of a nuclear strike from an adversary. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not consider penetrating into enemy airspace — as some Indians assume — but it is liable to counter enemy offensives with its deterrent if it becomes impossible to thwart the attack using conventional means. Since this can only yield tactical benefits and add to the possibility of what New Delhi describes as ‘punitive retaliation’, it may use nuclear-tipped missiles in the next wave of attacks. Except for ‘Ghauri’, however, Pakistani missiles cannot target every corner of India.
Sources say, however, that there are two problems with this scenario: firstly, the range of Pakistani missiles is limited and secondly, the Indians are frantically working to develop an anti-ballistic missile system. In fact, a recent report in The Indian Express claimed that Washington could soon release the Patriot anti-missile system to New Delhi. If that happens, it will seriously call the credibility of Pakistan’s deterrence into question. Sources believe, however, that media reports like this are nothing beyond an indication that the Indians have outsmarted Pakistan on the diplomatic turf since New Delhi has persuaded the world that Islamabad has not ended “cross-border terrorism” due to excessive reliance on nuclear sabre-rattling.
“Such reports are but a way to pressurise Pakistan to get serious and talk peace,” said an analyst.
The writer is Assistant Editor at Daily Times