S-400 Ballistic Missile Defence System and South Asian Deterrence Stability Dynamics

Since its nuclearization in May 1998, deterrence stability has been of utmost importance for maintenance of peace and strategic stability in the South Asian region. October 5, 2018, saw yet another Indian deterrence destabilizing act when the Russo-Indian Summit at New Delhi inked India’s acquisition of one of the most advanced Russian origin Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) System – the S-400. Introduction of S-400 BMD System in South Asian strategic security calculus is expected to play a destabilizing role in maintaining an already fragile deterrence equation.
Historically, India has been known for its revisionist policies vis-à-vis Pakistan which has been looking for status quo with regard to balance of power. India being the biggest state in the region from all perspectives – including being a geographical and population majority – remains in quest for tilting the balance of power equation in her own favor for obvious strategic reasons. A few reasons to mention include: one, hegemonising the peripheral states including Pakistan; two, seeking the much desired ‘maha-bharat’ status; and, three, quest to become a major power. 
On the contrary, Pakistan supports restraint-based approach in maintaining peace and stability in the region. In the past, Pakistan had offered a number of viable strategic confidence building measures (CBMs), including keeping South Asia free of nuclear weapons and having a bilateral moratorium on nuclear devices’ testing, but unfortunately India has been dismissive towards any such suggestions. Pakistan, having sensed the Indian desire of acquiring BMD, had offered one of the most doable nuclear CBM titled ‘Strategic Restraint Regime (SRR)’ that specifically offered to address the acquisition of destabilizing BMD in the region. While Pakistan’s proposal of SRR still remains on the table, India seems to be on the trajectory of destabilizing the region. With introduction of BMD system in the Pakistan-India security setup, Pakistan suggested restraint-based CBM of SRR seems to have lost its relevance and time-barred like so many other previously proposed CBMs which by no means has a positive impact on peace building efforts. 
Indian S-400 Acquisitioning from International Relations Lens

Mearsheimer’s theory of Offensive Realism in International Relations (IR) manifests the Indian contemporary approach towards its international relations maneuvering. In his IR theory, Mearsheimer argued that [revisionist] states continue to seek tilting the balance of power in their own favor so as to hegemonize and one of the major approaches to seek hegemony is through building military muscles – the hard power. In simpler terms, modernization of armed forces has become an important mean to become a major power. India is visibly following Mearsheimer’s professed way of states’ behavior with regard to attaining major power status. Despite South Asia’s fragile strategic and deterrence stability situation, it remains involved in modernizing its military capabilities that pose a direct threat to peace and stability. Before an analytical account of S-400 is undertaken, it is pertinent to have basic knowledge about the system.

Challenges Posed to South Asian Deterrence Stability
Acquiring the S-400 BMD System shall have serious implications and challenges for South Asia’s deterrence stability. The first and foremost challenge is its ability to nullify or reduce Pakistan’s ballistic missile-based deterrence capability. Although Pakistan has its effective nuclear triad in place, the major chunks of delivery system of strategic weapons are missile-based. Acquisition of the S-400 would thus tangibly disturb Pakistan’s deterrence credibility. Secondly, being effective against cruise missiles and having the ability to detect even a small signature producing aerial vehicle – like drones and Nasr missile – the S-400 BMD System tangibly challenges Pakistan’s claimed ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD)’. Third, Indian ability to checkmate Pakistan’s ballistic missiles-based deterrence would encourage the Indian side to launch pre-emptive or surgical strikes. This superiority-based false sense of security against Pakistan’s strategic weapons might spiral up the limited escalation to an all-out war. Fourth, with a sense of superiority over Pakistan, India would further fine-tune its arrogant and dismissive attitude towards Pakistan, perpetuating the current deadlock in the Indo-Pakistan strategic dialogue process. Fifth, the sense of security rooted in S-400 might lead the Indian defence planners to operationalize the much globally trumpeted Cold Start Doctrine (CSD), which the Indian military leaders have been denying. Indians seem to have not come out of the embarrassing withdrawal after its 2001-2002 escalation and remain on the lookout for finding an opportunity to punish Pakistan Armed Forces by launching armored-based swift shallow attacks by opening multiple fronts along the international border while living below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Sixth, S-400 BMD System’s deployment could seriously question Pakistan’s assured second-strike capability as well. Although, Pakistan has an effective triad in place, yet, an ‘assured’ second-strike amounts to allaying the concerns of the strategic community in Pakistan. Lastly, S-400 BMD System’s exo-atmospheric capability of engaging incoming offensive missiles/warheads up to the height of 185 kilometers gives it dual-use capability of being used as ‘terrestrial-based space weapon’. In the backdrop of Pakistan’s Space Vision of 2047, India’s purchase of the S-400 BMD System gives it an edge over Pakistan where it can directly threaten Pakistan’s space-based strategic capabilities. India could employ the same S-400 missile to destroy Pakistan’s eyes and ears (satellites) meant to provide early warning, intelligence and to some extent, communication as well.

Response Options with Pakistan to Maintain Deterrence Stability

Albeit Pakistan has been on the course of opting for strategic restraint, but developments like introduction of BMD systems in South Asia’s fragile deterrence stability environment might compel it to take certain numbers of counter-measures or responses to balance the power equation. First of all, naturally Pakistan would increase the numbers of its missile carriers so that if some are lost to the accurate hit probability of the S-400 missile system, there are still some strategic missiles left behind to take on the Indian counter-force or counter-value targets. However, this option has two major strings attached to it to which global powers are allergic i.e., vertical missile and nuclear warheads proliferation. More numbers of missiles by Pakistan would need more number of warheads. Pakistan has been denying the allegations of being a fast-growing nuclear program, but now with a threat posed by the S-400 BMD System, Pakistan might have to do it virtually so as to save its existence, make its deterrence credible and lastly to protect its sovereignty.
Secondly, besides increasing the number of warheads and missile carriers, Pakistan would have to opt for introducing new missile technologies as well. Pakistan’s missile program is much advanced vis-à-vis India with regard to accuracy, fuel, aerodynamics and guidance mechanisms. Pakistan has already tested its Ababeel missile having Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology. Ababeel can take multiple warheads in general vicinity of intended targets which can then independently engage pre-fed targets. It is the best known technological response to counter the BMD systems. Pakistan might opt for developing hypersonic ballistic missiles besides super or hypersonic cruise missiles. Alongwith developing ultra-speed capable missiles, Pakistan is on the course of developing and acquiring unmanned drones. These drones either don’t produce or produce extremely small undetectable signatures which cannot be picked by the S-400 BMD System’s detection mechanisms. Though acquisition or development of such lethal weapon systems by Pakistan is needed for defensive purposes yet it remains tangent to the global quest of arms control and disarmament. Pakistan has been supportive of arms control and disarmament initiatives at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) level, however, it is compelled to address its security concerns by such weapon development acts, especially when the global powers view their vested interests supreme to South Asian region’s peace and deterrence stability.
Lastly, Pakistan’s strategic community could devise out-of-the-box doctrinal solutions to the threat posed to their missile-based deterrence credibility. Pakistan could opt for ground forces-led surgical strikes against S-400 missile sites that could spiral up the escalations. Moreover, despite stringent controls exercised by Pakistan’s robust command and control systems under National Command Authority (NCA), S-400’s deployment might pull the nuclear threshold towards the lower side which is least desirable. Besides that, the initial likely successful engagement of Pakistani strategic carriers by the S-400 missiles [in case Pakistan exercises its ‘First Use’ option] could panic the decision makers on both sides to fire whatever they have in their inventory, leaving behind the notion of ‘rationality’ redundant. Such an escalated use of nuclear devices by both sides due to the S-400 BMD system’s introduction makes it worthless and thus, Indian side needs to reconcile.
Pakistan is not going to compromise any strategic development that could endanger its sovereignty or existence. Pakistani nation and its armed forces are fully cognizant of the developments around its geographical and strategic domains and shall make all possible efforts to keep its deterrence credible while living along minimum side of the requirement. India’s intended procurement of S-400 BMD system would, therefore, mean a lot for South Asian peace and deterrence stability.

The writer has served as the Director at Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs (ACDA) Branch of the Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and is currently pursuing his PhD from SPIR, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. 
E-mail: [email protected]


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