China is reported to have conducted the second test of its missile interceptor system on January 27, 2013 in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.1 Quite symbolic of China’s postural patterns, the reported test comes exactly three years (and 16 days) after the first test of its ballistic missile defence (BMD) system on January 11, 2010. Like in 2010, China has divulged little details on the system or technology used in the latest test, except for terming it as ‘defensive in nature’.2
In all probability, this seems to be another development test of the same system, which, I assume, is a reconfigured version of either the DF-21C or DF-25, referred to in some circles as the KS/SC-19.3 Both these medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) are two-stage systems with around 1500-1700 km range and capable of carrying a 600 kg payload (in this case, an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle). China was presumed to have used a reconfigured variant of the same system for its ASAT test of January 2007, when it hit a weather satellite in low-earth orbit.
Another variant – the Kaituozhe 1 (KT-1) – was also known to be the vehicle for its commercial space launches.4 Reconfiguring these missiles to hit a satellite-size target would not be a tough task, though hitting another missile moving at a higher velocity is a challenging endeavour, which China seems to have mastered with its demonstration of an outer-space interception in 2010, confirmed then by the Pentagon.5
However, the element of doubt that is left behind by the latest test is the absence of any reference to exo-atmospheric interception. Though China has an inventory of advanced air defence systems of the Hongqi series (including HQ-9 & -12), it is unlikely that an interception exercise with any of these systems will be projected as a missile defence effort. Nonetheless, there are few indicators to discount the development of another missile interceptor with operational roles for the lower or theatre level.6
Assuming that the Chinese effort is to counter US BMD systems, besides responding to the inroads India has made in interception technologies, its pursuit of a multi-layered architecture cannot be ruled out. By divulging very few details, China has again left the world guessing on the contours of what could be an advanced BMD programme with regional and global implications, like its ASAT incarnation.
Challenging the US BMD footprint
With the US theatre (PAC-3) and boost-phase (Aegis SM-3) interception platforms showing up in East Asia, Beijing was invariably expected to respond with a similar capability. Though countering a BMD with another need not be the ideal strategic move, China’s missile defence efforts are seemingly geared towards negating the asymmetry caused by the presence of US BMD systems in its neighbourhood.7 Beijing can consider such deployments as impinging on its deterrence and retaliatory capabilities just as Russia saw a similar challenge from the earlier US plans to deploy the Ground-based Mid-Course Defence (GMD) system in Eastern Europe. It is hence no surprise that both Russia and China are developing exo-atmospheric interceptors that will negate any advantage that the US will seek to gain by the addition of defensive systems to its net offensive capability.
The Chinese pursuits come at a time when the feverish development of missile defence systems raises the potential of altering deterrence equations based on assured destruction. Though mutual vulnerability was at the core of such equations during the Cold War, Washington’s propensity to limit its vulnerabilities through a consolidation of offensive and defensive capabilities has propelled many other nuclear weapon states towards the same path. The pursuit of a multi-layered architecture with boost, mid-course and terminal interception capabilities has thereby emerged as the standard technological goalpost for nations developing missile defence systems. The possibility of a new Chinese interceptor for the lower-tier could be seen within this matrix, even though the actual architectural contours of China’s BMD programme remains speculative.
What’s in it for India?
The other dimension of the latest test is about what it augurs for India. Though India debuted in BMD development before China (originating in the late-1990s and the first development test in 2006), there were few indicators in China’s January 2010 test to assume that it was also meant to counter the Indian missile programme. No such Indian missile system was then considered potent enough to warrant a Chinese exo-atmospheric interceptor (despite being wary of the intermediate-range missiles of the Agni series).
Rather, the Chinese were always confident of deterring India with their ability to hit vital assets in northern India through the missile systems deployed in the southern military regions. Even the primary Indian BMD platform – Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) system – with a proclaimed capability to intercept incoming missiles of over 1000 km range at 50-80 km altitude is deemed to be effective only against slower and shorter-range Chinese missiles, thus leaving the scope for China’s faster and longer-range systems to hit the Indian heartland.
The scenario of 2010 though has dramatically changed now. Irrespective of what the Chinese had tested last month, it comes months after India demonstrated the capability to hit Beijing with the Agni-V. The new strategic calculus created by Agni-V could have convinced China on the need to develop capabilities not just against the US (and Russia), but also its southern neighbour. Simply so, the second BMD test has a message for New Delhi: namely, it needs to propel the development of its long-range (implying exo-atmospheric) interception capabilities to mitigate the possibility of further asymmetry with China on strategic forces.
In fact, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had earlier announced plans for an exo-atmospheric system (PDV/AD-1&2) to target missiles with over 5000 km range and interception capability at around 120 km altitude. This effort, though, is known to be impeded by the absence of long-range tracking systems, as early-warning radars and optical homing systems are at the core of attaining long-range and/or high-velocity interception capability.
As India prepares to address these impediments, another overlooked aspect of the Chinese BMD capability is the likely opportunities that Pakistan stands to garner from its all-weather friend. With its increasing dependence on Chinese military hardware, there remains a strong possibility of Pakistan gaining access to China’s BMD systems as they mature towards deployment. Owing to anxieties of losing its strategic edge to India’s BMD systems, and with no advanced interception capabilities to flaunt for itself, Pakistan may seek an early transfer of Chinese interceptors, even if in nominal terms, in order to project a capability against India’s offensive forces.
China could also gain an opportunity to justify such transfers in the event of a US interceptor landing up in India or if New Delhi activates the technology cooperation corridor on missile defence systems as envisaged in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) of 2004. Though the possibility of US systems like PAC-3, THAAD or even the SM-3 being sought by India is not immediately foreseen (considering DRDO’s propensity to develop these capabilities indigenously), a China-Pakistan channel of cooperation in BMD technology is an eventuality that Indian security planners need to seriously contemplate.
That Washington had been muted on China’s second BMD test indicates its propensity to reconcile with Beijing’s acquisition of this capability.8 However, such complacency may not prove to be long-lasting as China’s pursuit of BMD capability will primarily be intended to counter the US strategic pre-dominance in the region, besides augmenting its own deterrent by adding defensive systems to its net offensive capability.
Consequently, China is likely to pursue a multi-pronged deterrence agenda along the following lines: (a) sustain a colossal offensive forces inventory to project massive retaliation and overwhelm US defences; (b) develop a nation-wide BMD shield to protect its population centres and military assets; and (c) continue to deter India through southern deployments, but also project the BMD shield as a means to counter the Agni-V or other Indian systems.