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The Indo-Israel Phalcon Radar System Deal: Pakistan's Likely Response

cash and carry

Washington - Jun 25, 2003
The United States has in the past week given the green light for Israel's sale of its Phalcon airborne early warning radar system to India. Washington was previously opposed to this deal, citing high tensions in South Asia.

Now, the State Department has declared that recent developments in South Asia have eased tensions between India and Pakistan and thus the acquisition of this system by India no longer poses a threat to regional stability.

Interestingly, the United States had previously also been instrumental in pressuring Israel to scrap a similar deal with China, the major concern then being the enhanced Chinese detection capabilities against U.S. forces should China launch an offensive against Taiwan.

The U.S. State Department's official line that the current peace initiative has removed earlier concerns that had made Washington oppose this deal is baseless. The current peace initiative is not the first of its kind.

These have been seen time and again, yielding little or no success. In recent times, the Vajpayee-Sharif "Lahore Declaration" and the Vajpayee-Musharraf "Agra Summit" generated widespread optimism, but hopes were shattered in each case. It will be no surprise to see the current impetus for peace meet the same fate.

The Nuclear Framework
The approval of the sale in question is the latest in a series of mistakes made by the West in handling the South Asian crisis. The Indo-Israel deal on the Phalcon will increase the likelihood of a nuclear incident (an event short of a nuclear war-- in which a nuclear device is accidentally or deliberately detonated) in South Asia.

India already exercises strong military disparity against Pakistan with an army twice the size of its adversary, an air force, which is three times Pakistan's and a navy, which is four times as large.

This disparity is critical given the region's nuclear framework. Both countries, having declared their nuclear status, are striving to maintain a "credible" nuclear deterrent. This is especially important for Pakistan, being the much smaller and weaker party.

A quest to ensure a credible deterrent is also a major factor in Pakistan's refusal to sign a "no first-strike" pact with India. To maintain the deterrent effect of its nuclear capability Pakistan recognizes the importance of reserving the right to launch a nuclear strike in case of an Indian conventional advance.

Any development, that removes the credibility of the nuclear deterrent for either side is likely to result in efforts to expand the country's nuclear capability, thus raising the level of deterrence.

The acquisition of the Phalcon system will enhance India's air-strike capabilities. This will increase the disparity between the two countries. An appropriate response from Pakistan is likely to ensure that its nuclear arsenal remains capable of surviving an Indian pre-emptive strike.

Nuclear weapons, if ever used in South Asia, can be delivered predominantly by two means; aircraft or missiles.

The former is more vulnerable to air strikes since aircraft can be destroyed while still parked in aircraft shelters, as can the runways they use. Pakistan possesses the F-16 as the most likely medium for delivery of a nuclear weapon. It also has the Mirage III and Mirage V, which could be used for this purpose, however the F-16 is likely to be the preferred choice.

Now, to maintain a credible deterrent Pakistan has to ensure that its aircraft cannot be rendered ineffective by an Indian pre-emptive strike. If an Indian pre-emptive strike is capable of destroying important runways or aircraft shelters housing Pakistani delivery aircraft before giving Pakistan a chance to retaliate, the nuclear deterrent will no longer remain credible.

Contrary to the widely publicized indigenous nature of India's military technology, massive international military support over the years has greatly assisted India in enhancing its air capabilities. In the past three decades India is estimated to have received approximately 700 MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27, Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft from abroad.

In 1996, India closed a deal with Russia for delivery of 40 Su-30 attack aircraft. To further enhance the Indian air-strike capabilities, India has managed to acquire laser-guided bombs capable of destroying aircraft shelters housing Pakistani delivery capable aircraft. The first in the series of deals was closed with Russia in 1992, which delivered three laser-guided bombs of a 2250-kg combined payload.

This was followed by 315 Paveway II laser-guidance kits for British manufactured bombs in 1994. Finally, in 1997 the United States provided India with complete laser guided bombs, which were mated with Indian Air force's Jaguar aircraft. While the reasons for these military sales to India varied, the West nonetheless assisted in increasing India's air power vis--vis Pakistan and helped India inch towards a pre-emptive strike capability, strong enough to render Pakistani delivery aircraft useless.

On the other hand, the West came down hard on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program. The United States after imposing sanctions under the Pressler Amendment in 1990 refused to deliver F-16 aircraft to Pakistan that had been paid for by the latter before 1990.

Washington's premise was that the capability of the F-16s to be used as nuclear delivery systems made their delivery detrimental to South Asian peace. This move by the United States proved counterproductive, as having realized the vulnerability of the Pakistani air-base defense at the time and compounded by the inability to add more F-16s to their arsenal, the Pakistani planners decided to focus on the other option; ballistic missiles.

Although the Pakistani missile program had been underway for more than a decade at the time the United States cut off its aid, the inability to receive the F-16s intensified Pakistan's efforts to develop mobile delivery systems. Ballistic missiles, launched from mobile delivery systems are less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes.

The mobile systems allow wide dispersal of the missiles, making it more difficult for the adversary to target all functioning systems. In case of India and Pakistan, it is also difficult to determine the actual number of missiles possessed by either side and thus the initiator can never be sure if all systems in the enemy's arsenal have actually been destroyed in a pre-emptive strike.

An argument has been made that large number of ballistic missiles can enhance the deterrent effect. This stems from the fact that the inability of the enemy to destroy all delivery systems leaves the enemy concerned about a second-strike on its country, thus acting as a self-deterrent.

However, in the case of South Asia where reaction times are minimal, and communication channels unreliable, this argument does not hold. During a crisis both sides will disperse their arsenal as widely as possible. This would mean authorizing low-level personnel to launch nuclear weapons in case of a breakdown in communication channels.

Furthermore, if either side is willing to launch a nuclear strike on warning (LOW), after concluding that the adversary's strike is imminent, it will increase the likelihood of a judgement error, and thus a launch resulting from a false alarm. Needless to say that such an occurrence on either side is sure to see a response in kind.

Pakistan's focus on ballistic missiles as possible delivery systems for nuclear weapons has largely been intensified as a reaction to the growing disparity in air-strike capability vis--vis India. Any event that enhances this Indian capability further is likely to see acceleration in Pakistan's missile development, in turn resulting in a raised level of deterrence.

The Phalcon Deal
The sale of the Phalcon radar system to India will have this undesirable effect. The Phalcon is one of the world's most sophisticated long-range warning and control systems that will enhance Indian air-surveillance tremendously.

This system will allow India to execute a counter-air campaign against Pakistan more effectively and will also provide it with an enhanced capability to prevent a Pakistani air counter-attack. Furthermore, with the technology required to assess radar systems nonexistent in Pakistan, Pakistan is likely to take a more conservative view of Indian strategic defenses once the radar system is deployed.

This will inevitably lead Pakistani strategists to take an even more pessimistic view of the chance of survival of their aircraft in a sustained conflict, in turn leading them to focus more on missile development. The deployment of ballistic missiles, due to the unreliable command and control structure, as mentioned, can be the precursor to a nuclear catastrophe in South Asia.

It is disheartening to know that Washington's approval of this Indo-Israel deal has come at a time when Washington simultaneously seems to be involving itself in the current South Asian peace initiative.

This latest blunder by Washington will have the same effect that the refusal to deliver the F-16s did. The inability to acquire the F-16s caused Pakistan to actively develop and frequently test ballistic missiles. The present Indo-Israel deal is likely to exacerbate the situation further.

It is time the West realizes that sale of military hardware to India is not likely to help the situation in South Asia. The greater the disparity between Indian and Pakistani conventional and unconventional capabilities, the greater the likelihood of the use of unconventional means by Pakistan in a war.

The growing interest of the international community in finding a solution to the Indo-Pakistan conflict is because the world wants to avoid a nuclear holocaust. However, military sales like those of the Phalcon, which have at their back the same countries that are vowing to help the two sides achieve peace, are creating conditions that make such a catastrophe more likely.

Every missile test conducted by Pakistan in the past five years has been strongly condemned by the West. It has been rightly pointed out that these tests, in effect, are raising the level of credible deterrence in South Asia, which is both undesirable and unacceptable.

However, one thing the West seems to conveniently ignore is that it ought to take part of the blame for the recent Pakistani missile development. If the West, especially the United States, wants to continue providing military assistance to India, directly or indirectly, then so be it. But then no one has a right to condemn Pakistani ballistic missile tests, which make perfect strategic sense to analysts in the East and West alike.

SOURCES: Arnett, Eric. "Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in South Asia After the Test Ban." (1998). Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Stephen P. " Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War in South Asia: An Unknowable Future." (May 26, 2002). United Nations University Conference on South Asia

Press Trust of India. "US Approves Israeli Phalcon Sale to India." (22 May, 2003).

Press Trust of India. "China Declines Comment on US Approval for Phalcons for India." (May 22, 2003).

Ramana, M V. "Risks of LOW Doctrine." (2001) The Economic and Political Weekly, EPW Nuclear Notebook.

Salik, Naeem Ahmed. "Pakistan's Missile Development: Priorities, Challenges, Myths and Reality." (Spring 2002, Volume XXII-Number 1). Strategic Studies. Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

Moeed Wasim Yusuf is a researcher at the Brookings Institute focusing on nuclear weapons in South Asia.

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