Off Ramps Review: The Misguided MIRV-BMD Link

Editor’s note: This is the first piece in South Asian Voices’ review series of the Off Ramps Initiative, a Stimson Center project that examines the trilateral nuclear arms race between China, India, and Pakistan and proposes innovative ideas to decrease nuclear dangers in Southern Asia. Each author in this three-part series will review an Off Ramps proposal and offer a critique as to the proposal’s viability and impact it could have on nuclear deterrence in the region. Read the entire series here.

The nuclear arms race between China, India, and Pakistan has kept issues related to nuclear deterrence in the spotlight for almost two decades. This trilateral dynamic reached a new level of complexity last January when Pakistan tested its Ababeel missile. This missile has the ability to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) or warheads and can thus strike multiple targets with “high precision, defeating the enemy’s hostile radars,” according to a press release from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations agency.

The Indian security establishment responded with renewed calls to accelerate the induction of India’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capabilities. This context forms the backdrop of Sadia Tasleem’s essay entitled “No Indian BMD for No Pakistani MIRVs” as part of the Stimson Center’s Off Ramps Initiative. This prescriptive proposal recommends Pakistan forgo its MIRV capability if India renounces and dismantles its BMD systems. Nonetheless, her propositions remain unworkable given that BMD and MIRVs are not comparable technologies, with the former representing an Indian effort to preserve its stabilizing no-first-use (NFU) nuclear doctrine.


Tasleem’s argument is an important one in that it advances nonproliferation goals by limiting the spread of two important deterrence technologies. In particular, Tasleem suggests that if both India and Pakistan are unwilling to sign a formal treaty related to MIRVs and BMD systems, India and Pakistan should adopt a voluntary, political commitment followed by a “unilateral moratoria” on their respective programs. Such moratoria could then be codified into a formal agreement within a five-year period.

Tasleem also provides a succinct overview of the challenges both India and Pakistan might face in trying to achieve such an agreement. In particular, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has a “financial stake” in the development of BMD technologies and may consequently resist eliminating the program. For Pakistan, giving up its MIRV ability while India continues with the development of its own MIRV capability may be a non-starter given Pakistan’s desire to achieve offensive nuclear asymmetry in response to India’s conventional superiority.

Considering the significance of these technologies, it is understandable that India and Pakistan’s threat perceptions have compelled each country to formulate countermeasures as a strategy for survival. However, Tasleem seems to advance a misperception about these technologies that justifies Pakistan’s pursuit of MIRV capabilities. This article, therefore, challenges the argument posed in Tasleem’s essay on technical grounds and reaffirms the logical basis for India’s BMD program development.

Inescapability of BMD due to Indias nuclear doctrine

India’s logic for developing its BMD capability stems from its stated nuclear posture of NFU of nuclear weapons. Once functional, BMD infrastructure would neutralize most scenarios of nuclear first strike and allow India’s political leadership to launch a retaliatory second strike. It also supports nuclear stability and security by allowing India to keep its nuclear weapons in the lower state of readiness and de-mated from missile delivery systems. As a senior Indian military official has argued, “the first-strike capability of nuclear-weapon states with smaller arsenals can be negated by BMD, and because the arsenals of no-first-use states are relatively small, protecting a second-strike capability is an absolute necessity.”

For any nuclear country with an NFU doctrine, attaining an effective BMD system is thus a logical step. India’s BMD program began in the 1990s and tested its first interceptor in 2006. Over this period, China and Pakistan have developed and tested their own ballistic and cruise missile systems. Apart from the Ababeel test, Pakistan also successfully tested its Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile from an underwater mobile platform last January. In February 2017, China launched its MIRV-capable inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Dongfeng or DF-5C, with a range of over 12,000 kilometers that encompasses the entire subcontinent.

As such, it is understandable why India, a country that is sandwiched between two nuclear states, has developed its BMD system. It is also notable that India has planned to only place its BMD systems at two undisclosed locations, further reinforcing the Indian position of protecting its high value targets and not proliferating weapons. At the moment, however, India’s BMD systems are not fully functional given technical and resource challenges.

Pakistan’s pursuit of MIRVs, which are a cost effective and accurate form of expanding its nuclear deterrence, necessitates India’s development of BMD. As such, India is moving ahead with developing a full-fledged BMD capability in order to maintain the sanctity of its NFU posture and retain the high moral ground in matters of nonproliferation. It is also clear that BMD for India is a primarily defensive technology, unlike MIRVs. Any offensive technology has repercussions in the form of creating a security dilemma for other states that only exacerbates the arms race dynamic. Thirdly, with the continued activity of non-state actors in Pakistan and the belligerent stance of the Pakistani military towards India, BMD provides the first-line of defense against any case of nuclear brinkmanship or blackmail. Therefore, to equate Pakistan’s MIRV development to India’s BMD systems, as Tasleem does, is not technologically or logically coherent.


The concern raised in Tasleem’s article is a worthy topic for discussion, but linking Indian BMD and Pakistani MIRVs simply does not add up in the way she describes. Striving for a fully functional and accurate BMD system fits perfectly within India’s stated NFU nuclear doctrine. Conversely, Pakistan’s first-use doctrine mandates an approach of massive retaliation to a conventional Indian attack. Indeed, Pakistan continues to develop additional warheads and delivery systems under the guise of responding to Indian BMD. However, it is clear that the uniquely defensive nature of India’s BMD cannot be equated with Pakistan’s pursuit of MIRVs and other nuclear weapons technologies. As such, proposing a trade for Indian BMD and Pakistani MIRVs is ultimately an unworkable prospect.


Image 1: My Past via Flickr.

Image 2: Ajai Shukla via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in , Doctrine, India, India-Pakistan Relations, MIRVs, No First Use, Nonproliferation, Nuclear Weapons, Off Ramps Review, Pakistan

Pooja Bhatt

Pooja Bhatt is a PhD candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (Diplomacy and Disarmament division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also working as a Research Associate at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi on Nine Dash Line project. In the past she interned at Indian Council of World Affairs, Sapru House. Pooja focuses on issues related to strategic studies such as civil- military relations, nuclear energy and disarmament, counterterrorism, and maritime issues particularly South China Sea.

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4 thoughts on “Off Ramps Review: The Misguided MIRV-BMD Link

  1. Well, it seems like a Tit for Tat response lacking substance, while, completely overlooking the concept of BMD- MIRV synergy. Furthermore, BMD systems are ‘inherently destabilising’ as these inculcate a sense of security ( false) and may become a trigger for preemptive first strike. India going for Preemptive option is already being debated in policy circles, by shunning the NFU policy ( though verbal). BMD capability would certainly be a step in that direction. Whether India adopts preemptive policy or even stick to NFU during actual conflict remains Foggy / unclear , as in actual situations you don’t expect decisions going as per book and laid down procedures. REMEMBER CLAUSEWITZ ‘S DICTUM : FOG OF WAR & FRICTION.
    So, mutual restraint by both sides on BMD – MIRV is a step in the right direction.

  2. Pakistan’s china supplied MIRV missile fools no one. Pakistan is not negotiating from a position of strength and has made no bones about using WMDs as tools of barely concealed blackmail if need be to compensate for the unbridgeable gap with India economically and militarily.

    All the while pakistan forgets that all this MIRV bunkum and ‘full spectrum’ deterrence balderdash are imaginary as no nuclear weapon is tactical and the very thought of using MIRV as an offensive weapon is taking irresponsibility to new heights.

  3. The development of India’s BMD is a cause of concern for Pakistan, as an effective system would to a certain degree negate Pakistan’s strategic strike capability. It will force the armed forces to counter it, a solution which would prove to be both costly and time consuming. India has thus, contributed to an unhealthy arms race between the two countries.

  4. I am a great fan of debate here at Stimson Centre, I thought Pooja has made a good claim but, thank you Syed you helped me to had a second thought now. Stimson Centre and Pooja could you please correct and improve. Thank you.

    Courtesy: CPSD

    ‘To realize the deterrence dynamics and arms race in South Asia, I’ve invited my old friend Kotalya Chanakya, from a very great distance.’

    S: Hello! ‘Chanakya, good to see you’.

    C: ‘Yes’. ‘Thank you Syed.’ ‘I am glad that you’ve invited me to discuss the South Asia’s concerns’; ‘no one understands it better than I do’.

    S: ‘Well.’ ‘That’s true.’ ‘Without wasting much time’, ‘I’d like to ask you’, ‘how do you see this stagnate mess of nukes and dangers in today’s South Asia?’.

    C: ‘South Asia is the region, which hosts the major risks for a nuclear war. When I look at some leading academic sources from a very great distance, I get surprised to know, they’re misleading’. He replied.

    S: ‘Misleading?’ ‘I didn’t get that?’

    C: ‘Syed.’ He smiled. ‘Did you get that words?’

    ‘The nuclear competition among China, India and Pakistan is accelerating’ writes Stimson Centre, ‘the nuclear arms race between China, India, and Pakistan…the trilateral dynamics’ writes Pooja Bhatt for South Asian Voices.

    S: ‘What are they guys up to?’

    C: ‘Well,’ ‘I am in a great disagreement.’ ‘Syed. ‘I believe it’s the bilateral dynamics rather than trilateral’. ‘I mean it’s either Indo-Pak or Indo-China competition that accelerates concerns’.

    S: ‘I strongly agree.’

    C: ‘Well, ‘Syed, let’s press on with the topic and investigation’; Can India’s Ballistic Missile Defence be linked with its No first Use Policy?’

    S:‘Yes’But I am afraid,’ ‘I’ll not take an unyielding position’

    ‘I’ve read a well-researched essay entitled “Off Ramps Review: The Misguided MIRV-BMD Link”, which perfectly links, India’s BMD-NFU’ I added.

    C: ‘Oh! That article’. ‘Syed, I believe she is far behind her reading’.

    S: (Surpised) ‘How is that,’

    C: ‘Well, ’She sounds illogical by saying, “Once functional, BMD infrastructure would neutralize most scenarios of nuclear first strike and allow India’s political leadership to launch a retaliatory second strike…It is also notable that India has planned to only place its BMD systems at two undisclosed locations”(blushing)

    ‘Syed, Can one neutralize most scenarios of nuclear first strike by placing BMD at only two undisclosed locations?’

    S: ‘No,’ I wonder’

    C: ‘God forbid’ — ‘if some of the Pakistani Ababeels penetrated in that two undisclosed locations, there will be no place for us to hide’. ‘I mean, it’s either not the two undisclosed locations’, or ‘if it’s otherwise?’, ‘then it’s dangerous and, destabilizing’. He then added.

    S: ‘How is it dangerous and destabilizing?’

    C: ‘Well, ‘Placing BMD at only two undisclosed locations, raises concerns over survivability of command, control and communications. I mean, a wise leader would always raise concerns over its survivability’. This is truly destabilizing. It could force Indian brinkmanship to look for the nuclear first strike, in crisis.’ He added.

    S: ‘That’s logical. Even it’s unfair with rest of the country (India), except the two favourite places (Where BMDs are installed), which enjoys the lures of false sense of BMD security’.

    C: ‘Syed’

    S: ‘Yes – go on please.’

    C: ‘Pooja further said, “India’s logic for developing its BMD capability stems from its stated nuclear posture of NFU of nuclear weapons”.

    S: ‘Man.’

    C: (smiling) ‘I told you she is far behind her reading.’ ‘Syed, ‘I would like you to have a look at what India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said’, “If a written-down strategy exists or you take a stand on a nuclear aspect, I think you’re actually giving away your strength in nuclear…Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly”.

    S‘Well, That’s strange’, India’s defence minister believes in the nuclear first use’

    C: ‘I believe Narang has made a good case’; he said, “India consist of a large force of so called, “encapsulated” or “canisterized” systems in which the warhead is likely to pre mated in delivery vehicle and kept hermetically sealed for storage and transport”.

    S: (surprised) ‘Now, I am sure India has a first use policy’,

    C: ‘Syed,’‘Can a relatively less powerful state afford to behave aggressive in a conventional manner, against a superior power?

    S: ‘Well,’ That could be possible in terms of nuclear weapons, but conventionally, I believe it’s very rare thing to catch.’

    C: ‘True Syed,’

    S: ‘But you’ll be angered and surprised to know Pooja had a different point of view’

    C: ‘Oh,’ ‘what did she said now’

    Both Laughed

    S: ‘You know,’ She said, “The belligerent stance of the Pakistani military towards India”.

    C: ‘Sounds illogical,’

    S: ‘Sir, thank you so much for such an informed insights but I would like you to forecast the future of South Asia’s Strategic Stability, how do you see South Asia in the near future?’

    C: ‘Thank you,’ ‘Syed,’ I’d love to predict that’;And indeed, I haven’t yet spoken Arthashastra’. But I suggest, leave it for the next meeting’. ‘I’ve to go, I am getting late’, King Maurya is waiting for me’.

    S: ‘Well, Thank you so much once again’, I appreciate you’ve taken time to travel from such a great distance. I’ll soon invite you for another insightful talk’. I said.

    Good Night!

    (Whispers) where is my Arthashastra… I’m getting late….

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