India tested an indigenous anti-missile system along the coast of the eastern state of Orissa, on the Bay of Bengal, on Nov. 27, and made a public announcement about the atmospheric intercept system (AXO) later the same day. Little is known about the AXO program; the intercept was within the known scope of India's Russian-built SA-10 and SA-12 surface-to-air missiles and patently beyond the scope of either of India's domestic missile programs — the Akash and the failed Trishul. Lessons learned from the Trishul — and successful subsystems of the program — could figure into the AXO's development. Pakistan is at a fundamental strategic disadvantage to India. Not only has Islamabad been engaged in a game of catch-up since India detonated its first nuclear device in 1974, but the country lacks India's strategic depth. All three versions of India's short-range ballistic missile, the now two-decade-old Prithvi, could hit any target in Pakistan, and all three have been fielded in militarily significant numbers.
Pakistan, on the other hand, could probably only deploy fewer than 10 Ghauri missiles — its most advanced medium-range ballistic missile — against the Indian subcontinent. Only the Ghauri II could actually strike at all of India. Pakistan does field a nuclear arsenal, and its ability to deploy those weapons against India should not be understated. To help balance the military relationship on the subcontinent, Pakistan reinforces its defensive capabilities by supporting nonstate actors operating in the region, including Kashmiri militant groups, Bangladeshi Islamist militant groups and rebel movements in northeastern India. However, in terms of a nuclear exchange, Pakistan's comparatively narrow geography leaves it at a strategic disadvantage. Its weapons are functional, but less advanced and therefore probably less reliable than those of India. Now India has further weakened Pakistan's position by unveiling the AXO anti-missile system, which is already in the test phase. However, India historically has been quick to proclaim the success of its missile programs, even in the face of failure. India's Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) played up the July Agni III test
, despite its failure. The unveiling of the AXO is symptomatic of the same tendency. For example, the DRDO made repeated use of the word "supersonic" as an adjective in its announcement about the AXO. This is like Airbus advertising a new "flying" jet; all anti-missile systems must be supersonic, or they would have trouble shooting down even turboprop aircraft. Also, the Nov. 27 test was almost certainly highly orchestrated, much like early U.S. tests of the U.S. ground-based midcourse interceptor. The troubled U.S. program also serves as a reminder of the obstacles India has yet to overcome. Operational success of a layered missile shield
is an enormously complex and expensive goal — one the United States has yet to complete, even with investment now exceeding $100 billion. India is attempting to field a single missile design and has so far only demonstrated a comparatively basic but nonetheless noteworthy ability to put two missiles — both of which are controlled by Indian scientists — in the same chunk of three-dimensional space at the same time. Thus, the DRDO's announcement of its new supersonic AXO is reminiscent of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars announcements. Years from maturity, and perhaps as much as a decade from meaningful operation, India's program nonetheless reminds the Pakistanis of what they are not doing. Plagued by the same game of catch-up that eventually bankrupted the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, Pakistan must now compete against India in yet another arena. Even a nascent Indian anti-missile system could be sufficient to challenge — although not completely defend against — Pakistan's numerically small medium-range arsenal. However, Pakistan and China signed a memorandum of understanding Nov. 24 agreeing to cooperate on developing airborne early warning (AEW) surveillance systems. Pakistan and China have a long history of collaboration on matters of defense, most recently on the FC-1/JF-17 fighter aircraft, which will provide an important complement to Pakistan's F-16 fleet. The command-and-control that an AEW platform provides would be a great boon to Pakistan's ability to coordinate air superiority campaigns. Developing Pakistan's ability to face India militarily is in China's interest. While China seeks collaboration with India in the economic realm
, it maintains a strong defense relationship with Pakistan in order to keep New Delhi on its toes and prevent India from threatening Chinese interests in the region. Pakistan's upcoming $1 billion acquisition of a Saab/Ericsson AEW system also will be welcomed by the Chinese scientists working on an indigenous Chinese AEW and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) program; the United States has systematically attempted to block Chinese access to Western AEW/AWACS technology. With its strong defense alignment with China and occasional but significant assistance from the United States, Pakistan is far from out of the game with India.