Since China’s rise to power and threat to dominate the Asian continent, India and the United States have collaborated on defense issues in the region. For instance, both states are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or the Quad—the strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. For this reason, India’s missile defense policy is of great importance to U.S. defense policy in Asia.

In 2002 when President George W. Bush took the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, India was the first state to publicly support the President’s decision, and shortly followed suit with the construction of its own missile defense system. India’s security environment present’s the country with several challenges, including sharing borders with its nuclear-armed historical rivals, Pakistan and China. Pakistan lies to the Northwest of India, and since establishing its independence in 1947, the two states have gone to war four times. The last of those wars, the Kargil War in 1999, occurred when both states had nuclear weapons, and the prospect for nuclear escalation was high. The specter of the Kargil War was a primary driver for India to develop its first missile defense systems in November 2006. The Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) was designed for high altitude targets and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) was designed for low altitude targets. In addition to the threat posed by Pakistan, China’s modernizing A2/AD capabilities have also been driving Indian missile defense development due to China’s ballistic and cruise missile arsenal being capable of striking targets on the Indian mainland.

India’s missile defense program began in 1996 when it acquired technology from Israel to build a Long-Range Tracking Radar (LRTR), also called the Swordfish, and is capable of picking up enemy missile launches up to 300 km in range. In 2006, India tested its first interceptor capabilities with the PAD and AAD systems, and in 2009 tested its first ship-launched interceptor, the Dhanush. The Indian government has divided its missile defense program into two phases. The government announced that Phase 1, which entails intercepting endo-atmospheric targets, was completed in April 2019, and has begun Phase 2, the interception of atmospheric targets, with its testing Prithvi Defense Vehicle (PDV) which is reported to have intercepted a missile at a 100 km altitude. While Phase 1 was designed primarily to defend against Pakistan, Phase 2 has been geared towards defense against China, and India is also working on an “integrated phase” that uses Phase 1 and Phase 2 missiles together.

Air Defense Capabilities

One component of India’s air defense is the Akash Air Defense System. The Akash is a medium-range, mobile, surface-to-air missile. It is capable of targeting enemy aircraft around 28 miles away. India first tested the Akash in 1990, but in 2009, it was finally incorporated into the Indian Air Force (IAF). Then, in 2010, the Indian Army began to acquire its own Akash missiles. In September 2021, the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) tested an updated version of the missile—the Akash Prime. This missile has an enhanced active radio frequency for improved accuracy. However, beginning in 2016, the Indian government approved the development of the Akash – New Generation (Akash NG). The Akash NG will have a better reaction time, protection against saturation attacks, a dual-pulse solid rocket motor, and an active electronically scanned array Multi-Function Radar (MFR). [i]

India also uses SPYDER systems. In August of 2009, the IAF purchased 18 SPYDER-medium range (MR). The SPYDER-MR is a mobile air defense system that fires Python-5 and Derby at enemy aircraft. Following the Balakot Airstrike, in February 2019, India used one of its SPYDER systems to shoot down a Pakistani surveillance drone at the Indo-Pakistan border. [ii]

The Indian military also makes use of old Soviet and Russian air-defense capabilities. The 2K22 Tunguska is but one example. This Russian tract anti-aircraft weapon is armed with a surface-to-air gun and missile system. Its low-range capabilities render it suitable for defending infantry and tank regiments from enemy aircraft. India also makes use of the 9K38 Igla, the primary man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) of the Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force. This Soviet MANPADS can fire at an aircraft up to 3.7 miles away with a flight ceiling of 11000 feet. [iii]

Missile Defense Capabilities

In the 1990s, India began developing the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) system for high altitude interception in response to the threat that it faced from Pakistan. It was successfully completed and tested in 2006, making India the fourth country to develop an anti-ballistic missile system after Russia, Israel, and the United States. It is accompanied by the Advanced Air Defence (AAD), which specializes in lower altitude interception. This double-tiered shield has the capability to detect any incoming missile from up to 5,000km away and includes a network of command posts and early warning tracking radars.[iv]

India has recently set up its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program around its capital of Delhi, of which both PAD and AAD are a part of.[v]

In November 2012, India demonstrated it possesses the capability to intercept multiple missiles with the launch of the 5,000-kilometer-range Agni-5. At India’s Wheeler Island test range in February 2017, it tested the Prithvi Defense Vehicle” (PDV), its latest high-altitude interceptor similar to the U.S. THAAD system. Both the PDV and its lower-tier counterpart, the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) intercept incoming missiles in the terminal phase and use an explosive warhead to destroy its target as opposed to the hit-to-kill technology used by most U.S. systems. In terms of radar capabilities, India has acquired three Green Pine radar systems from the Israelite Arrow missile defense system, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) solid-state radar that operates at the L band with a range of 500 MHz to 2,000 MHz. The Swordfish Long-Range Tracking Radar is a derivative of the Green pine and is capable of detecting targets at ranges of up to 500 km and can track more than 30 targets at speeds over 3,000 meters per second.

SystemRoleNumber DeployedPlatform
Prithvi Air DefenceExo-atmospheric Anti-ballistic missile75 interceptorsBEML-Tatra TEL 8 × 8
Advanced Air DefenceEndo-atmospheric Anti-ballistic missile75 interceptorsBEML-Tatra TEL 8 × 8
Long-Range Tracking Radar (Swordfish)Long-Range Tracking Radar2 facilitiesTransportable multi-mode solid-state active electronically scanned array
Prithvi Defence VehicleExo-atmospheric interceptor missileN/ABEML-Tatra TEL 8 × 8
Akash Air Defense SystemMedium-Range Surface to Air Missile Defense20 batteriesT-72 or BMP-2 chassis or Tata Motors Heavy Mobility Trucks
Barak 8 Air and Missile Defense SystemMedium-Range Shipborne Air Defense 2 Destroyers Kolkata class destroyer onboard integration
Quick Response Surfac to Air Missile (QRSAM) SystemShort-Range Surface to Air Missile DefenseUnknownAshok Leyland 8 x 8
S-400Long-Range Surface to Air Missile DefenseUnknown (5 systems purchased)6 x 6 BAZ-69092 vehicle

Current Developments

In October 2016, India agreed to purchase five Triumf S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, instead of purchasing the Patriot Pac 3 from the U.S. The S-400 is a Russian, mobile, surface-to-air missile (SAM) system first deployed in April 2007. With an operational range of 400 km, the S-400 is one of the most advanced air-defense systems to be deployed, equipped with a 91N6E panoramic radar detection system that has protection against radar jamming and can track up to 100 incoming targets.

India’s purchase of the S-400 has been received negatively in the U.S. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), imposed sanctions on Russia in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and military presence in Syria. As India’s purchase of the S-400 would benefit Russia economically while it is still being sanctioned, the U.S. has accused India of helping Russia to circumvent CAATSA. The U.S. has responded by threatening sanctions against India, although no official decision has been made.

In November 2021, India began receiving supplies for the S-400 from Russia, which to date has not been hindered by the war in Ukraine.[vi] While the Biden administration has not made an official decision to sanction India over the purchase, the Trump administration did apply similar sanctions to U.S. ally Turkey in 2017, also over the S-400. The decision to sanction Turkey has had significant effects on military-to-military relations, including the cancellation of further sales of the U.S. F-35 to Turkey and the prohibition of Turkish pilots to train on the F-35. India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Asian security initiative between the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia. Applying sanctions on India in response to the purchase of the S-400 may negatively impact broader U.S./India relations, including efforts to establish a security initiative against China. 

In June 2022, India successfully test-fired its homegrown nuclear-capable Prithvi-II surface-to-surface missile, which has a strike range of 220 miles, can carry 1100-2200 lbs of warheads, and uses an advanced inertial guidance system with a maneuvering trajectory to hit targets. India also successfully completed flight testing of the Vertical Launch short-range surface-to-air missile (VL-SRSAM), a ship-based system designed to eliminate close-range aircraft threats. India continues to grow its missile defense systems in an effort to compete with both China and the United States.

Today, India has several different variations of its Agni missile. Agni-1 has a range of 700 km; Agni-2 has a range of 2,000 km; Agni-3 has a range of 2,500 km; and Agni-4 has a range of 3,500 km. India’s Agni-5 is either already in service or preparing to be; there is no official confirmation. Soon after the Agni-5 was tested, the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief said India was not ready to end the Agni program. The Agni-6 program has been in development since at least 2013 and has two unique features. First, the Agni-6 has a range of over 10,000 km; second, it carries MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) capabilities. [vii]

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