If you liked the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, you’ll love providing U.S. technology or hardware to India for ballistic missile defenses.

The deal between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, affirmed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Indian Parliament in 2008, was characterized as a boon for U.S.-India relations and a grave threat to Pakistan’s national security. It was widely heralded by U.S. advocates as opening the Indian market to American-designed power plants, combat aircraft, retail goods, and insurance companies. The deal was also supposed to usher in a new era of strategic cooperation, as Washington assisted New Delhi to become a counterweight to China. In Pakistan, the deal was seen as the harbinger of a steep build-up in Indian nuclear forces.

Wildly optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the deal have been unwarranted. So far, the deal has mostly been a damp squib. Seven years after its announcement, Indian policies continue to make it very hard for U.S. firms to invest and to sell their goods and services. U.S. military cooperation and arms sales have certainly increased – which would have been the case with or without the deal – but New Delhi remains as vigilant as ever in protecting its strategic autonomy. Indian leaders will continue to resist choosing between Washington and Beijing – unless Beijing becomes belligerent. Over time, increased U.S. market share in some sectors are likely to be realized, but for now, the dividends are far below expectations. (For particulars, see my posts, “Six Years Later, I & II,” on 6/27/11 and 6/30/11.)

The only true believers in the civil-nuclear deal, besides its U.S. boosters, were the stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. After the deal was struck, Pakistan’s requirements for credible deterrence, which were set high to begin with, appear to have grown higher still. Three related developments seem especially noteworthy: the start-up of construction on a fourth plutonium production reactor to increase Pakistan’s inventory of nuclear weapons, the imposition of a veto against negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty, and the explicit requirement for battlefield, or tactical, nuclear weapons. The first two appear to have been a direct consequence of the deal; the third was a consequence of the Indian military’s adoption of a “pro-active” defense doctrine (known as “Cold Start” in some circles) and a growing disparity in Indian and Pakistani conventional capabilities, as well as the deal.

The civ-nuke deal added insult to injury in Pakistan, where it was perceived as providing an international escort for India to sit at the high table of states possessing nuclear weapons, while leaving Pakistan out in the cold. The deal was characterized as a threat to national security because it permitted a significant influx of foreign-origin nuclear power plants and fuel; because Indian authorities stated their intention to build eight new, unsafeguarded domestic power plants; and because India’s breeder-reactor program would produce a flood of new fissile material.

These worst-case planning factors have not panned out. True, India has purchased uranium from abroad for its power plants, freeing up domestic material for bomb-making, but the Indian Parliament continues to resist liability limits for foreign companies, which stands in the way of power-plant construction for the United States and other sellers. Domestic construction of power plants also remains in the doldrums, and the ambitious plans of India’s Department of Atomic Energy for breeder reactors are as suspect as those of the Defense Research and Development Organization for the development of tanks, planes, and missiles. [For a withering critique of the DAE and DRDO, see Verghese Koithara’s outstanding new book, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (2012).]

DRDO’s promises have become even more wildly optimistic under the leadership of Dr. V.K. Saraswat, who is now promoting effective, near-term ballistic missile defenses for Delhi and Mumbai. Just as few in the Pakistani media question their military’s nuclear requirements, few in the Indian media question the claims of DRDO and DAE. Instead, they serve as a transmission belt and lobbying arm for these enclaves. A case in point is this unsigned article in the June 24th issue of the Indian Express:

Delhi and Mumbai, the two most vital metros of India, have been chosen for DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence system that can be put in place at short notice.

The detailed proposal is being prepared for final clearance from the Cabinet Committee on Security.

The strategic planning has already begun to install the BMD system in the two cities and the final proposal will be put before the government after detailed analysis of the entire project, sources said here…

To ensure maximum protection against air-borne threats, DRDO will put a mix of counter-attack missiles which will be able to shoot down enemy missiles both within earth’s atmosphere (endo-atmospheric) and outside it (exo-atmospheric).

The BMD system will require minimum human intervention due to the complete automation of tracking devices and counter-measures. Human intervention will be required only to abort the mission, the sources said.

After successful implementation in Delhi and Mumbai, the system will be used to cover other major cities in the country, they added.

India appears to have flight tested six BMD interceptors – two of which were liquid-fueled. The United States, in contrast has flight-tested 67 interceptors since 2001, 53 of which have very generously been labeled as successes. Even so, U.S. BMD programs face severe challenges. If Dr. Saraswat is to be believed, India will not need U.S. assistance for ballistic missile defense deployments. Far more likely, significant U.S. assistance would be required – if BMD deployments are a higher priority for New Delhi than new ships, planes, and improved equipment for ground forces, and if the necessary funding can be found.

All of these premises are dubious, but this need not foreclose Indian requests to Washington for ballistic missile technology transfers. As readers of these posts know, I favor limited U.S. BMD deployments and technology transfers in tense regions where U.S. allies and friends are threatened by the nuclear and missile programs of outlier states. In my view, Washington has a responsibility to protect partners and to demonstrably shore up non-nuclear weapon states in this way, among others. In these cases, BMD deployments have symbolic value, while shoring up the Nonproliferation Treaty and offering the possibility to counter rudimentary missile threats. These arguments don’t apply to the subcontinent, where Pakistan and India have significant missile inventories and growing nuclear arsenals, outside the purview of the NPT.

The civil-nuclear deal and DRDO’s record of poor performance suggest that it would be wise to avoid unduly optimistic and pessimistic assessments about Indian missile defenses. Nonetheless, U.S. technology transfers for BMD, like the civ-nuke deal, would have little up-side potential and considerable down-side risk. These transfers would not help India produce an effective missile-defense system, nor change New Delhi’s embrace of strategic autonomy. They would, however, add further impetus to a three-cornered nuclear arms competition in southern Asia. President Obama has not endorsed BMD transfers, but President Romney might.