Quite recently, in January 2021, Pakistan has conducted a successful flight test of Shaheen-III ballistic missile, capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional payloads. It was first tested in 2015 and said to have a range of 2,750 kilometers. This enables it to reach the farthest points of India specially the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. These Islands hold great strategic significance for India since they are believed to provide assured land-based second-strike options to India.
Similarly, they are also critical for Indian missile testing. Shaheen-III is a medium-range surface-to-surface two staged solid fueled missile equipped with Post Separation Altitude Correction (PSAC) system. Being a solid-fueled missile enables rapid response capability and PSAC allows it to have better trajectory and accuracy with the capability to evade the deployed ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems. Moreover, it can be launched through “Transporter Erector Launcher (TELs), which can move and hide. This makes the launcher more survivable as compared to the fixed launchers. As of now, the missile has not been operationally deployed.
This particular test was conducted by Pakistan to evaluate the design and technical parameters of the Shaheen-III weapon system. Moreover, the Arabian Sea was the point of impact. It was reiterated by Pakistan after the successful test that Pakistan’s nuclear capability is India-centric and the objective of its strategic capability is only to deter “any aggression” against the “sovereignty of Pakistan”. Missile tests in South Asia are routinely exercised as both countries are improving their capabilities of delivery vehicles to maintain the credibility of their deterrence forces. Moreover, they serve the purpose of “signaling” and “readiness” of forces. Just last year, India has conducted 17 missile tests, amid its growing tensions at its northern borders while Pakistan conducted only two missile tests. However, to avoid inadvertent escalation and accidents both countries have the agreement on informing each other before missiles tests. Moreover, Pakistan believes in peaceful co-existence in the region.
Defence analysts believe that the Shaheen-III missile system’s development started in the early 2000s and initially, it was envisaged as a “Space Launch Vehicle (SLV). Therefore its successful tests and flights open up the possibility of space exploration for Pakistan as well. It is also believed that Ababeel, a Multiple Independently re-entry targeted Vehicle (MIRV) missile, is also compatible with the designs of Shaheen-III and II. Ababeel, a three-staged, solid-fueled, medium-range surface-to-surface missile was tested by Pakistan back in January 2017. Successful tests of the Shaheen-III missile system would likely enable Pakistan to acquire MIRV technology to maintain a credible deterrence force vis-à-vis India. To ensure the effectiveness and accuracy of different re-entry vehicles going in different directions, Pakistan has bought large-scale “optical tracking and measurement systems” from China. These systems would allow Pakistan to record high-resolution images of the whole process of missile launch till its impact (launch, stage separation, tail flame, re-entry, and impact).
It is worth mentioning here that Shaheen-III and other missile systems have been developed by Pakistan under its policy of “Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) which is in line with credible minimum deterrence. Since Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent posture is India-centric, the development of the Shaheen-III missile appeared as a compulsion for Pakistan that would enable it to target any part of India’s territory. This is very significant given the Indian development of Tri-services command in Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANC). Furthermore, the absence of the Shaheen-III missile would have given India a decisive edge to launch a land-based second strike after absorbing the first strike. Moreover, India is aggressively pursuing BMDs, therefore Pakistan must develop a weapons system that can penetrate these defenses to maintain the element of mutual vulnerability.
Unfortunately, some international commentators have linked the test with the bid for attention from Biden’s administration. This only reflects the lack of understanding of deterrence dynamics of the South Asian region by the west. The recent test was not something entirely new or threatening; it was an attempt to ensure the element of credibility in its deterrence capability by Pakistan.
Summarizing it all, Pakistan’s policy of full-spectrum deterrence, along with other components, aims at the provision of response options at all three levels; tactical, operational, and strategic that would cover the Indian full landmass and its outlying territories. The Shaheen-IIII missile system is in-line with this posture. It further aims at keeping Pakistan’s deterrence posture robust in face of growing threats from India. The latter, in its attempts to achieve the status of the regional hegemon and global power, is in a constant state of denial vis-à-vis the existence of mutually assured destruction. In pursuit of this, India is constantly acquiring and building technologies that are not favorable for deterrence stability in the region. In this regard, one of the former top officials of Pakistan has rightly said that the responsibility of maintaining deterrence and stability in South Asia lands on Pakistan’s shoulders. A strong manifestation of deterrence capability would likely remain a plausible option for Pakistan.
*Ahyousha Khan,Research Associate, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.