By Manzoor Ahmed

Three aspects mark Pakistan’s much-touted and much controversial missile proramme. One is that it is mostly ‘copies’ of Chinese and North Korean missiles, the second is that it makes tall claims that are noted with suspicion by the strategic community and the third is that while invariably targeting India, Pakistan keeps expressing ‘concerns’ about India’s missile programme.

It is well-known that Pakistan began its missile development programme in 1987 long after, and to target, India — and nobody else. Late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto pioneered it and played an active role in it.

Shyam Bhatia, an Indian journalist who studied with her at Oxford, records her role in his book, “Goodbye Shehzadi” written after Benazir was assassinated in December 2007.

He quotes her on an incident wherein as Pakistan’s prime minister she visited Pyongyang. There were some nuclear weapons’ designs and devices to be exchanged with the North Koreans. Benazir said she solved the intricate problem of doing it without being detected by buying herself a large coat. She carried the stuff to be taken from Pakistan to North Korea on her body, tucked in that coat and on return, brought the North Korean consignment the same way.

Needless to say, Pakistan’s missile programme is as important to its civil and military establishment as the nuclear one. In both, Chinese and North Koreans have helped and the West and the non-proliferation community has, willy-nilly, condoned it.

It is also a given that the Chinese, the “all weather friend” of Pakistan, and the North Koreans who resent India’s strong ties with the South Koreans, have gone out of their ways, over a long period, to boost both these programmes of Pakistan.

The copying and tall claims charge sits appropriately on Pakistan’s head with the test-firing on January 24, 2017 of the latest surface-to-surface, nuclear-capable Ababeel missile having a 2,200 km range.

Pakistan has not revealed it, but it was fired from Sonmiani Bay facility in Balochistan province that is operated by Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) of Pakistan.

Actually, Ababeel is a Shaheen missile from China copied with a boast that they have re-entry capability. It is claimed as a vital technological and deterrence capability with the introduction of a missile with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) compatibility.

The Ababeel’s MIRV capability “means it can carry multiple warheads, instead of a single payload. Hence, it is a single missile that provides the strategic capability of hitting multiple targets with a single launch. Such missiles greatly increase the potency of a country’s strategic nuclear arsenal,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper wrote, obviously on the basis of heavy official briefing.


It said that Pakistan has become the seventh country in the world to now posses the technology that was developed in the late ’60s by the Americans and Russians.


Leaving nobody in doubt that it was doing what India had achieved earlier,  it said that India first tested a MIRV capable missile in 2012, with the successful launch of the Agni-V. India conducted its second successful test in 2013.


“The tests conducted by India had offset the strategic strike balance in South Asia. In order to maintain that balance, it had become vital for the Pakistani strategic forces to develop MIRV capable missiles.”


Pakistan’s strategic deterrence challenged India’s quest for a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system also challenged the effectiveness of Pakistan’s strategic deterrence. To counter India’s BMD, which is still in development, Pakistan had to develop a viable solution given the financial and resource constraints. Although the Ababeel has shorter range when compared with India’s Agni-V, it provides the needed deterrence.


Ballistic missiles equipped with MIRVs release their warheads typically in the post-boost phase, and reduces the effectiveness of a missile defence system, which relies on intercepting individual warheads. While an attacking missile can have multiple warheads, interceptors have a single warhead.


“Details and technical specifications of the onboard systems and missiles are closely guarded national secrets, in order to limit the counter measures that can be taken against such missiles. It is not yet clear how many MIRVs will be carried by the Ababeel,” Dawn wrote.


Ababeel Weapon System “is aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) environment.” The unstated part of this statement is that Pakistan trying hard to keep up with India.


Ababeel test came, just two weeks after Pakistan claimed of conducting the successful test of Submarine Launch Cruise Missile. This raises many questions for India. What do these rapid missile tests mean for India? Is India prepared to take on these threats? How true are claims made by Pakistan? At least Indian scientific community gives an assuring answer and missile experts take Pakistan’s claims with a pinch of salt.


Dr Avinash Chander, former Chief of DRDO and longtime head of India’s Ballistic Missile Systems including Agni has said that “India has a credible deterrence and our missile programme is capable of taking on any challenge.” However, he acknowledged that the test of the new surface-to-surface missile by Pakistan has changed the strategic threat dynamics in India’s neighbourhood and this needs to be factored in, in India’s future military planning and preparedness.


Interestingly, all the MIRV-enabled missiles are Long Range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles with a minimum strike range of over 6,000km. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that Pakistan has developed an MIRV-enabled missile with a range of just over 2000km.


Nonetheless, to meet any challenge from Ababeel, Indian scientists have been working on a two-layered missile defence system since few years. One is designed to kill an enemy missile before it even enters the atmosphere while the other is developed to shoot any hostile missile in the atmosphere.


“India is among the top few nations in the world who has a complete indigenous and highly-successful “Multi-level Strategic Deterrence” programme as well as a “Two-layer Ballistic Missile Defence” programme, says former DRDO Scientist Dr Ravi Gupta.


“Though Ballistic Missile tests being conducted in our neighborhood by a country with a hostile track record and its support to terrorist activities is indeed a threat to the world peace, India with its indigenous capabilities is fully prepared to take care of any threat,” he adds.


According to DRDO, India has already tested the missile defence system, including the capability to take down multiple warheads. The test of this capability was first tested five years ago. DRDO statement issued in November 2012 said, “A special feature of intercepting multiple targets with multiple interceptors was demonstrated successfully. An electronic target with a range of 1500km was launched and the radars picked up the target missile, tracked the target missile subsequently & launched an electronic interceptor missile.


Dr Chander wonders if Pakistan’s claim regarding MIRV technology in a short-range missile with a range of just 2,200km is true. According to veteran missile scientist, use of such technologies in a short range missile is difficult. Primarily, it is used in long range missile. So we need to wait for more substantial inputs to verify Pakistan’s claims.


Globally, only US, Russia and China have proven MIRV-enabled missiles in their arsenal. India is still working on it and it is expected that future generations of Agni missiles would be equipped with such capabilities.


Pakistan’s arguable achievement comes three weeks after being sanctioned by the United States that keeps a keen watch on Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes from the standpoints of proliferation and security.

On December 30, 2016, the US slapped sanctions on seven Pakistani entities associated with the country’s missile programme.

An official notification by the US department of commerce said that the entities added to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) list “have been determined by the US government to be acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the US,” Dawn reported.

All seven have been placed on the entity list under the destination of Pakistan.

They are identified as Ahad International, Air Weapons Complex, Engineering Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Maritime Technology Complex National Engineering and Scientific Commission, New Auto Engineering and Universal Tooling Services.

Pakistan has always denied any wrongdoing in connection with its nuclear or missile programme, and the paper said it was unable to verify if the names and addresses given were correct or in any way linked to the country’s missile programme.

The conduct of these seven entities “raises sufficient concern that prior review of exports, re-exports or transfers (in-country) of items subject to the EAR involving these persons, and the possible imposition of licence conditions or licence denials on shipments to the persons, will enhance (the department’s) ability to prevent violations of the EAR”.