In response to India’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme, Pakistan on January 24, 2017, conducted its first ever flight test of a new medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), the Ababeel. A press release issued by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), stated that Ababeel is “capable of carrying nuclear warheads and has the capability to engage multiple targets with high precision, defeating the enemy’s hostile radars.” The weapon system, as per ISPR, is “aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional BMD environment.” Pakistan had earlier tested, also for the first time, its Babur-3 nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). It is apparent that the Pakistani focus remains on survivability and penetrability to assure strategic retaliation.
A major driver behind Pakistan’s pursuit of SLCMs was to increase the survivability of its nuclear arsenal, partly assuaging the “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma. Between the SLCM and the Ababeel, Pakistan’s selfavowed focus on survivability seems real enough, even if India’s existing BMD capabilities are quite modest. Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRVs), as they were conceived of during the Cold War, were pitched by U.S. and Soviet planners as a cost-effective way to defeat BMD systems. The logic behind this was the observation that it was almost always cheaper to produce additional warheads than additional missiles.
MIRV is a ballistic missile payload containing several warheads, each capable of being aimed to hit one of a group of targets. By contrast a unitary warhead is a single warhead on a single missile. An intermediate case is the multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) missile which carries several warheads which are dispersed but not individually aimed. Only the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China are known to currently possess MIRV missiles.
If Pakistan intends to develop its capability for counter-value targeting, Rawalpindi could forgo the more complex work required to develop MIRVs and simply go with MRVs. The most advanced MIRV payloads allow for precision-targeting of the independent reentry vehicles, permitting for counterforce use. That capability could however well fit in with Pakistan’s stated position that it could use battlefield nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces, in the event of an Indian attack as part of its ‘Cold Start” strategy. Also, MIRVs reduce the concern about survivability, as multiple warheads are available with which to retaliate for every missile that does survive. In Pakistani calculations, if Pakistan had MIRV capability, India would be less sure to fully disarm Pakistan in a scenario where India responds to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons by Pakistan in response to India’s Cold Start offensive by massive retaliation. This would leave Pakistan with the option to launch a strategic second-strike (“third” strike overall). This strategy wouldn’t necessarily require Pakistan to pursue further research into developing manoeuvrable reentry vehicles for its MIRVs since it would be interested in a counter-value strike. MIRV capability could thus potentially be used as a deterrent, making India rethink its options of massive retaliation, in the event that Pakistan uses its tactical nuclear weapons in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine.
To build this capability, Pakistan would however require a large number of warheads. It is already one of the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenals. This would also impact on India’s nuclear doctrine where a debate is already raging on the efficacy of No First Use (NFU). It could also push India to develop battlefield nuclear weapons, in which a war scenario could well lower the threshold of the possibility of their use, and the possible impact on strategic stability. As of now, however, clarity does not exist on the capability of the Ababeel missile. Is it what the ISPR is claiming, or is it mere posturing. Time will tell.