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Pakistan Flexed Its Shaheen I Ballistic Missile

November 20, 2019


On November 18, a Monday, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced a “training launch” was held involving a Shaheen I short-range ballistic missile. A video clip posted on social media revealed the missile’s ascent and then cut to a swirling dust cloud indicating the warhead’s impact. Footage of the Shaheen I’s flight was never shared to the public. According to ISPR a Shaheen I can be armed with “all types of warheads” (a polite choice of words to imply it’s nuclear capable) and has a range of 650 kilometers. This puts it on par with the Russian Iskander-M and the Chinese DF-15, neither of which are MTCR* compliant.

The Shaheen I SRBM is recognizable for its likeness to the Soviet R-17, also known as the “Scud A/B,” but with a different warhead. Developed throughout the 1990s the Shaheen I was activated in 1999 shortly after Pakistan revealed it possessed nuclear weapons–an unfortunate development that foreshadowed the limited Kargil War. Unlike large diameter battlefield rockets from the mid-20th century the improvements on the Shaheen I suggests its high accuracy. The shape of its warhead and the addition of four canards on the warhead’s rim indicate the missile adjusts its flight course before reaching the target. In the ensuing 20 years the “Shaheen” brand extended to succeeding missiles with greater reach.

The Shaheen II is considered an intermediate-range missile able to strike all of India’s major cities. Its heftier sibling the Shaheen III travels even farther and gives Islamabad an “umbrella” over Central Asia and the Middle East. Like other nuclear-armed Asian countries Pakistan maintains a broad selection of rocket artillery along with its nuclear-capable missiles. This is no coincidence as technologies for deploying both are interchangeable.

The November 18 launch of a single Shaheen I SRBM may seem routine but it did occur two weeks since India announced it was testing the K-4 missile designed for its upcoming nuclear submarines or SSBNs. Domestic problems have never discouraged Islamabad from maintaining its nuclear arsenal and some very important voices have spoken out on the matter. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in September, former US Defense Secretary Jame Mattis shared some very cutting remarks about Pakistan, describing the country as a hotbed of “radicalization” and a threat to regional peace.

“It’s a very twisted relationship between Pakistan and us,” Mattis said. “But when you take the radicalization of the society and you add to it the fastest growing nuclear arsenal I think in the world, you see why one of the points I would make that we need to focus on right now is arms control and nonproliferation efforts.”

Despite Mattis’ comments few countries tried to rein in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and, just as with North Korea today, no amount of pressure has kept Islamabad from enhancing these. When the US does employ sanctions and threats Pakistan responds by seeking China’s help for improving its military technology; it’s obvious the Shaheen-series of missiles are transported by Chinese trucks. Chinese expertise was no doubt vital for the success of the Babur cruise missile, the Nasr large diameter battlefield rocket, the Fatah rocket artillery system, and the Zarb anti-ship missile.

* The Missile Technology Control Regime or MTCR is a multinational commitment for controlling the spread of dangerous missile technology. One of its few achievements is putting a cap on how far export-ready ballistic missiles travel by reducing their range to less than 300 km. Beyond compliance and goodwill the MTCR is powerless to stop non-participating countries from assembling their own ballistic missiles.

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