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South Asia Is Crowded With Missiles

January 4, 2022
The Shaheen IA in late November. Via ISPR.

As 2021 drew to a close a both India and Pakistan conducted missile tests just weeks apart. The pace of these demonstrations were remarkable as they all featured either new or upgraded road mobile missiles. What remains uncertain despite the transparency surrounding the launches is whether the missiles involved are meant to enhance growing nuclear warhead stockpiles or just improve the range and striking power of their respective militaries. It seems the latter is the case and this is more apparent with Pakistan’s efforts at introducing variants of its Babur and Shaheen missiles.

On November 25 the Pakistan armed forces’ official news agency the ISPR announced the launch of a Shaheen IA or Shaheen 1A road mobile short-range ballistic missile. The Shaheen family share a heritage with Chinese Long March rockets but have undergone many improvements for the past quarter century. The ISPR kept its language vague when describing the Shaheen IA’s purpose since the Shaheen I SRBM is an effective tactical weapon against sensitive targets like command posts, power stations, runways, and fuel storage facilities. With a range of 650 kilometers the Shaheen I is analogous to the Chinese DF-15 and the Iranian Zolfaqhar/Zolfagar.

As the holidays drew near another missile test was carried out involving the Babur 1B, which is an upgraded variant of the Babur cruise missile, and the primary result of this launch was determining extended range. In previous launches the Babur 1B could fly as far as several hundred kilometers. Glowing coverage by Pakistan’s media after December 21 revealed the Babur 1B is effective over 900 km, which doubles the original range that only reached 450 km. The subsonic Babur cruise missile–taking its name from the 16th century Mughal emperor–originated in the 1990s and has grown into a family with land and naval surface and subsurface variants.

India’s own schedule of missile test launches was more significant because these involved what are clearly nuclear-capable models. The first was on December 18 when the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) revealed the latest test for Agni-Prime or Agni-P IRBM that had a maximum range of 2,000 km. It’s understood the development of the Agni-P improves on the existing Agni IRBMs but the DRDO and India’s state-owned news agency aren’t too specific. The Agni family of intercontinental and intermediate-range missiles established India’s status as a nuclear-armed state with credible deterrence against peer adversaries like China.

Then on December 22 the DRDO introduced its new road mobile SRBM the Pralay that had a range of 500 km. The arrival of a new SRBM for the Indian armed forces is surprising since the Prithvi I and Prithvi II, together with the Prahaar tactical missile launcher, are sufficient for targeting an enemy’s critical infrastructure in a future war scenario. The Pralay looks like a new missile type comparable to the Russian-made Iskander-M and superior to the US-made ATACMS M57. The development of India’s tactical missiles is underrated and never taken seriously in assessing future conflicts. The eventual adoption of the Pralay is a boon for India’s conventional hard power as it can now match China and Pakistan should a build up of tactical missiles along tense border regions occur.

The available research on the nuclear arms race in South Asia points to a worrying trend where both India and Pakistan face no constraints as they enlarge their warhead stockpiles. At present each country is estimated to possess from 150 to 200 warheads each. If this continues either of them could end up with a hundred more warheads by 2030 and this may evolve the accompanying doctrine on nuclear weapons usage in wartime. In Pakistan’s case, based on its public record of missile tests, it has laid the foundations for a “nuclear triad” or a practiced means for launching nuclear strikes from air, land, and sea. India is already capable of this thanks to its success with the Arihant-class SSBNs. Meanwhile, Pakistan still has to develop its naval strength further and introduce the submarines that extend its nuclear deterrence beyond retaliation to a well-orchestrated nuclear attack campaign against its nemesis.

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