Pakistan’s recent tests of its Tactical Nuclear Missiles suggest a lowering of the threshold for nuclear conflict. More portentous is the underlying assumption of Tactical Nuclear Missiles being ‘fair weapons for battle-field usage’ in conventional conflicts. If the missiles are deployed in a manner as envisioned, it would rapidly escalate tensions, also increasing the possibility of a conventional war quickly spiraling into nuclear catastrophe.
Pakistan’s testing of the two short range nuclear-capable tactical missiles in April 2011 is a development of crucial significance for South-Asia. The Hatf IX (Nasr) missile, test-fired on April 19, is a short range ballistic missile with a range of 60 kms, capable of being used against Indian targets across Pakistan’s Eastern border. The Hatf VIII (Ra’ad), tested on April 29, is an air launched cruise missile with a range of over 350 km, and reportedly incorporates stealth characteristics and high maneuverability that enables Pakistan to achieve a greater stand-off capability on land and at sea.
No sooner had the Nasr been test-fired, Pakistani strategists and analysts hailed it as a counter to Indias Cold Start doctrine.
What makes these events critically defining is the fact of this being a rare instance of back-to-back tests to two Pakistani nuclear capable missiles that fit into the tactical weapons’ (TNW) category. While much hype in the subcontinent surrounds the testing of the long-range strategic ballistic missiles (SNWs) – India’s Agni II and Agni III; and Pakistan’s Shaheen I and Shaheen II – not much media attention seems to have been given to Pakistan’s pointed emphasis on the development of tactical missiles, seen by analysts as representing an equally ominous threat.
The testing of the Nasr is especially significant. On the eve of its testing, the Pakistan Inter-Services Agency released a press statement, describing the Nasr as a ‘Nuclear Capable’ Short-Range surface-to-surface multi-tube ballistic missile that can be tipped with nuclear warheads of appropriate yield and high accuracy. The missile, it said, is a “mobile, quick response system that addresses the need to deter evolving threats”, thus confirming Pakistan’s long-assumed tactical nuclear weapons program. Photographs of the missile system released along with the press release, showed a two-round system mounted on a Chinese-origin high-mobility truck chassis, also used by the Pakistan Army’s 300mm Multiple Launch Rocket (MRL) System. The adaptation of the MRL platform suggests that Pakistan may have developed or is acquiring nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on a missile with a much smaller diameter.
The missile system, they noted in unison, establishes that a tactical nuclear weapon can now be deployed by Pakistan very close to its eastern border with minimum reaction time to counter any armor or mechanized thrust by an enemy (read India) into Pakistani territory.
No sooner had the Nasr been test-fired, Pakistani strategists and analysts hailed it as a counter to India’s Cold Start doctrine. The missile system, they noted in unison, establishes that a tactical nuclear weapon can now be deployed by Pakistan very close to its eastern border with minimum reaction time to counter any armor or mechanized thrust by an enemy (read India) into Pakistani territory. Nasr’s diameter seems to suggest that the warhead would be less than one kilogram, and of sub-kiloton range. Such a warhead, according to Pak analysts, is suitable for battlefield use and could be used in case of a “misadventure by the Indian Army” across the border.
A Serious Threat
Nasr’s development represents a peril for India that can only be described as ‘profound’. To begin with, it is a tactical weapon that appears to be for “actual use” and not meant to pose just a “notional strategic threat”. Even though the Nasr has a much shorter range than any of Pakistan’s other small-distance nuclear capable missiles, its development is a pointer to the fact that Pakistan can now build small nuclear warheads for all kinds of delivery platforms. It also, more-or-less, confirms that Islamabad may be consolidating its plutonium reserves and would be disinclined to accept any cap in production in the foreseeable future.