Alarming arms race among Pakistan, India and China

Regional trio needs customised version of Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that once existed between US, USSR

Naveed Ahmad January 31, 2017
Pakistan Army soldiers at a ceremony. PHOTO: REUTERS

The ballistic missile defense (BMD) – a country’s ability to shoot down an incoming projectile – in Asia is challenging the deterrence equilibrium not only between India and Pakistan but also with China.

With Delhi being pivotal in Washington’s long-term policy of containing domination of Beijing, the calculus of threat-perception has become awfully complex. Former US President Barack Obama not only anomalously amplified China as a threat while submitting to Russia’s advances but also authorised development of space-based weapon systems known as Strategic Defence Initiative (or Star Wars) in Reagan years. For a layman, Strategic Defence Initiative is an interplay of a series of satellites and ground-based missiles that were then meant to shoot down incoming missiles from the Soviet Union and other nations. The nuclearisation of space aims to undermine the ballistic missile defence. China, which may surpass America in space research by 2030, will soon follow the suit. India will react too, prompting Pakistan to consider its options.

Ababeel to ‘neutralise India’s defence shield’

In the eventful month of January, Pakistan laid bare its submarine-launched cruise missile, Babur III, followed by testing of medium range ballistic missile Ababeel boasting 2,200-kilometer range. Not only does the last tested offensive projectile covers much of India but also adds Islamabad to exclusive club of countries – United States, Russia and China – to have multiple independently-launched vehicles. After the development and deployment of Ababeel, Pakistan will be able to launch a space-skimming missile with multiple nuclear warheads, which can target designated locations, seriously outdoing India’s missile defences. The joke is on Delhi now!

The fresh arms race scudded by Obama’s White House has already enabled India to declare extension in range of BrahMos cruise missile to 600 kilometres, which was not possible without her joining the Missile Technology Control Regime. Moreover, India has close cooperation in defence sector especially anti-ballistic missile development. The US ally has been working on its ‘multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle’ (MIRV) missiles too, which are likely to be based on Agni V. Until the “pivot of Asia” stirred up things, China was not considering modernising its nuclear and missile arsenal as urgently as now seems the case.

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For a strategic thinker, the Cold War model has limited significance considering triangular nature of deterrence. From threat-perception analysis to doctrinal evaluation, and development of weapon systems to actual deployment, Pakistan-India-China nuclear balance of power is mindboggling.

As for the existing capabilities, China can attack anywhere in India. A matching capability rests with Delhi, which obviously covers much smaller Pakistan too. Islamabad’s Shaheen III leaves India pretty much vulnerable.  China emerges the most advanced when it comes to missile defence while Pakistan being the least. In a real world, there is a greater probability of an India-Pakistan war than Sino-India. Notwithstanding efficacy issues of any missile defence systems, India is better shielded than its western neighbour. Thus, Islamabad’s development of MIRVs was necessitated to maintain mutual vulnerability or deterrence.

While it was India, which initiated arms race in the realm of tactical nuclear weapons by testing one at Pokhran in May 1998, Pakistan has steadfastly focused in perfecting its short-range Nasr missile meant to deliver low-yield payload.

Does Pakistan pose a bigger threat to India after Babur-III launch?

The next problem relates to Ababeel and India’s Cold Start doctrine, which aims to deny Pakistan justification to resort to its nuclear first-use option by inflicting rapid, fatal and limited attacks. With the MIRVs, Islamabad will have a choice as to whether to use tactical nuclear weapons on advancing India columns of tanks and infantry on its own soil or direct the punitive action behind the enemy lines in a more telling manner, demoralising the invasive troops.

Nonetheless, Pakistan has merely showcased a strategic option of delivering multiple warheads; the system requires resources and time to reach full maturity. Besides the size of the Ababeel arsenal, the released warhead’s capability to hit the target accurately will need painstaking research and investment.

India’s response to new developments has been mostly of disbelief and denial. Given its rampant over-confidence, Delhi is more prone to take chances in the event of a war. Its larger dilemma is the presence of nuclear extremists and anarchists at the helm of security establishment led by Narendra Modi. The aggressive ideologues are already having a difficult time holding back on declaration of first-use policy. Even if it does not pronounce, deployment pattern of its nuclear-capable missiles will provide a hint as to where it stands on declared policy of no-first use vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.

China, India and Pakistan need a customised version of Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that existed between US and the USSR. Though there’s little room for limiting anti-ballistic missile systems, the vulnerability of failing to protect the citizens in the event of a nuclear war is mutual. None of the three countries have the resources as well as priority to secure the population against nuclear fallout. What to talk of building bunkers, there has been no minimal training in civil defence in the wake of a conventional war. Though it is a horrifyingly risky undertaking, yet prospect of annihilation brings forth a humanitarian deterrent against use of nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, there’s no active, common confidence-building mechanism amongst the trio.

India's elusive 'Cold Start' doctrine and Pakistan's military preparedness

The Indian side often mocks Pakistan’s position of maintaining minimum credible deterrence. The strategic analysts there tend to ignore that Pakistan’s aim of credible minimum deterrence does not exist in isolation. If India keeps on importing fissile material and foreign expertise besides displaying more sophisticated delivery systems, the threshold of credible minimum deterrence will either increase or bluntly put be trashed. To clear another misconception, the MIRVs are meant to replenish and upgrade Pakistan’s deference capability and not upset it out-rightly which is neither intended nor realistic.

Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul and tweets @naveed360