Pakistan’s deterrence efforts in 2016 (and beyond)
December 1, 2023
Air Weapons Complex (AWC) Ra'ad air launched cruise missile. Photo credit: ISPR.

Pakistan’s deterrence efforts in 2016 (and beyond)

Pakistan had been relatively quiet last year in terms of testing its strategic deterrence assets. The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) did undertake two land-attack cruise missile (LACM) tests in the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) in January and Babur Version-2 LACM in December. However, neither Islamabad or Rawalpindi clearly signalled the intent match India’s recent advances, such as its acquisition of a locally built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) or recent (but fourth) Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test with a direct analogue or counterpart.

Functionally, Pakistan has already procured what it needs to envelop India. The Shaheen III medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which was last tested in December 2016, possessed a range of 2,750 km, and is sufficient to cover India. Going further by procuring an ICBM would require Pakistan to cross its self-imposed condition of “minimal deterrence”, which essentially posits that the purpose of its nuclear deterrence assets is to deter India. ICBMs would run contrary to that condition.

This is not to suggest that Pakistan would stop improving its ballistic missile inventory. While it has limited incentive to expand its range coverage, Pakistan could potentially work to improve its warhead delivery – e.g. through improved inertial navigation systems (INS) and maneuverable warheads. There is little doubt that India’s efforts to strengthen its air defence umbrella is keeping Pakistan’s SPD alert, for fruition in the opposition’s ability to intercept ballistic missiles will dent Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence efforts.

With comparatively limited work required in ballistic missile development, the bulk of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence work had gone into tactically-oriented munitions, namely cruise missiles (e.g. Babur) and the Nasr short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). This was paired with efforts to secure miniaturized plutonium warheads, which could be deployed using the Nasr, Babur, and Ra’ad. In this respect, analysts have been paying attention to how Pakistan continues to develop its LACM capabilities and, in turn, expand the range of available deployment assets for those LACMs.

First, it will be worth observing if Pakistan succeeds in procuring longer range LACMs, either by extending the range of the Babur (700 km) and Ra’ad (350 km), or securing a new design. The incentive for longer-range LACM stems from the fact that the LACMs benefit from many delivery platforms, such as aircraft and – if the fourth Azmat-class fast attack craft (FAC) is poised to carry the Babur – even small boats. With LACMs possessing 1,000 to 1,500+ km in range, Pakistan would add depth to its deterrence inventory.

In terms of extending range, Pakistan will need to build domestic competency in miniature turbojet and turbofan development. This is contingent on organic research and development (R&D) funding. The extent of Pakistan’s organic R&D in these critical LACM technologies is not known. Considering the difficulty of procuring these systems off-the-shelf, one would expect Pakistan to begin investing (if it has not already done so) in these areas. Otherwise, the Babur and Ra’ad will not see significant change beyond their present forms. There is little sense in Pakistan to not undertake serious work in this area when LACMs benefit from flexibility in terms of deployment platforms and conventional usage. The latter is important because it contributes to Pakistan’s stand-off engagement capability, providing it the ability to strike distant targets within enemy territory from within its own borders. There are few areas that Pakistan can fully commit to organic R&D, and in turn absorb technical failings and iterative updates, and LACMs would be a top contender for such funding. Interestingly, the U.S. placed sanctions on Pakistani entities engaged in LACM work, namely the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) and Air Weapons Complex (AWC). Thus, it is plausible that the U.S. believes that additional LACM R&D activities in Pakistan are underway, enough to necessitate sanctions (to prevent U.S. firms from contributing to the effort).

In parallel with adding depth to its India-centric deterrence inventory, Pakistan will work to increase the number of available deployment assets. Because of their small size and relatively light weight, LACMs can be deployed from a wide range of platforms, including fighter aircraft and small surface warships. This is pivotal for Pakistan’s efforts to build a naval deterrence leg; LACMs can, theoretically, be deployed from the Pakistan Navy’s conventional submarine and surface fleet assets. There are possible hints of such work taking place, most notably with the fourth Azmat-class FAC, which is shown exhibiting a revised 2×3 anti-ship missile (AShM) launcher in lieu of the 2×4 AShM. This indicates that the fourth Azmat FAC could carry a larger and heavier missile, potentially the C-602, but the Babur as well.

Considerable attention had been paid to Pakistan’s recent purchase of eight new-built air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines (SSP) from China. The specifics are not known, but it appears that the SSPs are being procured to bolster Pakistan’s anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. With AShM and heavyweight anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedoes, these SSPs will be used to guard Pakistan’s coasts and coastal assets (e.g. shipyards) and, potentially, undertake limited interdiction roles along Pakistan’s sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) or sea lanes. It is unlikely that these SSPs are being bought for a primary deterrence role, but deterrence can be a secondary role. Success in this area is contingent on Pakistan’s ability to secure a submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Developing an SLCM, be it a variant of the Babur or a new design, will depend on Pakistan’s organic R&D in this area.

India’s procurement of several nuclear-powered submarines, such as the domestically built INS Arihant nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), has lent some circles to question if Pakistan would acquire an analogous solution. Unlike SSPs, an SSBN would be a dedicated deterrence asset. Functionally, it has little purpose beyond deploying SLCMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). SSBNs are technically complex and expensive systems. Procuring one would require Pakistan to manage more than just the acquisition costs, but also the cost of maintenance, managing acoustic signatures, and keeping a track on safety (from the miniaturized nuclear reactor and nuclear-tipped munitions).

SSBN users have been able to tolerate these drawbacks and improve upon them because SSBNs offer long-range strategic attack capabilities, but Pakistan’s geographic proximity to India does not necessitate such a capability. The added cost and complexity of procuring that capability is also unnecessary. Money going into an SSBN (or two) is money being taken away from SSPs or other programs, such as frigates. It is unlikely that Pakistan will deprecate general capabilities (via additional SSPs and frigates) to acquire a dedicated deterrence asset that cannot be utilized for A2/AD or SLOC protection.

Overall, Pakistan’s greatest gains would be seen in enhancing its cruise missile technology, such as range extension, and adding conventional assets – such as SSPs and combat aircraft – capable of deploying cruise missiles. Investment in these areas bolster Pakistan’s conventional and deterrence elements collectively, thus saving it from the prospect of having to spend on one while sacrificing the other.