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Analysis: Is Pakistan’s Next Strategic Focus on Boosting Munitions Output?

For countries seeking to maintain a credible measure of conventional deterrence, the Russia-Ukraine War has highlighted the importance of controlling one’s munitions supply-line from the design level all the way to production output. As depleting munition stocks became problematic, Ukraine had to wait on approvals to simply secure the necessary technology it needed to resist Russia, e.g., surface-to-air missiles (SAM), or stand-off range weapons (SOW), artillery shells, rockets, and so on.

Perhaps, then, Pakistan’s growing interest in developing its own SAMs and even air-to-air missiles (AAM) reflects this emerging reality, i.e., in war, one cannot take any external supplier for granted. Thus, one must maintain a robust munitions development and production capability to not just keep its war effort going, but potentially, establish some credible level of conventional deterrence. How could one deter an enemy from attacking if the enemy makes depleting their adversary’s limited munitions stocks a strategic goal?

To its credit, Pakistan took some ownership of this issue a long while back, most notably through its heavy investment in mass-producing small arms ammunition, tank and artillery shells, and unguided rockets. But now, the country is expanding its focus towards locally manufacturing guided munitions at scale, both for its domestic needs and, potentially, export. Projects like the Harbah NG anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), and Taimur air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) headline this effort.

However, offering a portfolio of designs is just one part of the equation. Ukraine’s struggles are exposing the necessity of having a reliable munitions production capability, i.e., churning out guided missiles at scale in both peacetime and wartime. Pakistan’s traditional calculus pegged a conventional war with India lasting several weeks, at which point it would either be resolved at the table or, if needed, escalate into a nuclear exchange (i.e., mutually assured destruction or MAD).

But that calculus was based on Pakistan’s experiences up to that point. The nature of conventional war is also prone to change, especially as new technologies enter the mix and/or doctrines evolve. For example, India formulated a strategy (“Cold Start”) of using rapidly mobilizable land and air assets to quickly enter, capture, and hold Pakistani territory. Pakistan had harped on resorting to nuclear weapons if India breaks a certain threshold, like eroding Pakistan’s conventional capabilities.

With “Cold Start,” India envisaged the idea of using its conventional forces to quickly strike Pakistan and render its nuclear threats moot. But in response, Pakistan formulated the idea of using ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ (TNW). Should India achieve in employing “Cold Start,” Pakistan would use TNWs against those specific Indian formations, thus using the destructive power of nuclear warheads in a more focused way that (theoretically) cannot justify an Indian nuclear response against cities. Put another way, Pakistan said it would use certain nuclear weapons in a ‘non-strategic’ way as though it was a conventional weapon.

Thus, how countries perceive conflict can change based on certain circumstances, such as doctrine, enemy objectives, and technology, to name a few. These changes can alter how Pakistan views conventional war in the future; for example, could ‘enough’ stocks of guided munitions ‘neutralize’ the Indian threat? If one has sufficient stocks of cruise missiles, guided bombs, guided rockets, drones, and other assets, is there a possibility of striking enough military facilities, powerplants, refineries, logistics centres, etc, to end a war?

India will certainly be asking the same question as, long before Pakistan, it sought to design and produce its own lines of SAMs, AAMs, and other guided munitions. In other words, a future conventional war could be less about capturing territory and, instead, racing to cripple the adversary’s warfighting stature. Overall, this picture would necessitate ample preexisting munition stocks, and capacity to rapidly replenish stores.

Thus, scaling up and producing in large numbers is a priority for Pakistan, but as a country with relatively limited industrial capability, this will be a challenging goal.

Indigenizing Critical Inputs

One critical step to solving this challenge would be to indigenize key inputs. One sign of Pakistan’s work in this area is its effort to develop its own miniature turbojet engine for cruise missiles. The NTJ-V1 is a modest start from a performance standpoint, but it is likely been a key factor in making designs like the Harbah NG ASCM and Taimur ALCM available for export. However, there is another aspect to the NTJ-V1 that could speak to Pakistan’s efforts to work through its production constraints – i.e., the shelf life.

The NTJ-V1 turbojet has a shelf life of 24 years. If this design is simple enough for Pakistan to manufacture at scale, then it can churn it out in large numbers. However, a second benefit is that Pakistan can build a large stockpile of these engines and, in turn, quickly move to assemble cruise missiles as required.

The second benefit is that the NTJ-V1 could be a common engine for different cruise missiles, such as the Harbah NG ASCM, Taimur ALCM, and potentially other projects, like the KaGeM V3, a new long-range and long-endurance loitering munition being developed with Baykar Technologies. With the one engine design supporting many different munition models, Pakistan could spread the research and development (R&D) and production overhead going into the NTJ-series across a significant number of units.

Basically, to maintain a strong wartime inventory, Pakistan could manufacture complete cruise missiles and key inputs, like engines, in parallel. The latter would be in a stockpile that Pakistan can tap into at a later time to rapidly replenish its stocks. It might not be able to rapidly manufacture large numbers of a complete missile, but it could potentially assemble them quick if the inputs were readily available. This approach to the engine could be replicated with the guidance and seeker systems too. The assembly work could also be offloaded to private sector, thereby increasing output.

With in-house AAM and SAM projects apparently in the pipeline, one can assume Pakistan is also aiming to one day manufacture dual-pulse rocket motors (DPMR). Again, stockpiling DPMRs, especially a common design for multiple applications could be a way to have a rapid-replenishing capacity on hand. In any case, propulsion production may not be Pakistan’s biggest problem. While it may not wield the most advanced DPMR and miniature turbojet designs, it could still plausibly indigenize production and, through prudent management and preparation, build the ability to replenish munition stocks.

The main challenge or bottleneck would be in the electronics domain – i.e., seekers, guidance stacks, and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM). To fully control this domain, Pakistan would need a credible semiconductor industry, which it totally lacks.

Finding Secure Suppliers

Pakistan could potentially design its own seeker, guidance, and ECCM systems, but it will need to source the critical inputs (e.g., chips) from overseas. Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is no doubt that these are regulated inputs; export controls are likely in place to stop the transfer of these inputs to certain organizations, such as Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), for example (which is likely among the drivers of developing these indigenous guided munitions in Pakistan). Procuring these inputs will likely be difficult in peacetime and, in all likelihood, practically impossible in wartime.

Preparation through stockpiling would be a solution, but it would necessitate ironclad agreements with a willing seller – i.e., China. This will likely be Pakistan’s likeliest, if not only, route. Beyond that – i.e., moving ahead with one day indigenously producing chips – would involve immense investment in education, R&D, and other capacity. Even if Pakistan were to engage in such investment seriously, it would take at least two or three decades before those efforts have a chance of bearing fruit.

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