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Examining the Case for Conventional Deterrence in Pakistan

On January 31, 2019, Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced that the Pakistan Army Strategic Forces Command successfully test-fired its Nasr short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) system.

The tests comprised of a quad-salvo test on January 24th and single-shot tests on January 28th and 31st.

According to the ISPR, the latter tests were for “testing the extreme inflight maneuverability, including the end flight maneuverability,” and that the Nasr could cut-through “any currently available BMD (ballistic missile defence) system in our neighborhood or any other system under procurement / development.”

The Hatf-XI Nasr (“Victory”) SRBM has been in service since at least 2013. It complements Pakistan’s now burgeoning inventory of miniature nuclear warhead-capable munitions, most of which (in terms of types) are land-attack cruise missiles (LACM), which were most recently tested in March 2018.

Besides enabling Pakistan to deploy nuclear warheads on a tactical munitions platform, the Nasr also plays the role of directly countering invasive mass-formations. To fulfil that role, the Nasr is a “quick response” system that can also leverage “shoot-and-scoot attributes” (ISPR).

To Pakistan, the Nasr is a means to mitigate India’s strong – and growing – conventional advantage over Pakistan’s own conventional capabilities. In fact, the ISPR’s statement from its most recent tests, notably the point about penetrating BMD, points to this intent.

However, is it enough to compensate for the lack of conventional capability?

In isolation of Pakistan’s ties with other countries, potentially, though that is not guaranteed.

As a Deterrence Rocket, the Nasr isn’t Enough Alone

The Nasr is a short-range system (range: 70 km), and with its effectiveness contingent on being within range of not just the intruding battle group, but its core (i.e., where the majority of a battle group’s assets are in place), it could require a measure of conventional support itself.

For example, a Nasr unit moving and staying in proximity to its targets would also be vulnerable to them, especially its aviation and long-range guided artillery assets. Of course, it can engage its “shoot-and-scoot” capability, but will its speed be enough to outrun a millimetric wave radar-guided missile? Unlikely.

The alternative point would be that once the Nasr salvo is launched, the delivery vehicle’s purpose is then complete and that it is expendable. However, a successful salvo launch is also contingent on multiple key factors: (1) identifying the integrated battle group’s (IBG) core and (2) being within range of the core.

The first factor is impossible to control – it is India’s prerogative to construct its IBGs, and in knowing that the Nasr has a range limit, a sparse formation with airpower could be its preferred option.

Pakistan could procure intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets – especially airborne synthetic aperture radar (SAR) – to understand the composition of intruding IBGs and, via a network data-link, communicate that information to the Nasr firing unit.

However, the ISR capability must be extensive, it must be able to determine the IBG’s composition before it enters Pakistan. Yes, an electro-optical (EO)-equipped imaging intelligence (IMINT) satellite generates long-term insights about where the adversary is building its forces (e.g., by identifying new bases or roads), but it cannot be relied upon to build a real-time, dynamic visualization of the threat.

One method to building that real-time ISR capability is to install a surface-surveillance and targeting radar to an aircraft. The market is offering both solutions to Pakistan.

For example, the Leonardo Seaspray 7500E active-electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar is an X-band system with a maximum range of 592 km. Leonardo did not disclose its SAR’s range, but Saab had selected the Seaspray to deliver the GlobalEye’s ground-surveillance and targeting capabilities.

The Pakistan Navy (PN) is using the Seaspray AESA radar platform aboard its Sea King helicopters and ATR-72 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Its available to Pakistan and, above all, Pakistan is an actual user and will have familiarity with its strengths and drawbacks.

The second piece would be a special mission aircraft to not just house the radar, but to serve as a joint-surveillance, target-acquisition as well as reconnaissance (JSTAR) platform. It can coordinate the Nasr as well as other ground-based assets, including tanks, troop carriers, and artillery.

The second factor could be dealt with using a longer-range missile. In fact, this is a glaring gap in the idea Pakistan is trying to deliver with the Nasr. At 70 km, the range is not sufficient to establish deterrence. In reality, Pakistan must work towards a full rocket artillery inventory.

While not a nuclear weapon, the induction of the “indigenously developed” A-100 in January 2019 is a step in that direction. It is likely that Pakistan is now domestically manufacturing the A-100 under license from China (according to the ISPR, the A-100 has a stated range of over 100 km).

However, the A-100 is a conventional weapon. It will not factor as a strategic asset. The Nasr requires the support of a longer-range, tactically deployable strategic missile. In other words, Pakistan requires its own Iskander-type SRBM, i.e., a 250-300 km solution that can operate like the Nasr.

This is the gap in Pakistan’s quick reaction, tactically-deployable strategic deterrence equation. Pakistan has yet to secure a solution, though collaborating with Ukraine using its Hrim platform could be an option.

The slated range of the Hrim or Grom-2 is 280 km (within the confines of the Missile Technology Control Regime or MTCR). Ukraine is reportedly developing the SRBM to overcome BMDs. For Pakistan, a missile of this range would bolster its nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Cold Start.

It would be surprising if Pakistan is not pursuing a SRBM of this kind, even with its resource constraints. It would provide it with a longer-range attack element against intruding IBGs and, more importantly, extend the threat of its miniature nuclear warheads on land by removing the short-range limits of the Nasr.

However, this is in isolation of the ramifications of using nuclear weapons, even miniature warheads. Thus, Pakistan could lose in foreign relations and international standing if it uses its nuclear weapons.

The Case for Conventional Deterrence

While a contingency, Pakistan cannot lean on nuclear deterrence to deter India; rather, it should be one branch of a deterrence tree that also includes strong conventional capabilities.

The point of conventional deterrence is to establish that Pakistan can thwart attack within accepted means, and should India resort to transgressing those, Pakistan can respond in kind.

This would be a departure from Pakistan’s current posture, which is to leverage nuclear deterrence as a means to dissuade an intrusion or escalation of tensions. But it comes at a cost in terms of foreign relations – i.e., Pakistan’s bilateral and multilateral ties – and international standing.

For Pakistan to carry its interests, it needs other states more amenable – and sympathetic – to its views, and being the potential instigator of a nuclear exchange is an obstacle. Granted, Pakistan’s posture is also a product of its limited fiscal means, and building conventional capabilities at a scale necessary to thwart a major power such as India is costly. However, is Pakistan truly short of options?

If solely reliant on imports and, as importantly, the pursuit of entirely new platforms, then yes, it is short of options. However, it can extend existing investments and build conventional deterrence.

For example, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) can expand its slated JF-17 requirement so as to make modern jets available for close air support (CAS) to the Army. The PAF can also expand its network of forward air bases in proximity to potential IBG entry-points, and in turn, equip the JF-17 with anti-radiation missiles, millimeter-wave radar-guided air-to-ground missiles, and attack munitions.

Likewise, Heavy Industries Taxila’s (HIT) Viper infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) is a positive sign. Yes, it is an enlarged variant of the M113. However, while it is not a next-generation platform like the Otokar Tulpar, HIT is able to extend its M113 manufacturing investment and bring a low-cost IFV option for the Army to deploy in large numbers. The Viper IFV can also be armed with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).

Similarly, while unideal, the purchase of surplus Italian M109L self-propelled howitzers (SPH) is not only a low-cost acquisition, but it leverages the Army’s existing M109 SPH infrastructure. Pakistan is reportedly buying each Italian M109L for €40,000 per unit. It is not a new generation system, but it boosts the Army’s SPH forces and, in turn, allows it to deploy a conventional capability against intruding threats.

However, while extending existing platforms is an option in some areas, new generation equipment will be necessary in other domains (e.g., low-level mobile air defence, attack helicopters, wheeled SPH, etc).

A split between new systems and building upon existing designs offers Pakistan a route to strengthen its conventional capabilities. The latter not only extends the value of prior investments, but helps stimulate the domestic economy and push the armed forces to take munitions development seriously.

For example, the HIT Viper is M113-based, but it need not use an antiquated ATGM design; whether the Viper uses an obsolete ATGM or a new-generation ATGM is independent of the platform. From new-generation ATGMs (for IFVs, infantry, and helicopters) and velocity-enhanced artillery projectiles (for new and old SPHs) to surface-to-air missiles for mobile and fixed positions, it has multiple routes.

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