Today, Pakistan held its first military parade after a seven-year suspension due to “security concerns” amidst an escalating conflict with the Pakistani Taliban. The last parade was held on March 23, 2008 and reviewed by then-President Pervez Musharraf.
March 23 holds special importance in Pakistan. On that date in 1940, the All-India Muslim league adopted a resolution for the creation of “independent states” for Muslims in northwestern and eastern British India. The resolution was later interpreted to have been a specific call for the creation of Pakistan.
The March 23 parade is meant to illustrate Islamabad’s resolve, sending messages to both its nuclear-armed neighbor India and to Taliban extremists. “Pakistan is resolved to redeem its pledge given to its founding fathers that it will protect the homeland,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif emphasized in a statement.
This year, personnel from all three service branches, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, participated in the parade — including the army’s strategic command force, which administers Islamabad’s land-based nuclear weapons arsenal.
The parade featured nuclear-capable and conventional missiles, including Nasr, Shaheen, Ghauri, Babur, and Ghaznavi weapons systems, indigenously manufactured tanks (such as the Al-Zarar, and Al-Khalid models), and a squadron of JF-17 Thunder fighter jets, a multi-role combat aircraft jointly developed by China and Pakistan.
Next to the regular army, air force, and navy units defiling past Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Mamnoon Hussain, army chief Raheel Sharif and other dignitaries, paramilitary forces (including the Frontier Corps and Pakistan Rangers) and the police also marched on the new Parade Ground, specifically built for this occasion near the Shakarparian hills in Islamabad.
A particular highlight was the flyover of Pakistan’s first locally manufactured armed UAV – the Burraq drone equipped with the laser-guided Barq missile, which was successfully tested for the first time on March 13, 2015.
The drone “will enormously help in the campaign against militants,” a government official said. Almost a third of Pakistan’s military is engaged in fighting Taliban extremists in the Af-Pak border region.
“I believe the Chinese helped Pakistan manufacture these drones, which fits into the pattern of this relationship,” a Western defense official notes in recent a Financial Times article.
However, notably absent from the parade ground was China’s President Xi Jinping, who officially had been invited in January this year. Many observers perceived that invitation to be Pakistan’s direct response to Barack Obama’s presence as “chief guest” at India’s Republic Day parade in New Delhi at the beginning of 2015.
Islamabad cited security reasons for China’s declining the invitation. But even though Xi did not put in an appearance, “there will be plenty of China to see,” as the Western defense official put it.
Between 2010 to 2014, Pakistan was China’s top customers in military hardware. According to the Financial Times, Chinese defense technology constitutes the “ the bulk of Pakistan’s military arsenal.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted a conciliatory response to the recent display of Pakistan’s military prowess on Twitter: “It is my firm conviction that all outstanding issues can be resolved through bilateral dialogue in an atmosphere free from terror and violence.”
In an interview with The Diplomat, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Jalil Abbas Jilani, emphasized the importance of “trust building through continued dialogue and engagement,” including in Pakistan-India relations. Jilani also warned of the dangers of a “growing military imbalance in a region beset with long standing territorial conflicts.”
For further reading on military parades in Asia, see my commentary in the International New York Times, “Parades to Fear, Not Celebrate.”