The Pakistan military has reportedly conducted the first successful flight test of a new medium range ballistic missile (MRBM), according to the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media arm of the Pakistan Armed Forces.
The test involved the successful launch of the surface-to-surface MRBM Ababeel, reportedly capable of carrying multiple warheads using Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle technology (MIRV). The new missile purportedly has a maximum range of 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles).
The January 24 test of the Ababeel MRBM follows the first-ever test of a nuclear-capable Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) from a submerged platform off the Pakistani coast in early January.
“The test flight was aimed at validating various design and technical parameters of the weapon system,” the ISPS statement reads. “Ababeel is capable of carrying nuclear warheads and has the capability to engage multiple targets with high precision, defeating the enemy’s hostile radars.”
Furthermore, the statement stresses that the new missile reinforces strategic deterrence vis-à-vis India and its growing ballistic missile defense capabilities. “Development of Ababeel Weapon System is aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) environment. This will further reinforce deterrence.”
It is impossible to independently verify the test results from open source data and ISPR has not released additional technical details surrounding the launch. Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif noted that the successful missile test was an important contribution to maintaining the balance of power in South Asia, Radio Pakistan reports.
The Ababeel MRBM appears to be based on the M-11 (also known as CSS-7), a Chinese-made road mobile short-range ballistic missile, although this is impossible to confirm independently. The other two operational MRBMs in Pakistan’s arsenal, the Shaheen-I and Shaheen-II, are purportedly also based on the M-11, featuring two-stage solid-fueled rocket motors that reduce the time it takes to launch the missiles.
A third MRBM, the Shaheen-III, a multi-stage fueled ballistic missile with an estimated range of 2,750 kilometers (1,700 miles) is currently still under development by the National Development Complex. It is possible that the Ababeel is a more robust and redesigned variant of the Shaheen-III fitted with an improved terminal guidance system, among other modifications. Indeed, in order to accommodate a MIRV warhead, the Shaheen-III would in all likelihood have undergone a complete redesign.
Based on the press release it is unclear, however, whether Pakistan has mastered MIRV technology given that it merely mentions that the missile is “capable” of being fitted with a MIRV warhead, rather than announcing that it has mastered the technology and developed MIRV payloads.
And while the test will cause alarm in New Delhi, Islamabad will need to further invest in and develop intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities including satellite technology (e.g., by adapting and refining China’s Beidou-II satellite navigation system for Pakistan’s sea- and land-based missile systems) to operationalize ballistic missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads and field a credible MIRV capability.
Nevertheless, the possible introduction of MIRV warheads is a clear sign that the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan is escalating. The mentioning of MIRV technology in the press release announces a new and more dangerous stage in the nuclear arms competition in South Asia.