Why Pakistan’s Newly Flight-Tested Multiple Nuclear Warhead-Capable Missile Really Matters

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Why Pakistan’s Newly Flight-Tested Multiple Nuclear Warhead-Capable Missile Really Matters

Pakistan’s pursuit of a MIRV capability complicates strategic stability calculations in South Asia.

Why Pakistan’s Newly Flight-Tested Multiple Nuclear Warhead-Capable Missile Really Matters
Credit: ISPR

On Tuesday, Pakistan, for the first time ever, conducted a flight test of a new medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), the Ababeel. The missile, according to a release by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), is capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle as its payload, according to the release.

The ISPR release specifically added that the Ababeel is “capable of carrying nuclear warheads and has the capability to engage multiple targets with high precision, defeating the enemy’s hostile radars.” It also adds that the “Ababeel Weapon System” — presumably referring to the prospective MIRV payload — is “aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) environment.”

A lot of what’s included in this release bears out with what Pakistan has been trying to do recently. Specifically, the focus on survivability and penetrability to assure strategic retaliation is notable. As I wrote earlier this month with Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pakistan tested — also for the first time ever — it’s Babur-3 nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

As we identified in that article, one of the drivers behind Pakistan’s pursuit of SLCMs was to increase the survivability of its nuclear arsenal, partly assuaging the “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma, which makes nuclear first use likelier in the event of a conflict. We identified this as potentially stabilizing given Pakistan’s plans to deploy low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons with field commanders for use against conventional Indian forces.

Between the SLCM and the Ababeel, Pakistan’s self-avowed focus on survivability seems real enough, even if India’s existing ballistic missile defense capabilities are quite modest. MIRVs, as they were conceived of during the Cold War, were pitched by U.S. and Soviet planners as a cost-effective way to defeat BMD systems. The logic behind this was the observation that it was almost always cheaper to produce additional warheads than additional missiles. (The original logic behind MIRVs during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was different, focusing on their utility as a first-strike counterforce weapon; more in the link at the bottom of this article on this.)

In Pakistan’s case, if its MIRVs are intended for countervalue targeting (i.e., intended for use against civilian populations to cause unacceptable levels of damage), Rawalpindi could even forgo the more complex work required to develop MIRVs and simply go with MRVs (multiple reentry vehicles). The most advanced MIRV payloads allow for precision-targeting of the independent reentry vehicles, permitting for counterforce use.

I spoke to Narang after the Ababeel test. He notes that “it is hard to deny that India and Pakistan are in a full-blown arms race” at this point. He told me that a MIRV capability could fit into Pakistan’s burgeoning strategy to enable the use of battlefield nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces (who may quickly mobilize into Pakistani territory as part of ‘Cold Start’) in a crisis without suffering Indian retaliation: “If a state is worried about the survivability of its limited missile force and anticipates significant attrition of that force by the adversary, MIRVs provide multiple warheads with which to retaliate for every missile that does survive.”

Per India’s existing no-first-use nuclear doctrine, Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons — regardless of yield — would be sufficient trigger for a full-on strategic nuclear response. Without MIRVs (and without an SLCM), Pakistan’s existing inventory of road-mobile launchers and missiles would be less likely to survive a “first” strategic strike by India (following Pakistan’s “first” use at the tactical level).

The existence of MIRVs would leave India unsure of its capability to fully disarm Pakistan, leaving Rawalpindi with the option to launch a strategic second-strike (“third” strike overall). This strategy wouldn’t necessarily require Pakistan to pursue further research into developing maneuverable reentry vehicles for its MIRVs since it would be interested in a countervalue strike. Put succinctly: a MIRVed Pakistani strategic capability may stand as a powerful deterrent to India’s retaliatory capabilities, freeing Pakistan up to use battlefield nuclear weapons as a war-terminating strategy without concerning itself with escalation to the strategic level.

This confers a degree of strategic stability and ostensibly gives Pakistan an important advantage at the battlefield level against Indian plans like ‘Cold Start.’ However, many of the problems that Narang and I raised in our earlier article on the Babur-3 persist with the Ababeel. The simple math of MIRVs means that Pakistan, which already has one of the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenals, would need more warheads. It’s unclear from ISPR’s released test footage and statement just how large the Ababeel is and how many warheads it could bus, but the problems that worry analysts of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, including theft and potential unauthorized use/transfer, grow more, not less, acute with MIRVs in the game.

Finally, one potential destabilizing effect of Pakistani MIRVs could be on India’s own doctrine. A debate on revising India’s no-first-use and massive retaliation doctrine has grown in recent years and given that Pakistani MIRVs could potentially box-in India on strategic retaliation following Pakistani battlefield-level nuclear use, voices in New Delhi may use this as the straw to break the camel’s back on either no-first-use or on at least New Delhi pursuing its own symmetrical lower-yield battlefield nuclear option for a proportional low-level nuclear warfighting capability.

Remember, India’s nuclear doctrine states that the “fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces.” If a retaliatory second-strike is unpalatable given the expected survivability of Pakistan’s own strategic retaliatory capability, New Delhi could be tempted to do away with either no-first-use — which raises another set of related problems, with India potentially deciding to store its weapons assembled for first-strike use — or massive retaliation, opting to explore lower-level or multiple strategic target retaliatory options itself.

The above represents just some of the questions around strategic stability stemming from Pakistan’s march toward a MIRV capability. India is further along this path, but primarily thinks about its MIRV capability in terms of the Chinese BMD environment. China, meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, has MIRVed its DF-5B and DF-41 missiles. Looking at Pakistan and India today, it’s clear that MIRVs are coming to South Asia.

For readers looking for a thorough and up-to-date treatment of MIRVs in this region, I strongly recommend the Stimson Center’s book on “The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age,” edited by Michael Krepon.