Last week, as the world’s attention zeroed in on North Korea’s first-ever launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, another Asian country tested a much shorter-range nuclear-capable system. On July 5, Pakistan carried out a flight test of its Nasr (Hatf-IX) short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile.
The Nasr is Pakistan’s delivery platform for low-yield nuclear weapons (sometimes called “tactical” nuclear weapons) and has been in development since the mid-2000s. The expected nuclear payload of the Nasr is estimated to be in the sub-kiloton range.
According to a statement released by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Pakistan concluded a “series of training launches and tests” last week, verifying “new technical parameters” for the Nasr systems. The primary new additions include a maximum range extension, from 60 kilometers to 70 kilometers, and “flight maneuverability.”
The ISPR statement does not clarify if the improved maneuverability was demonstrated in the missile’s terminal stages or possibly involves some sort of terrain avoidance feature during flight.
The released statement does note that these new parameters “will augment credible deterrence against [the] prevailing threat spectrums more effectively, including anti-missile defenses.” India, Pakistan’s primary adversary, has been developing a range of ballistic missile defense platforms, raising concerns in Pakistan about the survivability and penetration of its own nuclear delivery systems.
Earlier this year, Pakistan tested the Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile, which is capable of delivering multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles and addresses similar concerns about ballistic missile defense.
The range-extension of the Nasr may seem modest, but is nevertheless significant as it provides a greater degree of survivability for Pakistan’s Nasr batteries, allowing them to fire at targets from further into Pakistani territory.
Indeed, if India ever does shift its nuclear strategy to allow for preemptive counterforce, Pakistan would seek to ensure that its Nasr batteries are farther out of the reach of India’s long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network to make detection more challenging as well.
While the Nasr has been envisaged as a counterforce platform and Pakistan’s “Cold Start” killer, the range-extension would presumably also allow Pakistan’s Nasr batteries to have a fighting chance as a more effective countervalue system further up the ladder of nuclear escalation, provided they had not already been destroyed by Indian counterattacks.
The only major Indian city that would come within the Nasr’s range is Amritsar in Punjab; an extended strike range would presumably allow Nasr batteries to strike across the international boundary to hit most of Amritsar while still remaining up to 40 kilometers inside Pakistani territory. (The Nasr’s previous 60 kilometer range, however, already allowed for this possible contingency.)
Last week’s Nasr test is the first since September 2014, when Pakistan carried out a full salvo launch, proving a 60 kilometer range and also testing an “in-flight maneuver capability,” according to ISPR. Pakistan had also tested the Nasr in 2013, largely along the same parameters. Both the 2013 and 2014 tests referenced in-flight maneuverability.
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa witnessed the latest test-launch of the Nasr. Bajwa highlighted the Nasr’s primary deterrent purpose against India, noting that “Nasr has put cold water on Cold Start,” referencing India’s strategy for rapid conventional mobilization using mechanized divisions into Pakistani territory in an attempt to defuse a crisis under the nuclear threshold.
It is noteworthy that this Nasr test is the first since India’s Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat publicly acknowledged the existence of Cold Start in an interview earlier this year. Prior to Rawat’s acknowledgement, with some exceptions, the Cold Start doctrine had not been publicly acknowledged by the Indian Army, pending sanction from India’s political leadership. “Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations,” Rawat noted.
Back in 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry had clarified the conditions under which Pakistan would use its low-yield nuclear weapons. Chaudhry’s statements marked political sanction for Pakistan’s targeting plans with the Nasr against Indian mobilization into Pakistani territory under “Cold Start.”