Pakistan’s Test of Shaheen-III: Countering Indian Aggression

Defence of a state emphasises long-lasting contemplation of modern strategy, the induction of weapons, and the modernisation of conventional and strategic nuclear forces. For the last three decades, the growing strategic threat posed by the eastern neighbour continuously calls for an identical response by Pakistan to ensure its security. India’s growing missile capabilities and threats of the launch of a missile against Pakistan during the 2019 crisis highlights India’s aggressive posturing. Pakistan has also maintained a credible nuclear posture and developed missile technologies to counter the military threat and ensure its sovereign defence. Pakistan’s missile program aims to maintain a credible minimum deterrence capability against external threats, and the key objective is to maintain a reliable full spectrum deterrence.

In the year 2020, India’s fast track missile testing indicated its ambitions to expand missile arsenals. India’s offensive missile forces fuel further brinkmanship where the danger of escalation can turn into a full-blown military conflagration or have the potential to bring the region closer to a nuclear war. India’s offensive posturing in recent years is not surprising for South Asia’s strategic thinkers. India’s shifting nuclear strategies and doctrines have already instigated a debate on the growing vulnerabilities of the South Asian strategic landscape.  Indian growing strategic threats can be studied under the twin pillars of “strategic ambiguity” and “pre-emptive nuclear strike”.

Shaheen-III Missile System: Countering Aggression and Maintaining Strategic Stability

Accordingly, Pakistan’s latest missile tests of Shaheen 1-A, Babur cruise missile IA, Ghaznavi and medium-range Shaheen-III manifest that the military planners of Pakistan are aware of the essentials of the sovereign defence. On 20 January 2021, Pakistan conducted a successful test of a surface-to-surface Shaheen III ballistic missile with a range of 2,750 km. According to the ISPR press release, the purpose of the missile launch was to validate the various design and technical parameters of the weapon system at maximum range. According to an official source, “This test is part of Pakistan’s resolve to maintain credible minimum deterrence. Pakistan maintains a policy of credible minimum deterrence and its deterrence posture is India-centric.” The successful test of Shaheen-III is termed as a key step “towards strengthening Pakistan’s deterrence capability.”

The emerging trends and India’s missile capabilities compel Pakistan to modernise and expand the size of its missile arsenal until India agrees to the former’s proposals for an SRR.

India’s deployment and fast-track missile testing can be used to engage the defender state in an arms race while fueling crisis instability.  India’s indigenously developed missile systems, such as Prithvi-II, supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, NGARM and nuclear-capable Shaurya missiles, are intended to launch pre-emptive counterforce strikes. This leads Islamabad to formulate a counter-balancing measure to maintain deterrence stability. It requires modernised strategic forces with improved offensive capabilities such as range and speed. In this regard, the range of the Shaheen-III missile allows it to hit strategically important Nicobar and Andaman Islands, which enable India to induce a second-strike option. Thus, the Shaheen-III missile system prevents the country from India’s strategic threat and ensures the credibility of its deterrence.

Disinformation and Propaganda Campaign

Soon after the Shaheen-III missile test in January 2021, a number of international commentators started a disinformation campaign. Baseless propaganda was carried out regarding the range and timing of the missile test.

  • Shaheen-III missile was tested in 2015 for the first time. Now the emerging propaganda and concerns regarding the range of the missile are surprising as India itself possesses missiles with a strike range of 4000 km (Agni IV) and 5000 km (Agni V). Thus, concerns regarding the range of Shaheen-III while ignoring India’s growing capabilities and Pakistan’s security compulsions highlight the blatant double standards of states.
  • The missile test was termed as a “bid for attention”, as co-incidentally, the test and the inauguration day of President Biden fell on the same day. But, in reality, missile testing is a normal military exercise and should not be connected with other events. Missile tests are carried out for multiple reasons: first, to test the operational readiness of Army Strategic Forces Command (ASFC), to check the parameters of a certain design and assembly line performance, to meet some other technical requirements or train the soldiers. More significantly, such tests ensure the efficacy and working of the capability. So, assumptions regarding the timing of the missile tests were unsubstantial.

Pakistan’s missile capability is an effective tool to maintain security through establishing deterrence equilibrium.  In the hostile security environment of South Asia, it is the only feasible option to counter the security threats posed by India’s destabilising missile program and growing counterforce capabilities.

Proposed Strategic Restraint Regime: Pakistan’s Rational Strategic Calculation

It is commonly believed that while dealing with a crisis, nuclear weapons provide security reassurance to the states. India and Pakistan’s relationship has witnessed tensions, conflicts and even wars since its inception due to ongoing territorial disputes. The beginning of nuclear and missile capabilities has added a new dimension to the rivalry. It includes acquiring sophisticated technologies including, Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system and an increased arms race. These new dimensions can instigate a severe security dilemma and disturb the Balance of Power (BOP) between both states. Due to growing military expenditures, arms race, and the increasing fragility of strategic stability, Pakistan has always re-emphasised the significance of nuclear Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) and the establishment of a Strategic Restraints Regime (SRR) in South Asia. SRR has naturally become critically important for multiple reasons. First, to maintain strategic stability and deterrence equilibrium; second, to establish conventional and nuclear arms balance; third, for conflict prevention and crisis stability.

Way Forward

In Pakistan’s security arrangement, sufficient missile systems are considered effective and reliable means of defence. India’s pursuit of rapid missile development and modernisation of strategic forces is increasing the imbalance and instability among the nuclear neighbours. Thus, a growing imbalance in the capabilities of nuclear neighbours may lead to deterrence failure or it could be problematic for escalation control and strategic stability of the region. However, the missile test of Shaheen-III consolidates deterrence from external aggression. On the other hand, the assessment of various academicians has previously demonstrated that Pakistan’s missile program needs to peruse two approaches. First, it should increase the ranges of its missile systems (Shaheen-I, Shaheen-II, and Shaheen-III); second, missile system’s should be equipped with Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) technologies to confront any missile defence system.  Therefore, the emerging trends and India’s missile capabilities compel Pakistan to modernise and expand the size of its missile arsenal until India agrees to the former’s proposals for an SRR. In the end, the implementation of effectual nuclear CBMs and the establishment of SRR between India and Pakistan is the need of the hour and the most appropriate way forward for both states.

Asma Khalid

Asma Khalid is a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center.

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