Shaheen 3 Ballistic Missile Test: Enhancing the Deterrence Credibility

Pakistan has tested its Shaheen 3 ballistic missile on January 20, 2021. The test was aimed to validate the missile’s various design and technical parameters, according to the press release issued by the ISPR. The strategic stability in the region has been under a constant threat due to various developments in the region including the political tensions and a series of weapons testing by India in recent months.

Shaheen 3

Shaheen 3 is an intermediate-range ballistic missile being developed by Pakistan. It is the successor to the Shaheen 1 and Shaheen 2 ballistic missiles which were developed earlier. The missile is the largest in the Shaheen series and Pakistan’s inventory with a range of 2750 km. The surface-to-surface missile can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. It is a two-stage solid-fueled propellent ballistic missile. A solid fuel propellent is ready to shoot and takes less time to launch. It also gives the missile more acceleration. Shaheen 3 missile is a road-mobile weapon that is mounted on a transporter erector launcher (TELs) enabling transport and launch. The TELs are quicker to move and hide and are more survivable than the fixed launchers. Shaheen 3 was earlier tested twice in March and December 2015 and later unveiled to the public during a military parade in March 2016. The latest test is the only publicly announced test after the 2015 tests.

Enhancing Deterrence

Gen. Khalid Kidwai clearly set out the goal for the development of the Shaheen 3 missile. In his discussion at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference 2015, he explained the logic behind the 2750 km range of the missile. This has been done to cover the entire landmass of India including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where India has set up a tri-service command which may be used as a safe and secure land-based second-strike capability. If not covered by Shaheen 3, India can safely base its land-based long-range missile of the Agni series on the islands and launch them against Pakistan. The coverage of those islands by Shaheen 3 neutralizes that threat.

The missile holds particular strategic importance for Pakistan as it strengthens Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence at the strategic level just as the short-range Nasr ballistic missile does at the tactical level giving India no space for nuclear aggression against it. The test is a message and commitment by Pakistan for a peaceful co-existence and maintaining strategic stability in the region.

If not covered by Shaheen 3, India can safely base its land-based long-range missile of the Agni series on the islands and launch them against Pakistan. The coverage of those islands by Shaheen 3 neutralizes that threat.

It may be mentioned here that India is developing a shield of ballistic missile defenses (BMDs) to protect its important cities and installations. The development of BMDs weakens the strategic stability in the region as it gives the possessor a false sense of security and temptation for a first strike. Possessing formidable delivery platforms will enhance the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence against the development of BMDs. These include the development of ballistic missiles with longer range to launch them at different trajectories, multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and long-range cruise missiles. The country has carried a test of MIRVed Ababeel during January 2017. The solid-fueled, three-stage missile has a range of 2200 km. The development of MIRVed missile is technically more challenging than a single-warhead missile. Some have also speculated that the development of a MIRVed Shaheen 3 may also be a possibility.

It is also important to note that according to a senior nuclear researcher Dr. Mansoor Ahmed, Pakistan is not interested in a tit-for-tat arms race with India. Pakistan aims for a minimum credible deterrence. This can be explained by the fact that Pakistan has not shown interest in developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) after the development of the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile being developed by India. On the contrary, India is even developing Agni-VI which has a range of 6000 to 10,000 km.

Although, some observers and the media in the west have tried to make a political issue of the range of Shaheen 3 due to its coverage of some Middle Eastern countries. This is a false narrative as Pakistan maintains a credible minimum deterrence posture that is India centric only.

Capping the range of the missile at 2750 km also demonstrates a responsible and India centric security behavior of Pakistan. Although, some observers and the media in the west have tried to make a political issue of the range of Shaheen 3 due to its coverage of some Middle Eastern countries. This is a false narrative as Pakistan maintains a credible minimum deterrence posture that is India centric only.

Regional Environment and Challenges

Since the test was scheduled on the same day when Biden took oath as the President of the United States, people have tried to find some connection between the two events. The development is certainly a coincidence than a thought out move by Islamabad. The test is part of a developmental trial than a fire-shot to get attention. Developmental trials are scheduled according to the technical and developmental needs rather than political signaling. Also, Pakistan has carried out tests of its missiles mostly during the start of the year from January to March and it is like a routine procedure. For example, Nasr was tested on January 25, 2019, and Ababeel was tested on January 24, 2017.  It can also be a response to the overall challenges to strategic stability in the region, including the increased Indian weapons testing, purchase of fighter jets, and development of various types of missiles. India in the previous year conducted 17 tests of different missiles as compared to the two tests by Pakistan. Indian tests included three versions of Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), nuclear-capable Prithvi-II missile, laser-Guided Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM), land-based nuclear-capable Shaurya missile, a failed sub-sonic cruise missile Nirbhay test among others.

Shaheen 3 test, therefore, not only validates the various design and technical parameters of the missile but also, as earlier mentioned, signals Pakistan’s resolve for maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He can be reached at @samranali6 on Twitter.

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