Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Pakistan enters nuke triad club

Pakistan's latest advance is emblematic of subtle shifts in regional power plays.

Photo by Pakistani Army /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Pakistani Army /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Published 11 Jan 2017   Follow @EmanuelSarfraz

South Asia is perhaps the most dangerous region on earth, home as it is to three nuclear-armed countries with a long history of aggression. China waged war on India in 1962 and still occupies some Indian land. Pakistan and India have had three full scale wars and countless skirmishes on their shared border in the decades since partition in 1947. Arguably, nuclear deterrence is one of the major reasons an uneasy peace has held in the region in recent years, holding back the state actors from going too far in their quest to put pressure on each other.

This week Pakistan became the last of the three to complete its nuclear triad. On 9 January Pakistan successfully test fired submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) Babur-3 at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean. The missile, a variant of the land-launched Babur-2, hit its target with precise accuracy at 450 kilometres. The test comes on the heels of successful tests of land-launched cruise missiles in December. A Pakistan military statement described Monday's launch as 'manifestation of the strategy of measured response to nuclear strategies and postures being adopted in neighbourhood'. This is a reference to India’s nuclear arsenal. Last December India tested its Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, which was highly acclaimed by Prime Minister Nirendra Modi. It was criticised by China, which implied India had endangered stability in the region by challenging to Pakistan to increase its nuclear missile capability. Agni V has range of 5,000 kilometres while Babur-3 has only range of 450 kilometres. This is, however, sufficient for deterrence purposes. Both states are aware conflict could be sparked at any time given the turbulence in relations. Last October there was a claim, disputed by Pakistan, that India had made a surgical strike inside Pakistan. Such incidents could spark a full scale war.

The Babur-3 SLCM, capable of delivering various types of payloads, has given Pakistan a credible second strike capability, according to Pakistan's military. The successful launch comes after Pakistan shifted from a focus on improving the air and ground forces to extending its naval capability some years ago.

The pace of development in many spheres across Pakistan has markedly increased, due in large part to the multi-billion dollar, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The project is bringing approximately US$46 billion in investment to Pakistan. Roads are being built and infrastructure improved to handle the cargo bound for the newly built port of Gwadar, from where it will move to different destinations across the globe.

The Pakistan navy is being strengthened and equipped with many kinds of ships and aircraft for effective patrolling. As Gwadar port operations increase, so will mercantile traffic. Pakistan and Chinese navies are closely cooperating on the provision of security.

In November the detection of an Indian nuclear submarine in Pakistani waters showed Pakistani navy’s patrolling has improved. The date of the incident coincided with the first fleet of ships leaving Gwadar. To improve patrolling, Pakistan and Chinese navies are training together in China. The Chinese navy has pledged to provide all required high tech computer systems with links to its satellites to ensure early relief and rescue operations in the open seas. Similarly, Pakistani citizens are being trained in cargo handling to work at Gwadar port, which is a replica of Port of Guangzhuo in China. Some claim Gwadar will rival the port of Dubai in terms of cargo volume. A number of other CPEC projects have also begun. These mega projects may turn the wheels of Pakistani economy for good.

The launch of Babur-3 came as no surprise to India. Pakistan’s nuclear naval authority, the Naval Strategic Force Command, was established four years ago. The work on adapting the land-launched Babur system to submarine launch was started at the same time as work began to improve the LLCM.  Some observers have played down the significance. 'New Delhi is unlikely to lose any sleep over it', sniffed Abhijnan Rej, a fellow at New Delhi's Observer Research Foundation, who suggested 'there isn't anything about the Babur III tests that is stunningly original'. Notwithstanding such views, the launch shows Pakistan's capabilities are evolving, as are its links with China. The next few months will be interesting to watch. Under its new president the United States may be withdrawing from international commitments while other states expand beyond their traditional spheres. 

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