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In late October 2023, Pakistani test-fired an Ababeel missile for the first time since 2017. Pakistan’s decision to develop and test multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capable missiles like the Ababeel are within Pakistan’s policy of “full spectrum deterrence under the dictum of credible minimum deterrence.” The Ababeel, the Pakistani military explained back in 2017, was developed to ensure the “survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles.”

The development of such MIRV capable missiles is a response to threat perceptions emerging from New Delhi, because of India’s efforts to develop and expand its ballistic missile defense (BMD) program. Islamabad fears that India’s operationalization of its BMD systems on land and at sea would significantly undermine Pakistan’s ability to retaliate to an Indian first strike. Pakistan is worried that the Indian BMD program, along with New Delhi’s enhanced missile capabilities, especially in terms of speed and precision, is part of an Indian strategy to launch counterforce strikes against Pakistan’s deterrent forces. Therefore, the goal of Ababeel’s development is to neutralize the threat that an operational Indian BMD system poses to Pakistan’s deterrent and ultimately to South Asia’s strategic stability.

India is presently developing a missile defense shield to protect its command-and-control centers, major population and industrial centers, and critical military infrastructure, including missile storage sites, airfields, and large cantonments. The Indian BMD program commenced in the 1990s, with the first interceptor tested on November 7, 2006, making the country the fourth to test the anti-ballistic missile apart from the United States, Israel, and Russia.

India has a two-tiered ballistic missile defense system, consisting of Prithvi Air Defense Vehicle (PAD)/Prithvi Defense Vehicle (PDV) and Ashwin Advanced Air Defense (AAD) interceptors. The former can intercept missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes between 50-180 kilometers, while the latter can destroy missiles within atmospheric (endo-atmospheric) altitudes, ranging between 20-40 kilometers. Both interceptors have been tested successfully multiple times.

According to Indian media sources quoting Indian defense officials, the first phase of India’s BMD will be deployed soon and the system will initially protect two major cities: New Delhi, the capital, and Mumbai, a key business center.

Phase 2 trials of the BMD system began on November 2, 2022, when India successfully test-fired the AD-1 interceptor, capable of intercepting long-range ballistic missiles in low exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric conditions. The new interceptor will increase the range of interception up to 5,000 km, a significant enhancement from the Phase 1 range of 2,000 km, according to Janes, quoting Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) officials.

To support the tracking and targeting of incoming projectiles, India is constructing a BMD radar site at Udaipur, likely to become operational by 2024, along with other sites in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The sites are being developed to host long-range tracking radar (LRTR), the Swordfish, an advanced variant of Israel’s Green Pine radar.

Additionally, India aims to go a step further and add a sea leg to its BMD system. This effort is evident in Indian efforts to expand beyond its capability to launch interceptors from land-based launchers to now attaining the capability to launch interceptors from naval warships. India demonstrated this capability for the first time in April, by firing a sea-based endo-atmospheric interceptor. It was launched by INS Anvesh, commissioned last year to test Phase 2 BMD trials, in this case, the sea-based trials. This platform is a stop-gap arrangement for testing and validating the sea-based BMD interceptors before India deploys the system on Indian warships.

Pakistan’s most recent Ababeel test can be viewed as a response to India’s continued expansion of its BMD capabilities. The commencement of the second phase of India’s BMD program arguably prompted Pakistan’s test.

On paper, a BMD system looks like a defensive matter, but it is in actuality a offensive development. In this case, BMD is a cardinal part of the Indian nuclear strategy of launching pre-emptive strikes on Pakistan’s counterforce targets while remaining immune from Pakistan’s retaliatory nuclear response.

Ababeel is a deterrent being developed to reduce the Indian counterforce temptations, which are being intensified as the BMD program is developing. These can be seen from Indian efforts to diversify its delivery systems, and persistent efforts to reduce the circular error probability (CEP) to enhance precision, thus reiterating the presence of a counterforce strategy. The development of Agni-P, a medium-range ballistic missile being developed by the DRDO with a reported CEP of only 10 meters, illustrates Indian intentions.

Once India’s land- and sea-based interceptors become functional, they will disturb the mutual vulnerability that exists between both states by reducing the efficacy of a retaliatory strike. Last year’s firing of the AD-1 interceptor, and this year’s sea-based launch as part of Phase 2 trials of India’s BMD system, was an attempt by India to clear pathways for a first strike, thus eroding Pakistani deterrence. The demonstration of AD-1’s efficacy from both ground and maritime platforms will significantly enhance Indian capability to intercept missiles.

Thus, Pakistan’s efforts to further develop and demonstrate Ababeel’s capabilities are meant to maintain its threat as credible and to indicate to India that Pakistan will protect its sovereignty and territoriality at all costs and will not submit to Indian coercion. The recent test demonstrates Pakistan’s determination to prevent India from destabilizing the area by developing and deploying an efficient BMD system.

Publication Link: https://thediplomat.com/2023/11/why-did-pakistan-test-its-mirv-capable-ababeel-missile/

Authors :

Usman Haider , Research Assistant at SVI, Islamabad.
Moiz Khan, Research Officer at CISS, Islamabad.