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April 11, 2015

Revisiting the ‘sole purpose’ of developing Shaheen III

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April 11, 2015

ISLAMABAD: It was a rare occasion. The chief architect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, General (R) Khalid Kidwai decided that it was time to engage with the public and the forum was significant. It was the Carnegie’s International Conference on Nuclear Policy, ‘the grand nuke fest’ as some would call, attended by officials, experts and academics working on nuclear policies from around the world. The venue was significant too - Washington DC.
The general was forceful and assertive yet, diplomatic about the relations with India. He presented a nuanced case on the need for introducing battlefield nuclear weapons to the South Asian war theatre yet, dismissed the inherent command and control concerns with usual platitudes. The dichotomy was apparent.
After terming the nuclear weapons as the ‘weapons of peace’, he went on to take credit - and rightly so - for overseeing the transformation of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme from a ‘scientific complex’ to a ‘fully functional arsenal’. Every statement seemed calibrated until the general explained, rather bluntly, the rationale behind testing Shaheen III - a Pakistani land based Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) - which, according to the ISPR statement, is capable of carrying conventional as well as nuclear warheads to the range of 2,750 kilometres.
Many in Pakistan viewed the testing as an attempt to ‘deny India any safe haven’ to launch a second nuclear strike. This was also echoed by the general when he told the packed audience that the ‘sole purpose of developing Shaheen III’ was to give Pakistan the ability to target Nicobar and Adaman Islands (NAI) - a group of Islands separating Bay of Bengal from the Adaman Sea.
These islands historically gained little attention in New Delhi until 2001 when India established the Adaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). In recent times, India has invested heavily in developing strategic military assets over these islands and by

the general’s comments it would be safe to conclude that the Pakistani nuclear planners believe that these islands add a significant value to India’s second strike capability.
In a world where Google Maps are no luxury, it didn’t take much to verify the validity or otherwise of the general’s claim.
A rather simple analysis revealed that in order to reach Nicobar and Adaman Islands, the missile would need to travel more than 3,200 kilometres if launched from Balochistan’s eastern border with Sindh, at least 3,000 kilometres if launched from the eastern most side of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and some 3,200 kilometres from Northern Areas of Pakistan. The 2,750 kilometres range of Shaheen III, therefore, is clearly not enough to target the NAI if launched from anywhere in these provinces.
However, if Shaheen III were to be fired from the eastern most sides of the Punjab, from a distance that is less than 70 kilometres from the eastern border with India, the range would just be enough to take out some targets in NAI. A similar check up on Sindh would tell that the missile’s range would barely be sufficient if launched from the South Eastern Sindh, from points that are again less than 70 kilometres away from the border.
Missiles of as much strategic importance as Shaheen III are stored and/or fired from a location where they are safe and minimally exposed to the enemy’s surprise attack. Targeting NAI would require Shaheen III to be placed dangerously close to the International Border with India hence, making it extremely vulnerable to an air or land attack; an extremely risky move militarily speaking. So, in Pakistan’s case, launch points near the border are anything but safe.
If one were to derive conclusions, it would be safe to say that the missile wouldn’t be able to deny India its ‘safe haven’ if launched from roughly 95 percent of the Pakistani territory. Launching it from the other 5 percent would deny Shaheen III its ‘safe haven’.
Mind you, General Kidwai is still a senior adviser to Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority and pretty much remains the brain behind the formulation of its nuclear weapons policies. One would doubt that the general was unaware of the above facts. This brings us back to the original question: What could be the ‘real’ purpose behind testing Shaheen III?
The answer might not lie in Adaman Islands but far from it; above the atmosphere in space: Between the exosphere and the thermosphere where not a single Pakistani indigenously launched satellite orbits.
Pakistan needs its own Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) to achieve this feat and a longer range multi staged technology, just like the one used in Shaheen III, is an important precursor for that.
The writer, a former visiting research fellow at the Co-operative Monitoring Centre Sandia National Labs and James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, is Assistant Editor of the newspaper’s National Security Desk.