If recent missile tests are any indication, cruise missiles, rather than ballistic missiles, appear to be taking an increasingly more prominent role in Pakistan’s strategic force posture. The Babur (Hatf-7) land-attack cruise missile was inducted in 2010, and has been tested three times since. Pakistan’s newest cruise missile – the air-launched Ra’ad (Hatf-8) – has been tested four times in all, including on 31 May, and is due to be handed over to the armed forces in the not-too-distant future.
Official Pakistani statements following the cruise missile tests have emphasised their “strategic” function. Instead of carrying conventional warheads, the cruise missiles are engineered to deliver either conventional or nuclear payloads. If it can overcome significant technological hurdles – including miniaturising nuclear warheads – Pakistan clearly envisions a nuclear role for its cruise missile programme. In light of the strategic aspirations for the Babur and Ra’ad, how will Pakistan’s new and growing cruise missile arsenal influence India’s strategic behaviour?
What Pakistan’s cruise missiles mean for India
Ultimately, Pakistan’s nuclear-capable cruise missiles have the potential to complicate India’s decision-making calculus and even constrain Indian strategic behaviour. First, Pakistan’s cruise missiles will pose a serious challenge to India’s fledgling missile defence system. Cruise missiles are virtually undetectable and highly survivable, even in the face of modern missile defences. The first few weeks of the 2003 Iraq War demonstrated that sophisticated missile defences could shoot down ballistic missiles with relative ease, but faced a significantly more difficult task in preventing a cruise missile strike. This is not to say that cruise missiles can never be shot down or that they are perfectly invulnerable. Several U.S. cruise missiles veered wildly off-course – in a guidance-system failure called “clobbering” – during its missile campaign against Afghanistan in 1998 and during the Iraq War. Additionally, cruise missile defence, unlike ballistic missile defence, is relatively new and technologies developed to deal with this threat are likely to emerge in the coming years. Nevertheless, these shortcomings are superseded by the tremendous advantages cruise missiles have over ballistic missiles in defeating existing missile defences.
If the goal of India’s missile defence system has been to bait Pakistan into an economically ruinous arms race – as some suggest the U.S. did with the Soviet Union in the 1980s – then it appears to be succeeding. But at what cost to India’s security? Going down this path can only lead to a weaker, poorer, less-stable Pakistani state with more fissile material, nuclear warheads, and missiles. This result – an even more heavily-armed, less-stable Pakistan – is clearly not in India’s interests.
Second, the addition of cruise missiles to Pakistan’s arsenal can obscure the distinction between tactical and strategic weapons, thereby complicating nuclear signalling by creating a degree of uncertainty in the minds of Indian decision-makers. Nuclear signalling involves the preparation or movement of nuclear weapons in order to communicate to the adversary that a situation has escalated to the point where these weapons may be used. Signalling works best in a setting where the message being communicated between adversaries is explicit and clear. Since the Babur and Ra’ad cruise missiles can be used in a conventional or nuclear role, Indian decision-makers may mistakenly view conventional preparations as strategic ones, or vice versa. This confusion would likely lead India’s armed forces to avoid taking any unnecessary risks, like penetrating deep into Pakistani territory, crossing the Line of Control, and the use of airpower.
On the other hand, this ambiguity may provoke the opposite response. To eliminate a perceived Pakistani threat, New Delhi may disregard its long-standing no first-use pledge and use nuclear weapons in an offensive, rather than a defensive, fashion. Although this scenario appears extremely unlikely, states will do what they must to protect their sovereignty, even if it means abrogating on previous commitments.
Babur, Ra’ad, and thinking about war in South Block
The credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, augmented by its new strategic cruise missile program, will likely steer India towards an increasingly prudent military posture. Due to its numerical and geographic advantage over Pakistan – which would almost certainly lead to an Indian victory in a conventional engagement – India would like to create a firewall between conventional and strategic operations, keeping nuclear weapons out of any future conflict with Pakistan. Pakistan, however,will not allow this to happen. Instead, Islamabad has done everything - including eschewing a no-first use doctrine, developing the Nasr short-range ballistic missile, and operationalising nuclear-capable cruise missiles like the Babur and Ra’ad – to give the Army the tools to quickly turn a conventional attack from India into a nuclear crisis.
The Babur and Ra’ad have brought the fundamental dilemma in Indian defence planning vis-à-vis Pakistan into sharp relief. That is, India’s armed forces – conventionally superior to Pakistan – must be used in a way that punishes the adversary, yet falls short of crossing one of Islamabad’s nuclear red-lines. This must be done as Pakistan remains ambiguous about what its nuclear thresholds actually are and threatens nuclear retaliation. Furthermore, when Pakistan’s newest weapons systems are deployed, they will, especially, be vulnerable to theft from terrorist groups – a non-trivial concern. Clearly, cruise missiles make an existing challenge to Indian defence planning more complex.