Pakistan’s recent progress in missile technology, exemplified by the successful test launch of the Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities, marks a significant milestone in shaping the strategic equilibrium and defense capabilities in South Asia.
As per the findings of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Pakistan conducted its second test of the Ababeel MRBM last month, demonstrating advancements in MIRV technology. This development brings Pakistan closer to achieving a heightened ability to overcome India’s evolving missile defense systems.
On October 18, 2023, Pakistan carried out its second test launch of the Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile, marking the initial phase of testing for the first such weapon in South Asia designed to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Currently, in the developmental stage, this event represents Pakistan’s first officially acknowledged missile test since the April 2022 launch of the Shaheen-III medium-range ballistic missile and the initial test under the leadership of Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, who assumed office in November 2022.
The test occurred during the visit of Pakistan’s caretaker leader, Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, to China. Notably, this comes after a prior successful test in 2017 and is perceived as a further indication of Islamabad’s advancements toward acquiring the capability to effectively penetrate India’s emerging missile defense systems.
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the recent test conducted at the Sakhi Sarwar range in Punjab province adhered to the 2005 India-Pakistan agreement on pre-notification for ballistic missile tests. Under this agreement, Pakistan issued seven Notice to Air Missions. The test was reportedly aimed at reaffirming various design and technical parameters while assessing the performance of different subsystems.
The IISS also notes that India is in the process of developing its own Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) capability, specifically associated with its Agni VI intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It emphasizes that this capability is primarily designed to penetrate Chinese missile defenses and is not intended for use against Pakistan.
Despite their strategic advantages, Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) come with inherent risks. In a 2014 piece for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Zachary Keck highlights that MIRVs can contribute to destabilization by placing a premium on first strikes, given that a single missile equipped with MIRVs can target multiple locations.
Keck further explains that MIRVs provide the capability to launch multiple warheads at a single target, and the cumulative impact of numerous lower-yield warheads can be more destructive than a single warhead with an equivalent yield. Additionally, he points out that MIRVs enhance the effectiveness of evading missile defense systems, making them more challenging to intercept.
Aligned with the outlined considerations, Pakistan has a diverse set of reasons for pursuing Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). According to Missile Threat in July 2022, Pakistan’s strategic forces primarily composed of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) provide the capability to target virtually any location in India. This strategic capability serves to counterbalance the considerable conventional military imbalance between the two nations.
The development of Islamabad’s MIRV program could be seen as a reaction to New Delhi’s “Cold Start” military doctrine. This doctrine was formulated by India in response to historical border conflicts with Pakistan and alleged state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan. The “Cold Start” strategy entails the deployment of eight division-sized integrated battle groups, comprising mechanized infantry, artillery, and tanks, collaborating with the Indian Air Force. The objective is to achieve swift mobilization and shallow territorial gains in the event of a conflict. Pakistan’s pursuit of MIRVs may be a response aimed at enhancing its deterrence capabilities against the perceived threats posed by the “Cold Start” doctrine.
The “Cold Start” military doctrine entails the utilization of eight division-sized integrated battle groups, which consist of mechanized infantry, artillery, and tanks. These groups collaborate with the Indian Air Force to swiftly mobilize and secure limited territorial gains.