Pakistan’s successful test of Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile presents new challenges

MAMOSA Report; Jan 10, 2017 — Pakistan on Monday publicly acknowledged for the first time it had successfully tested its first-ever submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The date of the test is unclear, and the trial may have been carried out beforehand, Defense News reports.

According to a statement by Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media branch, the test of the 450-kilometer range Babur 3 was carried out “from an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean” from “an underwater, mobile platform”.

The latter implies the test was carried out from one of Pakistan Navy’s Agosta-70 or Agosta-90B submarines, The Diplomat reports.

Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor of ISPR released limited footage of the test on Twitter that shows the missile’s ejection, launch, and finally striking a target with reasonable accuracy.

Babur 3 was stated to be a sub-launched variant of the land-based Babur 2, which was tested in December 2016 and features improved avionics and accuracy. Babur 3 features “underwater controlled propulsion and advanced guidance and navigation features, duly augmented by Global Navigation, Terrain and Scene Matching Systems.”

It was also claimed to have sea-skimming and terrain-hugging flight characteristics to evade radar detection and interception — especially with regard to future regional missile defense capabilities, a veiled reference to India’s efforts in missile technology.

Critically, the Babur-3 is capable of nuclear payload delivery. Once fully developed and tested on-board a submarine, Pakistan would possess – in theory, at least – a sea-based second strike capability. Pakistan has been working toward this capability for years; in 2012, it set up a Naval Strategic Force Command. Pakistan’s statement notes this with little ambiguity: “Babur-3 SLCM in land-attack mode, is capable of delivering various types of payloads and will provide Pakistan with a Credible Second Strike Capability, augmenting deterrence.” Specifically, the statement noted that the Babur-3 test was a “step towards reinforcing [Pakistan’s] policy of credible minimum deterrence.”

Pakistan’s inaugural test of the Babur-3 SLCM raises several questions regarding the future of strategic stability between it and India, as both march toward a nuclear triad. For reference, India tested a 3,000 km submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) variant dubbed K-4 (the naval version of the Agni III missile) from an underwater pontoon in March 2014 before testing it from the Arihant submarine last year. Specifically, the consequences of Pakistan acquiring what it perceives as a credible sea-based second strike capability, depending on a range of factors, may both stabilize and destabilize the delicate nuclear balance between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed rivals.

A further such reference to India was made in stating that the successful development of a second-strike capability was a “manifestation of the strategy of measured response to nuclear strategies and postures being adopted in Pakistan’s neighborhood.”

Mansoor Ahmed, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an expert on Pakistan’s nuclear program and delivery systems, said Babur 3 is a “significant milestone” in Pakistan’s effort to complete its nuclear triad.

“It has proven the speculation that Pakistan will not follow India’s pathway to a naval leg of the triad via nuclear submarines but opt for a more cost-effective solution tailored to its own strategic calculus and capabilities,” he said.

Combined with the very low frequency communication facility unveiled last year, Ahmed believes Pakistan’s Naval Strategic Force Command can now deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles on its conventional submarines to ensure a credible second-strike capability.

This is likely to be fully utilized onboard the forthcoming air-independent propulsion-equipped Hangor-class submarines designed by and co-produced with China.

Ahmed further highlighted two points: that the Babur 3 can carry any type of warhead, courtesy of Pakistan’s plutonium production program, which has enabled production of miniaturized nuclear devices for its range of missiles from Babur to the Shaheen III ballistic missile that covers all of Indian territory; and that Pakistan’s sea-based deterrent “is also likely to rely on [China’s] Beidou navigation system for precision targeting.

Pakistan possesses just three Agosta 90B submarines, the PNS/M Khalid, the PNS/M Saad, and the PNS/M Hamza. (Pakistan may receive eight modified Chinese S20 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines that may be capable of fielding the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM.))

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