The missile race in South Asia

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Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

China’s recent test of a hypersonic nuclear-weapon delivery system will have a strategic effect on the South Asian strategic environment. The United States and its allies, particularly India, take China’s military transformation seriously. With the assistance of Washington, New Delhi indeed attempts to balance the increasing missile capability of China. Subsequently, India’s sharpening of its missile arsenal necessitates Pakistan to take similar measures concerning its own nuclear forces. 
To demonstrate the credibility of its nuclear deterrence, India test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers on October 27. With Agni-5, India is able to strike nearly all of China. Moreover, it is already capable of striking anywhere inside Pakistan. 
President Xi Jinping is determined to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. In 2017, he laid out two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization goals to transform the PLA into a “world class” military by 2049. Therefore, PLA is developing the capabilities to conduct joint long-range precision strikes across domains, increasingly sophisticated space, counter space, and cyber capabilities, and accelerating the large-scale expansion of its nuclear forces. It planned to quadruple its nuclear warhead numbers from 350 to 1000 by 2030. 
The Chinese military’s modernization may not cause panic in Washington because the Americans still have large and capable conventional and nuclear force structures and many more sophisticated missiles and nuclear warheads. Approximately 46 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by the US, which has around 4,000 warheads in its military stockpiles; no other nuclear-armed state, including China, sees a need for more than a few hundred nuclear weapons for national security.

Indian nuclear missiles on display

Besides, the Americans constituted regional alliances such as Quad and AUKUS to check China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific. Notably, Australians are purchasing nuclear-propelled submarines from the United Kingdom and the US and buying Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles from the latter. These emerging strategic alliances and the transfer of cutting-edge military technologies to Australia and India induce Beijing to equip its military with modernized weaponry and refrain from joining trilateral arms control negotiations between China, Russia, and the US. 
Indeed, China’s increasing nuclear warheads and unique missile capability fast track India’s Ballistic Missile Defense shield, hypersonic cruise missile, and hypervelocity-gliding projectile developments. India’s pursuit of BMD and hypersonic missiles indicate that it has become more willing to invest in quality, in addition to its traditional focus on quantity. Similarly, purchasing military hardware from the militarily technologically advanced nations instead of relying on indigenous military gadgets. 
India’s confidence in the steady progress of the BMD program and struggle to develop hypersonic missiles capability adds a new variant in India-Pakistan’s competitive strategic dyad. As a result, Pakistani security experts agree that Islamabad needs to continue modernizing its nuclear forces. For two decades, it appeared that Pakistan has been investing in a calculated nuclear buildup because its strategic elite believes that developing over-kill capacity or entangling in an arms race with India is not in its national interest. Therefore, despite New Delhi’s dissent, Islamabad has endeavored for nuclear restraint arrangements in South Asia. 

Pakistan Nasr Missile on parade

Realistically, India is a rising missile power. And this is where Pakistan needs to focus as a strategic rival. It must keep a sharp eye on BMD developments and deployments. It needs to do everything it can to balance this Indian rush to offensive and defensive missile superiority. Where can Islamabad best spend to ensure its future defense? Besides the cruise and ballistic missiles, the focus should be on the new and emerging technologies that are rapidly maturing into military assets. 
To solidify its defensive fence, Pakistani defense policymakers need to spend resources wisely in innovations in artificial intelligence, big data analysis, quantum computing, and quantum sensing and biotechnology. Putting more resources into science and innovation results in the modernization of both conventional and nuclear forces. 
In summary, the advances in Indian nuclear forces constantly remind Pakistani defense planners of their nuclear deterrent’s potential vulnerability and necessitate them to take countermeasures. This action-reaction cycle pessimistically impacts the South Asian strategic environment and alarms the probability of deterrence instability between India and Pakistan. 

(Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E mail: jaspal_99@hotmail.com. Twitter: @zafar_jaspal)