by Robert Beckhusen
Two years, a new Pakistani rocket appeared on a testing range–this one designed to lob small, tactical nuclear warheads against an future Indian blitzkrieg. Manoj Joshi, a columnist for India’s Mail Today warned the test represented a “grave development” that “imposes a huge burden on the Indian nuclear strategy.” There were even questions whether Pakistan could even develop a warhead small enough to fit into a rocket of its size.
On Nov. 5, Islamabad again took the Nasr out to the testing range. The Pakistani military also declared the recent test a success, and that it had “conducted with successive launches of 4 x missiles (salvo) from a state of the art multi-tube launcher,” the military’s public relations branch said in a statement.
There’s even a chance Nasr is ready to enter service, according to Defense News. Mansoor Ahmed, a defense and nuclear weapons analyst with Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University, told the newsweekly that the successful test — which requires the use of Nasr’s command and control systems — is a sign that the system has “passed the initial R&D phase and has been accepted and possibly been inducted into service by the Pakistan Army’s Strategic Forces.”
The Nasr is commonly referred to as a ballistic missile — it’s officially known as the Hatf-IX missile — but it’d perhaps be more accurate to describe it as a tube-launched guided rocket. A single Nasr launcher contains four tubes with a single rocket apiece. Each rocket can travel about 60 kilometers and is reportedly capable of in-flight maneuverability.
Ahmed added the rockets could potentially be armed with nuclear warheads ranging from half a kiloton to five kilotons. That’s small compared to the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, which contained three times the explosive power.
Still, the Nasr is a weapon of mass destruction by any metric. The rockets just don’t carry the kind of jumbo-sized nukes used to target entire cities. Rather it’s intended to be used as a tactical weapon against Indian tank columns penetrating past conventional Pakistani military defenses in the event of the war. But it’s Nasr’s small size that’s remarkable for something that has to carry a nuclear warhead, if it’s capable of carrying one. It would almost be as small as the smallest nuclear artillery shells NATO developed during the Cold War to stop the Red Army from pouring tanks through the Fulda Gap and across the North German Plain.
If the Nasr is, in fact, being armed with nukes or will be soon, then it means Pakistan has miniaturized its nuclear arsenal to a remarkable degree.
Pakistan is at least certainly taking steps to build the prerequisites. The Institute for Science and International Security, the respected arms control think tank, has warned for years that Islamabad has sped up work on a fourth reactor at its plutonium-making complex at Khushab.
Plutonium implosion bombs can not only be used to unleash more destructive bombs, but it allows much smaller bombs as well. The Nasr’s recent test is a signal that Islamabad is working to “re-enforce the message that Pakistan’s capabilities to produce miniaturized warheads for battlefield nuclear weapons have progressively matured,” Ahmed told Defense News.
Of course, even if true, it won’t give Pakistan a decisive edge over India. But what it can do is deter India from retaliating in the event of another surge in fighting over disputed Kashmir — or a terrorist attack by Pakistan-based militant groups. If the Nasr’s in-flight maneuverability works as intended, it could force India’s military scientists back to the drawing board to rethink its plans for a missile defense shield.
But beyond all else, it poses a problem for Indian defense doctrine which has envisioned luring Pakistani forces out and then blasting them with conventional weapons without triggering an escalation into Armageddon. If you were an Indian defense chief who now has to factor Nasr into the plan, what would you do? You might think even limited strikes are too risky.
Correction, Nov. 14: I originally described the Nasr, if nuclear-capable, as a “smaller nuclear delivery system than anything NATO developed during the Cold War.” As a commenter pointed out, this is incorrect. If the Nasr has a diameter equivalent to the M30 rocket — around 7.87 inches — it would be larger than the W48 nuclear artillery shell, which had a diameter of 6.1 inches.