By Tom Hussain
McClatchy Foreign Staff
Pakistan on Monday successfully test- fired a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads far beyond the borders of its strategic rival India.
The Shaheen-III surface-to-surface missile splashed down in the Arabian Sea after flying 1,720 miles from its launching pad, the military said in a statement.
That’s more than double the maximum range required to hit a target anywhere in India but falls short of being able to reach Israel, located more than 2,100 miles away. Pakistan has said, however, that the strategic plans division of its military is technically capable of extending the reach of its Shaheen and Ghouri missiles programs beyond Monday’s test by adding solid or liquid-fuel engines.
Previously, Pakistan has restricted the range of its missile tests to about 900 miles, a distance that would allow it to target India but would not raise alarms in potentially threatened states like Israel, with which Pakistan has no diplomatic relations.
Pakistan is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and toes Riyadh’s foreign policy line on Arab-Israeli diplomatic disputes.
Pakistan’s government says its nuclear weapons program has been developed exclusively as a deterrent against India, with which it has fought two wars andfour regionalized conflicts since the two countries gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
The commander of the Pakistani military’s strategic weapons division, Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat, said Monday’s test was conducted to validate various design and technical parameters of the Shaheen-III at maximum range.
He described the test as “a major step towards strengthening Pakistan’s deterrence capability,” an obvious allusion to India.
In December, India’s military conducted the first “user test” of its 2,500-mile-range Agni-IV, the first Indian ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear or conventional warheads deep into Chinese territory. It is scheduled to be deployed in 2016 or 2017.
Scientists at India’s Defense Research and Development Organization on Jan. 31 carried out the first test-launch of the Agni-V, a 3,400-mile-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching all of China from a mobile platform. It, too, has been fast-tracked for deployment by India’s strategic forces command in the next one to two years.
India fought a 1962 border war with China, and the two countries’ troops frequently skirmish along their disputed Himalayan border. China is also Pakistan’s closest ally, creating the prospect of a two- front conflict for India and fueling India’s push for parity with China’s older, more advanced nuclear weapons program.
Pakistan’s ballistic test Monday came a week after the resumption of diplomatic engagement with India, which called off talks in August to protest Pakistani consultations with politicians from the part of disputed Kashmir administered by India.
“Missile tests are actually the norm when it comes to Indo-Pak talks,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor at King’s College London. “Every time the two states decide to talk, there is a tendency to show off their military muscle.”
India and Pakistan border forces exchanged automatic weapons and mortar fire last year in a series of confrontations that left several dozen soldiers and farmers killed and forced the evacuation of rice- farming villages on both sides of the border.
By October, the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers were no longer on speaking terms, and it fell upon their common ally, the United States, to break the ice.
During his January trip to India, President Barrack Obama used his friendship with Prime Minister Nirender Modi to push for a resumption of talks with Pakistan. Both before and after his visit to India, Obama telephoned Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, to inform on his discussions in New Delhi.
Modi subsequently telephoned Sharif in February to wish Pakistan luck at the ongoing world cup of cricket, a sport with fanatical followings in both countries. The call also set up a visit by India’s foreign secretary to Islamabad on March 3.
However, India has limited renewed contacts with Pakistan to the context of an association of South Asian regional states.
“Obama might have nudged the Indian government, but it is Prime Minister Modi who is shaping India’s foreign policy.” Pant said. “He likes to spring surprises, and in Pakistan’s case, he wants India to have the initiative _ so the idea is to have a dialogue at a time and place of India’s choosing.”
Against that backdrop, India and Pakistan are pressing ahead with the development and expansion of their nuclear-capable strategic forces. India is focused on completing the triumvirate of air-, land- and sea-based ballistic missile platforms to match China.
Pakistan recently has developed tactical nuclear warheads that could be used on Pakistani soil in the event of an overwhelming conventional attack by Indian forces. Both have also recently tested terrain-hugging cruise missiles. Pakistan currently possesses enough fissile material to arm 100 to 110 nuclear warheads, while India isn’t far behind, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, in November said Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was the fastest growing in the world, and that it could enrich enough plutonium for 200 warheads by 2020.