Pakistan’s surface-to-surface nuclear-capable missile Ababeel was developed with the aim to beat India’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system.
Ababeel can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, and has a range of up to 2,200 kms. More than the range, the stand out feature of this missile is that it boasts of Multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology.
Ballistic missiles equipped with MIRVs release their warheads typically in the post-boost phase, and reduces the effectiveness of a missile defence system, which relies on intercepting individual warheads. It works like this, a BMD system has a radar which first tracks the incoming ballistic missile, then the computer system predicts the trajectory that the missile would follow, and based on this an interceptor is launched to meet the incoming missile mid-air. While an MIRV equipped attacking missile can have multiple warheads, interceptors have a single warhead.
India has a two-tier homegrown interceptor missiles system to block hostile aerial attacks. The double-tiered system consists of Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV), capable of destroying incoming targets at high altitude, while the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception. India’s ballistic missile defence system provides a two-layered shield – ‘exo’ and ‘endo’. What this effectively means is that the system provides protection both against ballistic missiles that are outside (exo) as well as inside (endo) the earth’s atmosphere.
Theory behind BMD systems ::
Theoretically, a hostile missile can be intercepted at the launch point, mid-course (flight through space), or terminal phase (during atmospheric descent). Practically speaking, the first option is almost ruled out as it is would be next to impossible to know where the missile is being launched till the time it is launched. A country needs to have a high level of intelligence gathering capabilities with moles in the top chain of command of the enemy to know exactly when and where a missile launch would take place. This seems highly improbable as the know-how of a missile launch is known only to topmost generals.
Intercepting a missile in next two phases of its flight seem like a plausible option but one needs to bear in mind that the speed of a ballistic missile is just too high for systems to predict its precise location and path. Most of the BMDs and Anti-Ballistic Missile systems in the world aim at blocking the missile in these two phases with the focus more being on intercepting missile’s ballistic trajectory outside the atmosphere. Other theories such as confusing the missile’s navigation system with jammers have been proposed, but modern ICBM’s are equipped with decoys and stealth coatings to counter this. Several countries such as Russia, Israel, China and the US claim to have BDM system in place. India is now only the fourth country after Russia, Israel and the US to have successfully tested a BMD system.
Doubts over Pakistan’s MIRV claims ::
If Ababeel is equipped with full-fledged MIRV capabilty, then it is a cause of concern for India. It is not known how advanced is Ababeel’s MIRV capability or how many warheads can it actually release. The best way to stop an MIRV equipped missile is to intercept it before the warheads separate from main cone, but is extremely difficult. Once multiple warheads enter the atmosphere, then it is just too difficult to track them separately and launch interceptors to block them.
However, many experts have questioned whether Pakistan really had developed or tested a MIRV. A report published in nationalinterest.org quoted the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ as saying, “Some experts have expressed skepticism as to whether Pakistan has indeed surmounted the various technological hurdles required for MIRVed missiles. MIRV warheads are typically much smaller than unitary warheads, and thus require greater miniaturization. It is unclear if the country has manufactured a miniaturized nuclear warhead small enough to use in a MIRV.”
Some reports also argue that all the MIRV-enabled missiles are Long Range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles with a minimum strike range of over 6,000km. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that Pakistan has developed an MIRV-enabled missile with a range of just over 2000km.