Special/Gaurav Kampani

What story does Ghauri tell us?


New Delhi's nuclear priesthood has reacted with predictable consternation to the test of Pakistan's Ghauri ballistic missile. India's pope of national security, K Subrahmanyam, has sounded a clarion call for an agni pariksha. In an unprecedented move, Chief of Army Staff General Ved Malik has openly demanded a nuclear and missile deterrent. And IDSA Deputy Director Captain Uday Bhaskar has proclaimed that states simply need strategic technologies to consolidate their profile within the international system.

 Potentially, the Ghauri poses an unprecedented threat to India's national security. If deployed with a nuclear warhead, every major Indian population, economic, and military centre would be threatened. Pakistan's attempt to communalise the strategic debate in South Asia by christening its new missile after a Muslim marauder -- Shahabuddin Ghauri -- not only smacks of political insensitivity, but downright vulgarity. But before pointing fingers across the border, we honestly need to confront a few uncomfortable truths.

First, the Ghauri has come as a response to India's larger and more sophisticated Integrated Guided Missile Programme. Pakistan probably received external assistance in the design and development of Ghauri, but India's own missiles have not entirely been fathered from indigenous genetic stock. Lest it be forgotten, the Prithvi uses a larger reverse-engineered version of the SAM 2 engine. Similarly, the jewel in India's nuclear crown, Agni, is modelled on the Indian Space Research Organisation's space launch vehicle which bears an uncanny resemblance to the American Scout.

Second, there is no independent evidence to support Defence Minister George Fernandes's claim that China is the "mother of Ghauri." For all we know, the missile may have been developed with help from North Korea. According to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, there have been reports of Pakistani officials visiting North Korea to discuss the Nodong missile program. Pakistani officials are also believed to have been present during the 1993 Nodong test. In December 1993, then prime minister Benazir Bhutto spent two days in Pyongyang. These contacts are reported to have led to cooperation on the Ghauri.

Furthermore, the Ghauri represents a clean technological break from the past. Unlike Pakistan's solid-fuel Hatf and M series of ballistic missiles that indelibly bear the stamp of Chinese assistance or transfers, the Ghauri uses liquid fuel. US intelligence officials also believe that North Korea transferred major missile components to Pakistan over the last two or three years. Thus, Pakistan may have been able to integrate these components into what it now claims to be an indigenous system. In fact, Wright has argued that Pakistan probably built the single-stage Ghauri by clustering four Scud-type liquid-fuelled engines together.

Third, Pakistan's ballistic missile capability is highly over-rated. The Hatf I, when compared with other state-of-the-art systems in its class, is grossly inaccurate. On the other hand, the Hatf II never achieved its predicted trajectory and range during tests. As far as the 800 km Hatf III is concerned, its development was never corroborated independently. Analysts now believe that Pakistan probably tested a missile engine for the Hatf III in 1997, for there was no observed missile flight over the range that Pakistan claimed.

 Pakistan's Hatf missiles also suffer from an unenviable reputation of blowing up during tests. Until recently, not only had Pakistan been unable to develop rocket engines with sufficient thrust, but its missiles also lacked a reliable on-board inertial guidance system. It is for these reasons that Pakistan abandoned indigenous efforts at developing the Hatf I and II and turned to China for assistance. The 30 to 50 odd M-11s acquired from China, and now crated at Sargodha, seem more in the nature of a stopgap measure designed to counter India's de facto deployments of the Prithvi.

Before deciding upon an appropriate response to the Ghauri, we need to answer several questions. What story does the Ghauri tell us? Does the test mark escalation in the missile race in South Asia? What message, if any, is Pakistan trying to convey through the test? And finally, would a missile and nuclear arms race in South Asia be to India's strategic advantage?

Of course, a more thorough analysis must await access to detailed intelligence data. What is certain, however, is that Ghauri could not have been designed for conventional missions. Modern combat aircraft are the most accurate, reliable, and cost-effective means of delivering conventional munitions. Computer modelling shows for instance, that it would require 260 missiles of the Prithvi's class to disable a single Pakistani airfield at a distance of 150 km. The ratio increases geometrically for every increase in distance. Thus it would take 512 missiles to accomplish the same mission at 250 km, 672 missiles at 300 km, and so forth. Therefore, firing conventional payloads using ballistic missiles of the Ghauri's class (given its greater range and inaccuracy) would almost be akin to fighting a battle with gold-plated tanks.

What then of other weapons of mass destruction? Are we to believe the Pakistan foreign ministry's insinuation that the Ghauri could be a potential delivery vehicle for chemical weapons? It might as well have assured us that pigs could fly. For a start, Pakistan has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC has banned the production, acquisition, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. If India has any doubts of Pakistan's complicity it can trigger challenge inspections.

The lethality of chemical agents when delivered by ballistic missiles is also strongly dependent on delivery accuracy, height of burst of the missile warhead, local weather conditions, and the direction of the local prevailing winds. Although it is relatively easy to design chemical warheads for ballistic missiles, it is extremely difficult to disperse the chemical agents from the warhead travelling at a velocity of a few kilometres per second. Slow flying agricultural crop-dusters equipped with pesticide spray tanks would be a much more lethal way of delivering chemical weapons.

From a strategic perspective, the Ghauri would make the most sense if it were designed to deliver nuclear payloads. If Abdul Qadir Khan and his cohorts are to be believed, the Ghauri is nuclear capable. That may be true. But the ability to launch missiles does not in itself automatically entail into a technological capability to lob nuclear warheads. Successful nuclear delivery is contingent on two critical technological feats.

The first is miniaturisation. Unlike first-generation nuclear devices that weigh a couple of thousand pounds, ballistic missile warheads must be miniaturised to fit into the ballistic missile cone. In this case, the warhead can no longer be treated as a separate package to be dropped from an aircraft. Instead, the design, size, yield, and even shape of the warhead must be tailored to integrate it completely into the delivery vehicle. At a minimum, Pakistan would need to conduct one or two nuclear tests to arrive at an optimum size, weight, and yield ratio for its nuclear warheads with confidence.

Second, Pakistan would also have to successfully demonstrate re-entry vehicle technology. Re-entry vehicles use either heat shields or ablative materials to protect nuclear payloads from blistering temperatures when re-entering earth's atmosphere. Developing complex metal alloys and materials for re-entry is an inherently difficult task. For instance, re-entry was one of the key technologies that were validated in the Agni technology demonstrator program. However, there is no evidence that Pakistan has mastered the complexities of either miniaturisation or re-entry.