Air power at Red Flag 10-4
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — F-16s from the Pakistan Air Force fly near a KC-135 after refueling at Red Flag July 20, 2010.Approximately 100 Pakistan air force F-16B pilots and support personnel are participating in Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. This is the PAF’s first time participating in this event. Red Flag-Nellis is a realistic combat training exercise held four times annually involving the armed forces of the U.S. and its allies. It provides a peacetime “battlefield” within which combat forces can train. Inside that battlefield, aircrews train to fight, survive and win together. The exercise is conducted on the 15,000-square-mile Nevada Test and Training Range, north of Las Vegas, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo/ A1C Daniel Phelps).

In the midst of tensions between India and Pakistan, and days before the first anniversary of the Pulwama-Balakot Crisis, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced that Pakistan had successfully tested a variant of its Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). With a range of 600 kilometers and an ability to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, the Ra’ad II missile is being called a “major step towards complementing Pakistan’s deterrence capability.” The success of Ra’ad II test has to be assessed in terms of its impact on bolstering Pakistan’s Full-Spectrum Deterrence (FSD). The induction of the Ra’ad II not only adds strength to the nuclear component of FSD, but is also likely to enhance Pakistan’s conventional aerial firepower, something that could buttress Pakistan’s conventional deterrence.

Plugging the Gaps Through Denial Capabilities

The induction of the Ra’ad II not only adds strength to the nuclear component of FSD, but is also likely to enhance Pakistan’s conventional aerial firepower, something that could buttress Pakistan’s conventional deterrence.

The Ra’ad II missile tested last month has a longer range than the mock up unveiled in 2017. The compact missile significantly increases Pakistan’s air-delivered strategic standoff capability on land and at sea, making India’s critical military targets vulnerable to Pakistan’s strikes from standoff ranges. This will significantly improve Pakistan’s denial capabilities, something that has been in the works for the past few years. In a conversation in 2015, Pakistan’s most experienced strategic manager, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai said “if those bases [in Nicobar and Andaman Islands] are not covered then inadvertently Pakistan will be allowing, so to say, a second strike capability to India within its land borders.” Though Lt. Gen. Kidwai’s remarks were made to justify the range of the Shaheen-III, the addition of the Ra’ad II some 5 years after his talk suggests that Pakistan is well on its way to acquiring better denial capabilities.

By virtue of giving Pakistan operational and targeting flexibility, the Ra’ad II is a leap in Pakistan’s bid to achieve and improve upon its FSD. This is primarily because one of the elements of FSD requires Pakistan to have the “liberty of choosing from a full spectrum of targets, notwithstanding [India’s] Ballistic Missile Defense, to include counter-value, counter-force, and battlefield targets.” The range and weapon features that allow the Ra’ad II to engage targets with a high level of precision, complements FSD and provides Pakistan with much-needed deterrence at the operational level. This successful test is yet another important milestone towards achieving the degree of fullness and comprehensiveness in deterrence options that Pakistan is looking for.

Because the Ra’ad II is deliverable via aircraft, this missile bolsters the air leg of Islamabad’s strategic forces. Changes in the design of the Ra’ad II indicate that Pakistan is looking to integrate the missile with its JF-17 Thunder aircraft. One of Pakistan’s leading air force analysts, Kaiser Tufail, has noted that due to its small radar cross section areas, there is less chance of the Ra’ad II being detected by adversary air defense systems. Slow detection by the adversary coupled with the ability to launch it from stand-off ranges, makes the Ra’ad II a very lethal weapon in the Pakistani arsenal. This missile is expected to expand Pakistan’s deterrence toolkit, especially when it comes to retaliation, and provide the reach and coverage that Lt. Gen. Kidwai alluded to in 2015.

The timing of this test could not have been more propitious. Pakistan’s flight test was conducted days after the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the approval of possible sales to India of an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS). Pakistan has long argued that it responds to India’s disruptions to strategic stability. Choosing to operationalize an ALCM in the face of improvements to Indian air defense systems is timely and important. It shows how Pakistan is navigating new strategic advancements and technological developments in India. In a talk days ahead of the test, Lt. Gen. Kidwai unequivocally stated that Pakistan could never allow imbalances to be introduced in order to prevent the region from getting swamped in strategic instability. Pakistan seems to be using the improvements in the targeting options that the Ra’ad II provides as a means of redressing strategic stability on the Subcontinent.

Upping the Conventional War-withal

The Ra’ad II can carry both nuclear and conventional payloads towards targets with high-precision. The conventional potency that the Ra’ad II brings to the table for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) could prove instrumental. As India is all set to beef-up its repertoire with Rafale jet fighters and S-400 Truimf anti-aircraft weapon systems, the PAF would be faced with a stiffer challenge to respond to India in a future crisis. ALCMs like the Ra’ad II provide the PAF with more flexibility in the conventional domain and, once integrated with fighter aircraft, the Ra’ad II will remove some of the first-mover advantages that India can draw from the S-400 Triumf and the Rafale. Additionally, Pakistan can exact cross-domain deterrence from the Ra’ad II missile. With air power likely to gain more prominence in South Asia due to its ability to give quick and spectacular results, deterrence via aircraft will come in handy for Pakistan. The successful flight test provides Pakistan with more conventional options vis-à-vis India, something that is commensurate with its Quid Pro Quo Plus policy, which was emphatically enunciated last month.

Not only does the Ra’ad II give the PAF essential conventional firepower to strike inside Indian territory, it also offers Pakistan one additional conventional rung to vertically escalate a conflict (increase the conflict’s intensity) should India seek to escalate horizontally (expanding the conflict along different fronts). By giving Pakistan adequate retaliatory capabilities at the conventional level, this additional conventional option could potentially reduce rung-climbing up to the nuclear level by reducing pressure on Pakistan to threaten the use of its nuclear weapons upfront during a crisis in order to achieve strategic stability. In all likelihood, this additional conventional option, in the form of the Ra’ad II, is likely to make deterrence and strategic stability less fragile. That said, the confidence and resolve associated with the belief that escalation can be managed at the conventional level, can lead to reckless behavior and inadvertent escalation.

The Ra’ad II missile solidifies the country’s nuclear deterrent by enhancing its wherewithal to take out targets deep inside mainland India.

Although the Ra’ad II is a dual-use weapon, and this does raise concerns about differentiating between a conventional and nuclear warhead in times of war, this is a marginal problem with regard to this missile specifically. Since both India and Pakistan have other dual-use platforms at their disposal, the addition of another dual-use weapon in Pakistan’s armory is unlikely to make the situation more precarious. Rather, the ever-increasing trust deficit between India and Pakistan is a more pressing cause of concern. In her recent piece, Professor Caitlin Talmadge argued that the propellants of escalations lie in the realms of politics and strategy, and that new technologies, such as the Ra’ad II, only play an intervening role. It could also be argued that the ambiguity associated with dual-use generates caution, something that contributes to deterrence enhancement. Thus, the concerns surrounding dual-use weapons are offset by the deterrence value obtained from the capacity to destroy targets deep inside India by conventional means and the importance that the Ra’ad II will play in Pakistan’s policy of Quid Pro Quo Plus.

It appears that Pakistan is mindful of the growing importance of air power in Indian-Pakistan crises as signified by Pulwama-Balakot. Hence, a focus on the air leg at both the conventional and nuclear levels is only logical. While Pakistan wants to respond to Indian aggression in the event of a crisis, it wants to do so in a manner that keeps strategic stability intact. The Ra’ad II missile solidifies the country’s nuclear deterrent by enhancing its wherewithal to take out targets deep inside mainland India. Additionally, it gives the PAF more targeting options at the conventional level, something that could limit India’s ability to run through the initial rungs of the escalation ladder. That said, the impact of the Ra’ad II on deterrence and crisis stability will depend upon the unfolding crisis dynamics in future crises between the two South Asian rivals.


Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: Robert Sullivan via Flickr

Image 2: Mikesonline2011 via Wikimedia Commons

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