Pakistan watching our missiles

With China’s help
Last Updated 16 September 2018, 19:14 IST

It is common practice for states to test-fire their missile systems in order to check for their accuracy and reliability and, should there be any limitations, to correct the same. In addition, the threat from adversaries’ incoming ballistic and cruise missiles calls for a system that is capable of tracking and detecting incoming missile systems. Such a system is crucial to a defence system — be it air defence or missile defence — as unless the missile is tracked and detected, interception would not be possible.

In March 2018, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) claimed that it had provided Pakistan with an advanced missile tracking system. The system has been developed by CAS’ Institute of Optics and Electronics by Chinese technicians and engineers. The name of the system is not yet known, probably due to the fact that Pakistan wants to keep this a secret. The system is a large–scale optical tracking and measurement system. Such a system would enable Pakistan to better track enemy ballistic missiles as well as its own missiles. Such precision-tracking systems prevent the missile from veering off into an unplanned trajectory that could result in it being destroyed.

The system comprises four optical tracking telescopes that can carry out automatic tracking, target monitoring and image recording. Usually, such missile tracking systems comprises two telescopes and hence, this system is claimed to be a more sophisticated one.

Each telescope can detect ballistic missiles over a few hundred kilometres. These telescopes are positioned in different locations and timing is synchronised with atomic clocks that can reveal details of the accuracy of ballistic missiles of Pakistan’s own arsenal — a crucial information that can be used by Pakistan to improve the accuracy and engine performance of its own missiles. However, it is yet unknown whether the Chinese-made system can also track cruise missiles.

Pakistani personnel have already received guidance and training on the system. It is presently being used by the Pakistani army.

The system may carry cinetheodolites that use high-speed cameras and laser-tracking to help collect trajectory and performance data that would be crucial in missile testing and development programmes. These systems also carry infra-red detectors and a centralised computer system.

It is believed that such a system can help speed up Pakistan’s work on its multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which Pakistan is said to be developing to evade missile defence systems and which would be fitted on a 2,200-km Ababeel missile.

Zheng Mengwei, a researcher at CAS, has claimed that Pakistan has deployed the system recently “at a firing range” for testing and development of missiles. The CAS has clarified that its system has “surpassed the user’s expectations.” The system is far more advanced and complex than Pakistan’s indigenous systems.

What it means for India

The deal between Pakistan and China took place two months after India test-fired its Agni-V ballistic missile, which has a range of over 5,000 km and is a deterrent against China. The deal was a signal from China that the two-front war for India would only get more complicated with China providing sophisticated weapon systems to Pakistan.

Technologically advanced ballistic missiles on Pakistan’s side would only make it difficult for India to intercept incoming missiles with ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems. On the other hand, its 4-telescope missile tracking system can track missiles from different angles, so that would reduce the chances of losing a target — that is, an incoming ballistic missile.

Moreover, these systems are advanced and sophisticated technologies that further lead to proliferation concerns. China has been known to have sold missile systems to Pakistan in the past. Though unconfirmed, there are also reports that China has assisted Pakistan in developing MIRVs. The sale of ancillary components that support a missile system, like the tracking system, is also a concern. In addition, in the past, China also facilitated missile technology cooperation between North Korea and Pakistan. China and Pakistan are also not members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and hence such exchanges of crucial systems between the two countries is a sheer act of proliferation.

Sophisticated MIRVs could negate India’s missile defence systems. Though India is also on the verge of acquiring the sophisticated Russian S-400 air and missile defence system, apart from its own missile defence system being developed by the DRDO as well as Israeli systems, there is no guarantee that MIRVed warheads could not slip through all those layers.

As is known, ballistic missile flight trajectory has four phases — boost, ascent, mid-course and terminal phases. With the Chinese-made missile tracking system, it could study the functioning and features and performance of missile systems in detail in every one of these phases, record the data and fathom the reliability and credibility of Indian ballistic missiles.

However, it is not yet unknown if the missile tracking system can track ballistic missiles with sophisticated counter-measures. India has also developed the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile and is working on a hypersonic version of it. Even if Pakistan’s tracking system can track cruise missiles, it is unclear if it can track anything that flies as fast as a BrahMos missile.

India’s BMD programme has also resulted in the development of the Swordfish long-range tracking radar that can track incoming ballistic missiles from long distances. It is an indigenously developed tracking system derived from the Israeli Green Pine radar. New Delhi is also working on its own MIRV technology on the Agni-V missile.

(The writer is an independent consultant specialising in nuclear, missile, and missile defence issues)

(Published 16 September 2018, 18:24 IST)

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