There was yet more sabre rattling in south Asia this morning when Pakistan testfired a nuclear-capable cruise missile.
The Babur Hatf VII missile hugs the ground to avoid radar and has a range of 700km (enough to reach the Indian capital New Delhi). It isn’t the first time it’s been tested, so this probably marks further refinement of the system.
Pakistan and India have competed on weapons technology for years, most significantly with the testing of nuclear weapons by both sides. After an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, blamed on Pakistan, led to a military build-up along the border, a nuclear exchange seemed probable.
India vowed not to use nukes first but said it could take a “bomb or two or more … but when we respond there will be no Pakistan” (go here for more of the tough guy rhetoric). Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and there was a climbdown. Now the neighbours notify one another in advance of any missile tests.
Pakistan has an established policy of military development, as much to deter any would-be invader as to showboat. That the Babur Hatf can carry nuclear warheads is significant, but it can carry conventional explosives as well and its design means it can be used to carry out devastating, unstoppable strikes.
Nuclear technology, in the US at least, has progressed to the point that uber-accurate strikes can obliterate an enemy’s heavy military while causing only a few casualties.
Pakistan’s latest test must be seen in the context of domestic politics, its long rivalry with India and, to an extent, raising its regional and international profile. India will feel under little pressure to respond with a test of its own but its smaller neighbour has shown it won’t go away and is not complacent with its hardware.
There may also be anti-Taliban publicity in all of this, although given Pakistan’s test history I don’t think this is a major factor. Certainly some US politicians have been crowing about tackling militants in Pakistan — notably Rudy Giuliani, who seems to think America is fighting a war in Pakistan.
However, I think it’s worth seeing the missile test as pro-government publicity in a time of dubious internal security. The Red Mosque incident has left many shaken, and President Musharaff’s run-ins with the chief justice caused mass protests and violence in the streets.
Now, though, he can point to tangible success on his nation’s behalf. He can say to his electorate: “This is what we can achieve while I’m in office”. Perhaps not in those words, but the sentiment will be there.
This latest posturing is highly unlikely to destablise the region — but it serves as a warning that conflicts do not go away overnight, and the technology that can be unleashed if relations worsen dramatically.