Pakistan gets a powerful missile tracking system from China

Chinese tracking system could allow Islamabad to speed up development of missile that can target multiple cities or military sites.

file image: Pakistan army

China has sold Pakistan a powerful missile tracking system in an unprecedented deal that could speed up the Pakistani military’s development of multi-warhead missiles.

News of the sale – and evidence that China is supporting Pakistan’s rapidly developing missile programme – comes two months after India tested its most advanced nuclear-ready intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range long enough to hit Beijing or Shanghai.

A statement on the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) website said China was the first country to export such sensitive equipment to Pakistan.

India and Pakistan are in a heated race to build up their nuclear weapons capabilities.

India’s January 18 test of its Agni-V ICBM, with a range of more than 5,000km (3,100 miles), is seen as a message that the South Asian giant can deploy a credible nuclear deterrent against China.

While India’s single-warhead missiles are bigger and cover longer distances, Pakistan has focused its efforts on developing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), a type of missile-carrying several nuclear warheads that can be directed towards different targets.

The US Defence Intelligence Agency officially confirmed in March that Pakistan conducted the first test launch of its nuclear-capable Ababeel missile in January 2017, “demonstrating South Asia’s first MIRV payload”.

Although the Ababeel missile has a range of only 2,200km, it can deliver numerous warheads to different targets. The technology has the potential to overwhelm a missile defence system, wiping out an adversary’s nuclear arsenal in one surprise attack.

There are growing concerns that MIRV technology will tip the strategic balance between India and Pakistan and destabilise the subcontinent.

India has so far not found success in building a system that can effectively deliver more than one nuclear warhead at a time.

The Chinese team enjoyed VIP treatment during the nearly three months it spent in Pakistan assembling and calibrating the tracking system and training technical staff on how to use it, according to the statement.

An optical system is a critical component in missile testing. It usually comes with a pair of high-performance telescopes equipped with a laser ranger, high-speed camera, infrared detector and a centralised computer system that automatically captures and follows moving targets.

The device records high-resolution images of a missile’s departure from its launcher, stage separation, tail flame and, after the missile re-enters atmosphere, the trajectory of the warheads it releases.

“We simply gave them a pair of eyes. They can use them to look at whatever they want to see, even the Moon,” Chinese official said.

High-quality optics are essential in missile development, especially MIRVs, said Rong Jili, deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Technology’s School of Aerospace Engineering.

China has sold Pakistan many conventional weapons, including warships, fighters, short-range missiles, diesel submarines and surveillance drones.

A mainland military observer said the sale of the optical system was no big surprise, as it could not be used directly to develop long-range MIRVs.

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