Indian, Pakistani Missile Activities Accelerate As Bilateral Talks Continue


Howard Diamond

INDIA MOVED a number of its Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles near its border with Pakistan in late May or early June, setting off a new round of missile-related activities that occurred amid otherwise encouraging high-level talks between the two sides. According to a June 3 article in The Washington Post based on U.S. government sources, less than a dozen of the 150-kilometer-range, liquid-fueled missiles were moved to the border city of Jullundur in northwest India, where they would be able to strike many of Pakistan's key cities, including the capital, Islamabad.

Although Indian officials immediately denied the Post report, on June 9 the Indian newspaper The Hindu, quoting anonymous government officials, reported that India had "merely stored the Prithvi missiles . . . not deployed them." On June 11, Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral explicitly denied the Prithvis had been deployed, and said, "There is no imminent threat. We do not deploy in [the] abstract."

Subsequently, the Post reported the Prithvis had been stored without either fuel or warheads, and that Gujral had told U.S. diplomats that he had not been informed of the missile shipments in advance. Gujral said he would prevent any additional movements near the Pakistani border. The Indian army's version of the Prithvi can reportedly travel 150 kilometers with a 1,000-kilogram payload, potentially enabling it to carry a nuclear weapon. An air force version of the missile, reportedly capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 250 kilometers, is currently being tested.

Pakistan, which said the Indian move threatened to ignite a ballistic missile race in South Asia, subsequently responded with its own missile test. The Pakistani Foreign Office confirmed that on July 3 Pakistan had tested its Hatf-III surface-to-surface missile, which is believed to be based on the Chinese M-9. The Hatf-III, with an estimated range of 600-800 kilometers and a payload of 250-900 kilograms, if deployed, could threaten most of northern and western India, including New Delhi. According to a U.S. official, Pakistan conducted a static test of the rocket's motor, rather than an actual flight test.

Possibly in response to the Pakistani test, Indian Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and Minister of State for Defense N. V. N. Somu told the Indian Parliament on July 30 that "[I]t has been decided to accord high priority to the next phase of the Agni [missile] program." The ministers did not specify what that phase would be.

The Agni is a two-stage missile with a range between 1,000 and 2,500 kilometers, and a payload of 1,000 kilograms. Described by India as a "technology demonstration project that had met all its objectives," the Agni's development was suspended by the government in December 1996, with the caveat that if circumstances warranted, the missile could be produced and deployed.

In the midst of the missile activity, Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met June 2023 in Pakistan where they established a number of working groups, which have exchanged papers on a variety of issues including Kashmir and ballistic missile proliferation.