“Threat of Prithvi Class Missiles and Options for Pakistan”

The induction of Prithvi ballistic missiles by India in 1988 has added a new dimension of warfare in the Indian Sub-Continent. Short range Prithvis were soon followed by medium and intermediate range Agni I and Agni II missiles, bringing the entire Pakistan under the Indian missile threat. While Agni Is and IIs are primarily meant for nuclear weapons delivery, Prithvis were initially armed only with conventional warheads. Only recently the move to install nuclear warheads in them has gained momentum. Conventional armed Prithvi have raised the spectre of our cities and infrastructure coming under attack from the blue, creating panic and mayhem, much like the V-rockets created in Britain during WWII. How much of a threat do these conventional armed Prithvis pose to our security? Are they more lethal and effective than the Indian Air Force’s strike elements? Should we strive for the very expensive and as yet not fully effective anti-missile shields of the Patriot/Arrow class? Do we have some other alternatives? These are some of the issues this article will address

Air Commodore (Retd) JAMAL HUSSAIN discusses the ballistic missile threat to Pakistan.

Prithvi was the first indigenously developed ballistic missile by the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), which was formed in 1983 by the Indian Government. It is not a particularly sophisticated missile, incorporating propulsion technology derived from the Soviet SA-2 surface to air missile.1 First test fired in 1988, two versions of this single-stage, liquid fuel missile are in service while a third version is likely to be under development. Prithvi I, having a range of 150 kms with a 1000 kg warhead is with the Indian Army while a limited number of Prithvis with 250 kms range and 500 kg warhead is with the Indian Air Force. Prithvi III, with 350 km range and reduced payload is apparently being developed for the Indian Navy.2
When Prithvi was developed and deployed, Indian foreign minister in 1996 had stated emphatically that it would not carry a nuclear warhead.3 To be able to undertake a variety of missions, it is believed that four types of non-nuclear warheads have been developed for Prithvi: the pre-fragmented warhead for soft targets, dual purpose improved conventional bomblets for top attacks against armoured inflammable targets and runway denial penetration submissions warheads to neutralise hard targets like runways, administration and industrial complexes.4
According to official Indian version all Prithvi missiles still are categorically equipped with conventional warheads5. However, after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 arming of these missiles with nuclear warheads is a foregone conclusion. Successful testing of dummy nuclear warheads in Prithvis have been received.6 Indian missile experts also believe that India would opt for developing Prithvi with solid propulsion system. The liquid fuel missiles needs refuelling at its launch site which takes a considerable length of time, between two to three hours7 during which the missile is vulnerable to enemy action. By contrast, a solid fuel missile can be launched within minutes.
Prithvi is the first indigenously developed Indian missile with inertial guidance system. The manufacturers claim a circular error probability (CEP) of about 1% of range; 8 in other words, between 150 to 250 kms, its CEP would be 150 to 250 metres. Experience indicate that actual CEP of weapons are invariably greater than what the manufacturers claim. In the case of Prithvi, even if one were to accept the accuracy as given by the manufacturers, a 150-200 metres CEP makes conventional warhead equipped Prithvis unsuitable for attacks on pin-point targets; they can at best be used for area bombing or targeting large complexes.
Attacking air bases is one of the tasks that assumedly will be undertaken by Prithvi missiles. With a CEP of 150 metres, Prithvi requirement to neutralise one base will be 256.9 This figure rises to 52110 with a CEP of 250 metres. Similarly, destruction of a command centre would need 140/393 Prithvis for 150/250 metres CEP. At present 333rd Missile Group with its Headquarters at Secunderabad handles Prithvi missiles for the Indian Army11. Orders for 100 missiles for the Indian Army had been placed and by 1999, as many as 75 missiles were on hand12. With the production rate of 3-4 missiles per month14, the full complement of 100 missiles must now be with 333rd Missile Group. Similarly, IAF has placed an order for 25 Prithvi Ils and it appears that this small number is at best for familiarization purpose13. No further orders by the Indian Army or IAF for Prithvis have been placed. Priced at over a million dollar a piece15, conventional warhead armed Prithvis do not appear to find much favour with the Indian Armed Forces.
With their present capability and the available numbers, conventional warhead armed Prithvi pose no significant additional threat to Pakistan. IAF strike force by comparison poses a far more serious threat to Pakistan than the conventional armed Prithvis. According to one study, the total weapon load capacity of IAF’s strike elements in a single mission is equivalent to 3,000
Prithvi I, or 6,000 Prithvi IIs16. Furthermore, this capability will again be available the next day and so on.
Why did the Indians develop and deploy Prithvi missiles? According to Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra, “In any missile system there has to be a synergy amongst the makers, users and the strategists from the beginning. In the case of Prithvi, unfortunately, users came into the picture after the first few tests and the philosophy for use of the missiles came much later. While it has been openly declared that Prithvis are intended for conventional warheads, the Pokhran II tests in May 1998 changed the entire scenario and there have been indications that Prithvis are now nuclear capable. The development of Prithvi and that too the first liquid version took an unusually long time and by the time it was perfected it was found to be strategically of minimum value in view of long preparations needed to get the missile ready. By being ambivalent on the use of Prithvis and there being no way of informing the adversary whether the missile has conventional or nuclear warheads, the deterrence threshold so far as Prithvi is concerned has been considerably lowered17.”
Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon of Indian Navy in his book on “Indian Nuclear Strategy.” has similarly been very critical of the Indian Government for developing a missile system without first ascertaining the user’s requirement. In his book on Indian Nuclear Strategy, he states, “In India, the manufacture of new weapons requires the user service to issue the user’s staff requirements called the General, Naval, or Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs), and scientists attempt to adhere to them in the final product. It is not clear who wrote the GSQRs for Prithvi because no one to date claims responsibility18.”
Both Dr. Mishra and Admiral Raja Menon give the impression that the development of Prithvis was not based on any rational defence strategy. They deliberately or otherwise appear to ignore the real reasons for its development. In my opinion, Prithvi class missiles were never meant for conventional weapons delivery; it was to be for nuclear weapons delivery. That the Indians repeatedly claimed and armed them with conventional warheads before 1998 was because India had till then not openly declared their nuclear weapons capability. After 1998, Dr Mishra, Raja Menon and all other defence strategists coyly mention that now arming Prithvis with nuclear warheads is desirable. I have no doubt that nuclear tipped Prithvis was the end game and arming them with conventional warheads was only a temporary ploy till India conducted the Pokhran II nuclear explosion and openly declared its nuclear weapons capability. This is what Raja Menon has to say in his book, India’s Nuclear Strategy, “The need to confuse the international community by claiming that the missile could carry conventional warheads was probably the reason why the warhead weight was kept at 1000 kgs, an absurdly large figure for a nuclear payload on a 150 kms range missile. This, rather unstrategic and uncalculated development promptly set off the Pakistanis in matching India thoughtlessness with some of their own.”19
Development and deployment of Prithvis had another strategic aim. It was the first step towards development of Medium Range, Intermediate Range and eventually long Range ballistic missiles, that can carry nuclear warheads. Agni I and Agni II have already been developed and in the foreseeable future a longer-range version of Agni missile should be coming up.
Now, that the Indian Army has up to 100 conventional warhead Prithvis, do we assume that they pose no threat to Pakistan? Yes, they do pose a threat but not to the extent it is generally believed and this threat must be realistically assessed so that our defencive measures are proportionate to the threat being posed.
With the kind of accuracy of Prithvis, their limited payload and the numbers available with the Indian Armed Forces, their ability to take out an air base or a field headquarters using conventional warheads is rather limited. Their high cost (a million US $ per missile) is a key factor that has limited their production. Another aspect in the sub-continent, which puts a severe constraint in its usage is the fact that the enemy has no way of knowing whether a Prithvi hurtling towards it is nuclear tipped or conventional. He is likely to assume the worst and will have his nuclear tipped Prithvi equivalent ready for launch. According to Dr Mishra, “irrespective of declaring Prithvi as nuclear capable or not, there remains every likelihood that Pakistan will try to pull the nuclear threshold down to counter-threat Indian security. The probity of the value of Indian deterrence thus gets marginalized in the process.”20 If one were to believe the western press, this phenomenon was witnessed both during the Kargil conflict and in the recent showdown. In conclusion, in the nuclear environment that exists in the sub-continent, use of Prithvi missile in a conventional role while not being ruled out altogether, their employment strategy would be severely constraint.
Critics would point out that with some justification that ballistic missiles like Scuds have been used during the Iran-Iraq conflict by both Iran and Iraq and during the Gulf War by Iraq. The mayhem and panic spread by German V rockets during WW II could also be cited as reason enough for use of Prithvi class missiles to bomb our town and cities. Use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads is a possibility but its usage will be subject to certain conditions. First, in a situation where the other side also possesses similar missile capability, the side that runs out of all other options of attacking the enemy would most likely initiate their use. Iraq’s attack on Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Gulf War fell in that category. With the loss of complete air superiority to the allied forces, Scud missiles were the only available offensive options with Iraq and they used it. It is interesting to note that Iraqi Scuds were fired with conventional warheads only. Iraq was in possession of chemical/biological warheads but it dared not use them even under extreme desperation because coalition forces had made it clear that any such an act would “invite terrible retribution” — an allusion to retaliation by nuclear weapons if necessary. The nuclear threat by the coalition forces without a matching threat by Iraq deterred the latter from arming its Scuds with unconventional weapons.
Iran-Iraq war also saw Scuds with conventional warheads being fired at each other by both the contestants. While causing a fair amount of casualty and mayhem, Scuds contribution towards the war effort by both sides was at best minimal. They were used principally because they were there. A similar logic could apply to the India-Pakistan scenario but the nuclear factor as explained earlier would severely curtail the freedom of action by either side to resort to such weapons.
What should Pakistan do to counter the threat? To begin with, possession of a matching response would act as a major deterrence. Our development of Ghauri and Shaheen with similar (and in fact better than the Indian Prithvi and Agni, if we are to believe our scientists) capabilities along with a matching nuclear capability, has to a large extent check-mated the Indian missile threat.
What about anti-missile defences? USA has been working on the star war concepts and with their National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) programmes. During the Gulf War, Patriots were deployed with limited success to guard against the Scud attacks. Patriot performance for all its hype was below par during the conflict but since then the system has been upgraded and is expected to perform better. Israel has its Arrow anti-missile shield to protect against a likely Iraqi Scud attack. Arrow system along with the Greenpine radar network is believed to be even superior to the improved Patriots. Should we also not invest in such a system, if not for NMD but at least for TMD. This aspect needs a closer scrutiny.
USA is the lone super power in today’s world. In terms of military technology and scientific know- how its position is unchallenged. It faces no threat to its security from conventional forces but it is the asymmetric warfare that is its main concern. Following the attack on the twin towers during 11 September 2001, American strategists fear a missile attack with unconventional warheads by “rogue” states/groups. Their answer, in what has been generally dubbed as “Star Wars”, still remains elusive because technology has not yet advanced to a level where modern ICBMs can be intercepted with a high degree of assurance. Star Wars to begin with, may have been a bait for the Soviet Bear that eventually led to its detraction but after the events of 11th September, its implementation has gained urgency. They will get there eventually, for only they have the resources and technology to pull it off. All others must wait.
The case of Israel is similar to USA to a degree and differs in some ways. Israel faces a real threat from the Iraqi Scuds and they are taking all steps to neutralize it. Israel is fortunate in having more or less unlimited access to American defence technology and its defence expenditure is invariably underwritten by the gargantuan US economy. In the case of Israel, it should be noted that its focus on missile defence has only come when it has successfully tackled all other forms of threats to its security. In other words, its forces on the ground, in the air and in the sea are markedly superior to anything its adversaries possess. Development of a missile defence system in their case appears to be in order.
How about Pakistan? Is procurement of Patriot/Arrow class missile defence system justified, assuming to begin with that such a system is made available and we have the necessary funds for its induction? First, we need to be clear about what is the more serious threat to our security and have we been able to address it adequately. As has been pointed out earlier Indian Air Force strike elements pose a far greater threat to us than the present number of conventional warhead carrying Prithvis. Our first priority, should be enhancement of our air defence network. Procurement of more radars, better ground to air weapons (AAAs/SAMs) and most importantly more potent interceptors should be on top of our list. A Patriot system would cost upward of a billion US dollars provided they are made available. These would provide a shield to only a miniscule of our vulnerable assets. Again, subject to availability, imagine how much enhancement can be achieved in our overall air defence network with the injection of a billion US dollars worth of equipment. Anti-Missile systems do have a place in the overall defence of Pakistan but their induction should be prioritised according to the degree of threat the missiles pose to our security. Till such a system becomes available and affordable, maintaining a matching response both in the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons would blunt the Indian edge. Prithvis, may not pose a serious threat to our security but as predicted by a number of Indian defence analysts, it would spur a missile arms race in the region. Today, thanks to the Indian Prithvi, we are a witness to such a race in the Indian sub-continent.

1The Non-proliferation Review, Winter 95
3WMD Around the World - Article from Internet - page-3
4Ibid - page 3
5Prithvi Missiles by Dr Rajesh Kumar Mishra page - 3
6Ibid - page 3
7Bringing Prithvi Down to Earth - by Z Mian, A H Nayyar and MV Ramana, page 1
8WMD Around the World - Article from the internet
9Bringing Prithvi Down to Earth, Page 2
11Prithvi Missiles, by Dr Rajesh Kumar Mishra, page 4
12WMD Around the World, page 1
13Ibid - Page 2
14Ibid - Page 2
15Prithvi Missiles Dr Rajesh Kumar Mishra, Page 4
16Bringing Prithvi Down to Earth - Page 3
17Prithvi Missiles by Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra, Page 1
18Indian Nuclear Strategy, by Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon
20Prithvi Missiles by Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra.