According to the South China Morning Post, Beijing has cut an “unprecedented” deal with Pakistan, selling the South Asian country a powerful optical tracking system. It is believed the tracking system is meant to be used in Pakistan’s growing missile program. Reports indicate China’s tracking system could help Pakistan develop a multi-warhead missile. Information about the deal was declassified by Chinese authorities on Wednesday.
What is the Tracking System?
China’s tracking system is said to be “a highly sophisticated, large-scale optical tracking and measurement system from China,” according to a researcher, Zheng Mengwei, at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). Advanced optical systems are a key component to a successful missile test. A centralized computer system that follows moving targets is usually accompanied by infrared detectors, high-speed cameras, and high-performance telescopes. Zheng explained, “The uniqueness of the Chinese-made system lay in its use of four telescope units, more than normally required.” This would allow researchers to follow multiple deployed nuclear warheads. It is yet unclear how much Pakistan paid for the tracking system.
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The CAS statement indicated China’s tracking system is more advanced than anything Pakistan had before. Additionally, “The (missile tracking) system’s performance surpassed the user’s expectations.”
Why is it Needed?
During a missile test, the optical system can capture high resolution images of the launch, separation, tail flame, and reentry, collecting much needed information about the launch for missile technicians and scientists to analyze. The high resolution images are much easier to analyze and provide more information than data usually collected during missile tests. The Chinese system is unique because it contains four precisely synchronised telescopes with a range of hundreds of miles. These telescopes can track multiple warheads, helping to develop the multi-warhead weapon for Pakistan’s missile program.
Why Does the Sale Matter?
The sale of China’s tracking system could indicate a new stage in the nuclear arms race between hardened rivals Pakistan and India, as well as Beijing’s involvement in the competition. Two months ago, India conducted a test on its most advance intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to date, the Agni-V. With a range of 3,100 miles, the ICBM could potentially hit China, serving as India’s deterrent against China’s nuclear program. On the same day as the announcement of the sale of the tracking system, New Delhi announced they had successfully tested the BrahMos cruise missile. India claims BrahMos is the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world.
Between the nine nuclear capable countries, Pakistan and India are key rivals. Pakistan is estimated at possessing 120-130 nuclear warheads, while India holds around 110-120. However, India’s nuclear weapons are larger and can reach farther distances. According to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, India developed nuclear weapons in breach of international non-proliferation commitments. Both Pakistan and India are actively working to improve their nuclear arsenals.
Pakistan’s missile program has been focusing on creating a multi-head nuclear weapon. Islamabad aims to develop multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which is a kind of missile that can carry multiple nuclear warheads capable of being directed towards different targets upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. According to the US, Pakistan conducted its first test in January 2017 on the Ababeel missile, capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. The US Department of Defense issued a statement saying Pakistan’s missile program test of the Ababeel missile demonstrates, “South Asia’s first MIRV payload.” While the nuclear weapons can be launched towards different targets, they can also be directed towards one target in an attempt to overcome a missile defense system.
With nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads around the world (92% in possession of either the US or Russia), the nuclear peace is both tense and precarious, resting on the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD holds that if one government engages in a nuclear attack of another, the destruction brought on by the the unavoidable retribution would be too great to have justified the initial attack. If one nation develops nuclear technology far more advanced than that of a competitor, the nuclear peace may be destabilized.
India has not be as successful as Pakistan in developing a multi-head nuclear weapon. Experts worry that China’s tracking system combined with Pakistan’s missile program advances may destabilize the Indian subcontinent and ratchet up competition between Islamabad and New Delhi, already high considering China’s Belt and Road Initiative and violence across the India-Pak border. However, military experts believe the Ababeel missile is still in the early stages of development and not yet combat ready.
The Scientists Behind China’s Tracking System
Chinese scientists spent three months in Pakistan helping to assemble the advanced tracking system and train Pakistani technicians in its use, where they enjoyed “VIP treatment,” according to a statement published by CAS. Despite the obvious implications towards Pakistan’s missile program, Chinese scientists evaded questions directly about military defense. Zheng told the South China Morning Post, “We simply gave them a pair of eyes. They can use them to look at whatever they want to see, even the Moon.” However, Zheng did indicate that Pakistan has already deployed China’s tracking system “at a firing range” to test and develop new missiles.
An anonymous Chinese military analyst told the South China Morning Post, that China would probably not share more of the sensitive technology with Pakistan needed to develop a multi-head weapon, “China definitely doesn’t want a nuclear war breaking out between India and Pakistan. Both countries sit right on our border. The fallout could drift over Everest and rain over Tibet, and our big cities are within reach of ballistic missiles. Stability is always our top concern.”
Despite the statements by CAS and the anonymous source, military experts have long held that China is helping Pakistan’s missile program along to further development. China is the biggest supplier of arms to Pakistan and the first country to have sold such sensitive technology to Islamabad. According to a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, upwards of 60% of China’s military exports go to the Pakistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.