ISLAMABAD — Access to China’s Beidou satellite guidance system for navigation and precision strike weaponry is welcomed by Pakistani analysts, but guaranteed availability of the Beidou signal cannot be assumed.
“Pakistan’s armed forces cannot rely on US GPS because of its questionable availability during a conflict that has overtones of nuclear escalation,” former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail said.
“With Pakistani cruise missiles having satellite navigation as an option, it would actually be very naive to believe that US would abet in any such venture,” he said.
The Beidou military signal will be more accurate than available commercial systems.
Mansoor Ahmed from Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, who specializes in Pakistan’s national deterrent and delivery program, said the Beidou signal is vital for Pakistan’s defense.
“Pakistan is likely to follow a two-pronged strategy aimed at providing redundancies in conflict situations for secure guidance of its cruise missiles,” he said.
“This would call for reliance on Beidou as well as inertial guidance, the latter being used for indigenous cruise missiles like Babur, which can be used for counterforce precision strikes with or without conventional warheads,” he added.
Pakistan’s indigenous cruise missiles, the air-launched Hatf-VIII/Vengeance-VIII Ra’ad, and the surface or sub-surface-launched Hatf-VII Babur, use satellite guidance in addition to inertial navigation and terrain contour mapping.
Some Pakistani ballistic missiles, such as the Shaheen-II, are also claimed to have a satellite guidance option.
Despite its benefits, access to Beidou cannot be fully guaranteed.
Though Tufail believes “China would not outright withdraw [Beidou] at least in the relatively less dangerous early stages of a conflict. … For Pakistan to depend on Chinese satellite guidance systems for weapons delivery [which could be nuclear too] is fraught with uncertainties driven by international concerns.
“Total reliance on the Chinese Beidou satellite positioning system in any conflict would, therefore, also have to be tempered with these stark realities,” he added.
Tufail said Beidou is important mainly with regards to conventional precision strike.
“The very large destruction hemisphere of a nuclear weapon, even a low yield one, mitigates any lack of delivery accuracy of a small order,” he said.
Ahmed, however, believes Beidou will have at least one important part to play regarding Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.
“Beidou would be particularly effective for a naval Babur that is believed to be the platform for Pakistan’s second-strike capability,” he said.
Its value will mainly be through the accurate positioning of the launch submarine rather than the guidance of the missile itself, because inertial navigation should still be sufficient for a submarine-launched weapon as long as the submarine’s position is accurately determined.
Ahmed does not believe large numbers of conventionally armed variants of the Babur missile will be carried on Pakistani submarines.
For the Navy “Babur primarily fits in with a second strike platform carrying nuclear warheads” he said.
In the South Asian context, the use of precision guided munitions can be hampered, however.
The skies over Pakistan are often obscured by thick fog in winter and dust storms in summer, which complicate accurate weapons delivery.
Tufail, therefore, highlights Beidou as important for aircraft navigation and conventional weapons delivery. Though he thinks Pakistan “must retain options like laser guided weapons, not withstanding their limitations in adverse weather conditions.
“In a 24-hour cycle, there are ample opportunities that can be exploited and these weapons can be useful backups,” he said.
China’s aid to Pakistan’s goes further than Beidou, however. While as Pakistan continues to develop its own precision-guided weaponry, only China can expeditiously deliver such such munitions in volume.
The Stockholm International Policy Research Institute (SIPRI) cites deliveries of the LS-3 and LS-6-500 satellite-guided glide bombs, and the LT-2 LGB in connection with the JF-17 Thunder fighter program as the latest examples.
SIPRI also confirms the acquisition of 50 Chinese CM-400AKG supersonic standoff missiles for the anti-shipping strike role under a 2010 deal. A variant of the missile is believed to also be satellite guided for precision strikes against land targets.
He is inclined to believe the CM-400AKG will remain a specialist anti-aircraft carrier weapon for the time being therefore.