ISLAMABAD — Monday's test of the Ra'ad air-launched cruise missile may have been designed to check the effectiveness of an upgrade, according to analysts.
The test was announced in a press release by the military's media arm, Inter Services Public Relations. It provided few details, only saying, "Pakistan conducted a successful Flight Test of the indigenously developed Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) Ra'ad."
This test means the Hatf/Vengeance VIII Ra'ad (Thunder) has now been officially tested five times since 2007. It is generally comparable to the Anglo/French Storm Shadow or US AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile, but exact specifications are not available.
Analyst, author and former Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail said, "The test firing was a typical combo of a technical upgrade timed with political signaling, something that both India and Pakistan have turned into an art form."
Mansoor Ahmed, lecturer in the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, who specializes in Pakistan's nuclear program and its delivery systems, said the test was not in answer to India's test-firing of its Agni V intermediate range ballistic missile.
The Agni V was test fired on Saturday.
"I am not sure if this is a tit-for-tat response," he said. "The fact that it is a 350 kilometer vs. a 5,000-8,000 kilometer test reflects Pakistan's emphasis on credible minimum deterrence with only an India-centric posture, while India is clearly moving far beyond the requirements of a minimum deterrent driven by global power projection ambitions."
Instead, he believes the test was part of ongoing efforts on "improving the effectiveness and validating the enhanced operational parameters of existing delivery systems that comprise the country's nascent triad."
He added, "Ra'ad and the land and sea versions of the Babur cruise missiles offer diversification in targeting options, greater operational and deployable flexibility and increase the overall survivability of its deterrent force."
He says the two cruise missiles are especially important for Pakistan's nascent "posture of full spectrum deterrence with added emphasis on counter-value targeting to offset India's strategic and conventional force modernization," which are integral aspects of India's "emerging proactive operations strategy."
Ra'ad is claimed to be operational, but is such a critical weapon it is still somewhat cloaked in secrecy.
Ahmed, however, said Ra'ad may have "finally matured as an operational and deployable system," but "this might also be a batch test coupled with the possible completion/accomplishment of required miniaturization of suitable warheads for this system. Hence this test."
He believes that aside from technical improvements, the timing is significant in terms of its non-conventional strike capabilities.
"Range remains the same; the only thing that might have improved is accuracy, guidance and control parameters, etc. Also this test comes at a time when plutonium production for miniaturized warheads is meeting the operational requirements, with the commissioning of the fourth production reactor at Khushab," he said.
Despite being described as a conventional and non-conventional weapon, analysts like Tufail are unconvinced Ra'ad can effectively be employed by Pakistan in the conventional role.
"Platforms like the Ra'ad have limited use as conventional weapons launching platforms, because a payload of 450-kilograms [at best] can do little harm unless launched in a shower of a few score, something that would be outrageously costly," he said.
"Glide bombs are an economical choice for stand-off delivery of conventional weapons," he added.
Indeed, Pakistan does seem to have made further steps in this regard and showcased the latest of its glide bombs, the Global Industrial Defence Solutions' 'Takbir', at December's IDEAS2014 defense exhibition.
The Ra'ad has been tested on the Mirage III strike aircraft, but it is unknown if it has been integrated onto Pakistan's F-16s.
Tufail said it is more likely the JF-17 will be the next delivery platform.