The Second Coming of MIRVs

Stimson Spotlight

The Second Coming of MIRVs

By Michael Krepon and Travis Wheeler

Pakistan’s first flight test of the Ababeel missile was accompanied by a military press release advertising its ability to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. Technical experts are surely calculating estimates of the new missile’s lifting capacity as well as the nominal weight of warheads that might be carried in a “bus” to deliver them. The targets identified in the press release—radars—suggests an intended message: If New Delhi decides to absorb the costs of ballistic missile defenses for high-value targets, along with the radars to accompany BMD deployments, these expenses will be in vain. And if the Ababeel turns out not to be capable of carrying MIRVs, Pakistan has flight tested a longer-range missile—the Shaheen III—that presumably has greater lift capacity to do so.

The Stimson Center’s book, The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, anticipated this development. In “Pakistan, MIRVS, and Counterforce Targeting” by Feroz Hasan Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, the authors wrote, “India’s twin pursuits of MIRVs and BMD challenge the effectiveness of the Pakistani strategic deterrent and force Pakistan to make choices either to cede ground or engage in a continuing strategic arms competition.” There is no evidence that Pakistan is ready to cede ground in a nuclear arms competition with India. As Feroz and Mansoor wrote, “Given the choice of negating India’s options or avoiding an arms race, Pakistan will choose the former.”

Pakistan is not alone in the pursuit of MIRVs. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation has proudly trumpeted India’s capability to do so, which is evident, in any event, by India’s ability to launch multiple satellites from one booster rocket. And the Pentagon reported for the first time in 2015 that China has begun to place MIRVs on long-range missiles.

During the first nuclear age, the advent of MIRVs led both the United States and Soviet Union to pursue dramatic expansions in their respective nuclear arsenals. Nuclear war-fighting doctrines evolved and targeting lists grew alongside warhead totals. A destabilizing arms race ensued, and nuclear dangers spiked. The mechanism by which this arms race was slowed and ultimately reversed was verifiable treaties. Even today, when relations have deteriorated and new strategic nuclear delivery vehicles replace old ones, mutually agreed draw-downs in strategic force levels remain in place.

Now that MIRVing has come to the triangular nuclear competition among China, India, and Pakistan, nuclear dangers will again grow alongside stockpiles. But in the second nuclear age, unlike the first, there are no treaty constraints, and there are very few confidence-building measures. There aren’t even working channels of nuclear diplomacy between China and India, or between India and Pakistan.

To learn more about the lure and pitfalls of MIRVs, check out the Stimson Center’s edited volume, released in May, 2016, which is freely available on Stimson’s website. The book chapters are: