ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan on Monday test-fired a ballistic missile that appears capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to every part of India, another escalation in Islamabad’s effort to keep pace with its neighboring rival’s formidable military advancements.
Pakistani military leaders said the Shaheen-III missile has a range of up to 1,700 miles, which could enable it to reach deep into the Middle East, including Israel.
After the missile was fired into the Arabian Sea on Monday, the head of the military unit that oversees Pakistan’s nuclear program congratulated scientists and engineers for “achieving yet another milestone of historic significance.”
The medium-range Shaheen-III is an updated version of the indigenously produced Shaheen-I and Shaheen-II, which had shorter ranges. “The test launch was aimed at validating various design and technical parameters of the weapon system at maximum range,” the military said in a statement.
Pakistani military leaders are trying to maintain a “credible deterrence” as arch-rival India rapidly invests in military hardware.
In recent years, India has moved toward the creation of a missile defense system and is upgrading its air force and submarine fleet. In 2012, India test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, which it said has a range of more than 3,100 miles.
India’s growing defense budget is largely a result of its uneasy relationship with China. But Pakistan and India have fought three major wars since 1947. Analysts estimate that Pakistan and India possess about 100 nuclear warheads each, and nonproliferation experts say the Indian subcontinent remains a nuclear flash point.
Several Pakistani military analysts said the Shaheen-III has a range greater than that of any other Pakistani missile. The maximum range of the earlier versions of the Shaheen missile was about 1,500 miles, which meant it could not reach parts of India’s eastern frontier.
“Now, India doesn’t have its safe havens anymore,” said Shahid Latif, a retired commander of Pakistan’s air force. “It’s all a reaction to India, which has now gone even for tests of extra-regional missiles. . . . It sends a loud message: If you hurt us, we are going to hurt you back.”
Some analysts caution that the true range of the Shaheen-III could be less than what Pakistani military leaders claim. But Monday’s test could aggravate unease in parts of the Middle East, including Israel. Historically, there also has been some tension between Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, and Shiite-dominated Iran.
Mansoor Ahmed, a strategic studies and nuclear expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said, however, that Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions are focused solely on India.
India has a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons. But Pakistani leaders have repeatedly declined to adopt a similar stance, saying they might be forced to resort to nuclear weapons should India invade Pakistan with conventional forces. The Indian army is more than twice the size of Pakistan’s and has a vast advantage in weaponry such as tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces.
Ahmed said Pakistan’s military is not interested in a “tit-for-tat” arms race with India. Instead, he said, Pakistan hopes to improve “existing capabilities,” including new delivery systems for evading an Indian missile defense shield.
Ahmed said he suspects that Pakistani scientists and engineers are working to equip the Shaheen-III with multiple warheads, which would make the missiles harder to defend against. Pakistan is also seeking to advance its cruise missile technology. Ahmed said the Shaheen-III can be fired from mobile launchers, making the missiles easier to conceal and move around in the event of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear and nonproliferation scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said Pakistan has been working to make smaller, lighter nuclear warheads. A smaller warhead makes it far more likely that the Shaheen-III can really deliver a nuclear payload up to 1,700 miles.
“You would want to model it, but at first approximation, I would be surprised to learn [the range] would be widely off,” Lewis said.
The timing of Monday’s missile test caught some analysts by surprise. It occurred less than a week after India’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, visited Islamabad to meet with Pakistani diplomats in a bid to improve bilateral relations.
Although Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed interest in boosting ties with India, Pakistani military leaders are deeply skeptical of such efforts. And the testing of nuclear-capable missiles has, at times, appeared to serve as an outlet for the military to vent frustrations.
In early February, just days after President Obama signed a deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for enhanced civilian nuclear cooperation, Pakistan test-fired a short-range cruise missile.
Shaiq Hussain contributed to