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Pakistan: Islamabad Test-Fires Cruise Missile, Igniting Fears Of New Arms Race

Pakistan says it has test-fired its first cruise missile capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Cruise missiles fly close to the ground and are able to slip beneath most antimissile systems. There are fears that the test could undermine Pakistan's relations with India, which have been on an upturn in recent months. Pakistan gave no advance warning of the launch, despite agreeing with India just a few days ago to give advance warning of future ballistic-missile tests.

Prague, 11 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Pakistani military is in a triumphant mood, describing the Babur cruise missile -- which has a range of 500 kilometers -- as a milestone in the country's history. Pakistan, it announced, has joined the small number of countries able to design and build cruise missiles.

Information Minister Rashid Ahmed added that Babur is also a birthday gift to President Pervez Musharraf, who turned 62 today. He brushed aside fears that the test could damage relations with neighboring India.

"We have good terms [with India], we have business terms with India, and we have a good peace process, and hopefully [we] will be a good neighbor," Ahmed said. "But as far as our defense is concerned, we can't forget our responsibilities, and this is one of the new layers in our defense strategy."

Those words notwithstanding, the test is certain to set alarm bells ringing in India, which has not yet commented on the test. The two countries have twice come dangerously close to war since they tested nuclear missiles in 1998 -- on both occasions over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Yet relations have markedly improved in the last year, particularly since Musharraf's visit to India in April. Much of the progress has centered on building trust.

Rahul Bedi, a defense expert at "Jane's Defense Weekly" who is based in the Indian capital, Delhi, believes the test will set back the clock.

"This is likely to be a bit of a setback for India and Pakistan as far as the peace talks are concerned, because only two days ago they conducted negotiations to inform each other of missile tests, except that their agreement concerned only ballistic missiles and not cruise missiles," Bedi said. "So Pakistan is saying that this is outside the purview of those tests. But negotiations are a matter of trust, a matter of ambience, and feeling and confidence building, and this is definitely likely to dent the confidence between the two sides."
The cruise missile test may reflect growing Pakistani concern that India's missile-defense system is becoming too sophisticated.

But while India may feel that Pakistan's explanations are disingenuous at best, Pakistan argues that it is merely responding to its powerful neighbor's arms buildup.

Bedi, an Indian, concedes that Pakistan may have a point.

"Pakistan does have justification on its side because India is on a procurement drive," Bedi said. "It is buying sophisticated weaponry from all over the world -- from Israel, from the United States, from France, from European countries. So India is really building up a huge arsenal over the last two to three years. So, yes, there is cause for alarm in Pakistan. And, in a sense, if you really look at it objectively, there is some truth in what Pakistan is saying."

Duncan Lennox, an expert on South Asia working for "Jane's Strategic Weapons Yearbook," says the cruise missile test reflects growing Pakistani concern that India's missile-defense system is becoming too sophisticated.

"Pakistan's greatest fear is of India, and they probably feel that India's discussions to purchase surface-to-air missile [defense] systems like Patriot that would defend against ballistic missiles, they would like to have options," Lennox said. "Cruise missiles can be moved around the country much more easily and virtually undetected, when ballistic missiles can usually be tracked."

Just as importantly, cruise missiles are low-flying and can slip undetected through almost any protective radar system. That will undoubtedly make Pakistan's options more potent -- but for how long? The arms race in South Asia is unlikely to stop here.