Tuesday, June 07, 2011
A bigger threat from Pakistan
In all the tumult and alarums of the last three months in Pakistan, a grave and threatening development seems to have slipped under our radar screens. Ordinarily, the ballistic missile called Nasr, with a range of 60 kilometres, would not be particularly threatening considering Pakistan’s multi-layered missile arsenal that covers most of India and beyond. Indeed, in terms of range it is much like our own Russian-supplied Smerch.
But that is where the comparisons end. As the Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations press release put it: “NASR, with a range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes. This quick response system addresses the need to deter evolving threats.”
In strategic literature, short-range tactical nuclear weapons have been considered particularly destabilising. “A quick response system” is not something you talk about when you discuss nuclear weapons which ought never be used, and if they are, should be employed only in the gravest of national emergencies.
Weapons of such range are held at the level of a Corps which is a large battlefield formation. Many situations can arise at a Corps level battle which may appear to be dire emergencies, but are not so when viewed at a higher level. No doubt the Nasr’s employment will be controlled by Pakistan’s national command authority, but given their range, they would have to be deployed in the forward edge of battle where the fog of war is thick and the chance of miscalculation high.
Whatever be the case India must confront the issue because it poses a major challenge to how it views nuclear deterrence.
India conducted five nuclear tests between May 11 and 13th 1999. On the first day it tested a thermonuclear device, a boosted fission bomb and a 0.2 kiloton device. The thermo-nuclear test seems to have failed and this leaves India with a successful fission bomb design which can, perhaps, be scaled up to 200 kilotons. Though it does appear that India may have tested a tactical nuclear warhead, subsequently, the official doctrine has decried the idea of tactical nukes.
The Indian doctrine, adumbrated through a Cabinet Committee on Security decision on January 4, 2003 noted that India would build and maintain “a credible minimum deterrent” and adopt a “no first use” posture where nuclear weapons would be “used only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere. This retaliation would be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” Clearly, what India is talking about is what is called a counter-value strike to hit at industrial and transportation hubs and possibly population centres.
This is why the Nasr is such a grave development. Islamabad has categorically rejected the idea of “no first use” of nuclear weapons because of its concerns over Indian conventional superiority. There has been considerable debate as to its “red lines”— the point beyond which it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. Needless to say, Islamabad has carefully avoided spelling them out.
Many have assumed that the red lines would be the threat of our Strike Corps— each with three to four divisions—striking deep into Pakistan cutting its north-south communications links, or endangering a major city. To avoid this, as well as to deal with the kind of challenge the country
confronted with the attack on the Parliament House in 2001 and on Mumbai in 2008, the army began talking of a Cold Start doctrine.
In analysing this doctrine, Gurmeet Kanwal has argued that shallow division-sized attacks across the international boundary, with the aim of luring the Pakistan Army and degrading it with massive “ground based aerially delivered” fire power would not cross any red line. However, if Pakistan fields tactical nuclear weapons to counter this, the very definition of red lines would change and, by threatening their use, it would ensure that the Indian army does not mass its firepower for the purpose intended.
The Pakistani determination to field tactical nuclear weapons imposes a huge burden on the Indian nuclear strategy, especially since the country has adopted an ostrich-like approach towards meshing nuclear weapons into our national security strategy. Our nuclear doctrine and posture seems to be more of a PR statement, rather than a strategic position. Its key principle—“no first use” was announced by Prime Minister Vajpayee within weeks of the nuclear tests in 1998. The rest of it, the idea of massive retaliation, development of a triad of forces and so on, was virtually scissored and pasted into a draft doctrine for the benefit of the world community .
Just how inadequate it was became apparent in the post Parliament attack confrontation between India and Pakistan, now called Op Parakram. The doctrine had not catered for the simple contingency—Indian forces being struck by nuclear weapons in Pakistani territory. It was for this reason that after the Op Parakaram was called off, the Cabinet Committee on Security met, and the press release issued thereafter constitutes the public statement of our doctrine as of now: that an attack on India or Indian forces anywhere by chemical, nuclear or biological weapons would involve a massive nuclear retaliation.
In 1993, Mumbai was struck by a series of devastating bomb blasts and, more recently, in 2008, the city faced a murderous commando raid. Not only were these some of the deadliest terrorist strikes anywhere in the world, but in both cases India quickly had detailed evidence of official Pakistani involvement, and yet it chose to do nothing.
Flowing from this, then, is the obvious question. Would India really destroy Lahore and Karachi if two of its divisions that had invaded Pakistan were subjected to tactical nuclear weapon strikes? Something tells me that we would not. Restraint is a much more enduring feature of the Indian strategic culture than our nuclear doctrine assumes.
Till now there was an assumption that Pakistan would be a nuclear weapons state like India, China, Russia or the United States had been—seeking stability at the strategic level, even while allowing some instability at a lower level. But, as Professor Shaun Gregory pointed out in an important article this March, Pakistan is not your usual nuclear state.
He noted that it differed from other nuclear weapons states in three key ways—first, it is the military and not the civilians who control its nuclear weapons. Second, it is the only such state that backs sub-national terrorists and insurgents as a matter of state policy. And third, and most important, Pakistan was “a revisionist and irredentist state”.
So, while other states sought nuclear weapons to maintain stability, Pakistan wanted to use them as a tool to generate instability which went against the status quo. So while states have gone out of their way to promote stability after achieving nuclear parity, Pakistan seems to be accumulating nuclear weapons at a rate which bears no relation to the programme of its sole adversary, India. Its weapons holdings have already outpaced India’s and will soon approach the level of France and UK.
This, then is the challenge India faces. Islamabad’s motive in deploying tactical nuclear weapons is not so much the strategic defence of the country, but a means of preventing India from punishing Pakistan for carrying out acts of terrorism. It already has the weapons and the reach to deter any putative use of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, New Delhi has been strangely negligent in responding to the rapidly changing nuclear dynamics relating to Pakistan. We have been focusing on terrorism and have ignored the steadily increasing danger of Pakistani nuclear adventurism. Terrorism can kill people by the hundreds, but a nuclear strike’s consequences are something else altogether.
Mail Today June 2, 2011