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Nuclearization of South Asia

Nuclearization of South Asia

Causes and the way forward

Ever since the catastrophic power of atomic bombs was unleashed to the world with complete devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, massacre of nearly 300,000 people and the resultant capitulation of Japan before the United States in the Second World War, there have been an unending, fierce debate among international security analysts and military strategists on the effectiveness, or precariousness, of peace maintained by nuclear capabilities. Notwithstanding the fact that possession of nuclear capabilities caused massive buildup of powerful conventional and non-conventional weaponry, the fear of a massive retaliation did work well in maintaining relative peace and tranquility in the postwar era. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the avoidance of the much-feared US-Soviet nuclear confrontation greatly substantiate the underpinning of the nuclear deterrence that mutual assured destruction (MAD) capability deters states from resorting to aggression. In addition to avoidance of war, the invention of atomic bomb and its cataclysmic power fundamentally transformed the military thinking as Bernard Brodie, the founder of nuclear strategic planning, had famously termed the nuclear weapon as the ‘Absolute Weapon’ and opined that possession of this had transformed the role of militaries from fighting and winning wars to preventing those. In this backdrop, deterrence can be understood as creation, development and continued modernization of nuclear capability to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear power through promise of massive retaliation and MAD.

As far as nuclearization of South Asia is concerned, Pakistan and India have acquired nuclear capabilities with extremely opposite objectives. India opted to pursue nuclear path as per Nehruvian philosophy of greater India as it intended to intimidate its rivals, i.e. Pakistan and China. A nuclear-capable India wanted to enhance its regional clout and project itself as a great power with increased role in constructing and regulating regional and international security affairs. Through acquisition of nuclear power, a hegemonic role for India in regional political and security matters was also sought.

On the contrary, Pakistan’s nuclear programme was jumpstarted in response to India’s test of explosive devices in 1974 and it prioritized the strengthening of national security against perceived threat, primarily from India, without any regional or global hegemonic designs. Pakistan never wanted to upend regional and international securitization process as the country refined its nuclear posturing, strategy and targets in tandem with rapidly advancing and expanding Indian nuclear and missile programme. In the words of John H. Gill, Pakistan seeks to maintain sufficient conventional and nuclear strength to deter Indian attack, or if deterrence fails, to prevent a catastrophic defeat long enough for international community to intervene and halt the conflict.

The very possession of nuclear weapons has played a critical role in Pakistan’s national security, besides ensuring political stability and preservation of peace and security in South Asia. Since the mid 1980’s, the full-blown conventional war between India and Pakistan was averted at least five times owing to nuclear parity – Kargil War in 1999, India’s coercive troops mobilization in 2002, the 26/11 incident (2008 Mumbai Attacks) sufficiently proved the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence in South Asia. It is very easy to conclude that given the broader sense of security landscape and geostrategic vulnerabilities of Pakistan – lack of depth and proximity of communication centres to India – the very survival of Pakistan would have been in jeopardy had it not sought to have nuclear capabilities. This vitality of nuclear weapons as the final guarantor and chief architect of national security warrants thorough discussion on nuclear history of Pakistan so as to fully comprehend the strategic compulsions under which Pakistan’s security establishment decided to build a nuclear bomb despite the possibilities of inviting the wrath of world powers in the form of crippling sanctions, economic strangulation, diversion of scarce national resources and degradation of conventional force.

Read More: Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy

For that purpose, the nuclear history of Pakistan can be divided into four broad phases:

1. The first phase, which spans the period right from the establishment of Pakistan to Ayub Khan-led coup in 1958, did not witness any serious efforts on the part of political and military establishment to embark on the nuclear journey.

2. During the second phase (1958-71), the military establishment ruled out the option of advancing nuclear objectives out of the fear of possible US sanctions despite thinly-veiled Indian efforts to create nuclear capabilities. They also doubted the feasibility and utility of nuclear weapons and thought that national defence could be best met through modernization of conventional force and a continued alliance with the West.

3. In the third phase, many critical developments like dismemberment of Pakistan, India’s testing of nuclear devices (under the codename Operation Smiling Buddha) and emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhuto (ZAB) as an undisputed national leader helped cause paradigm shift in strategic thinking in Pakistan, ZAB decided to attain nuclear capabilities at every cost in order to counterbalance the conventional superiority of India. After the initial shock of French-led cancellation of uranium reprocessing plant, Pakistan quickly progressed in enrichment capabilities under Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, and during Zia era, the country eventually obtained bomb-grade material. It also assembled its first nuclear explosive device and designed basic contours of its nuclear deterrence strategy. Notwithstanding the social, political and religious ramifications of Zia’s Afghan Policy, the blessing in disguise was that the US deliberately ignored our nuclear activities because, for them, decimating the communist Soviet Union and avenging the Vietnam debacle was more important than emergence of another nuclear state.

4. During the last and the final phase of our nuclear history, the civilian leadership of both mainstream political parties supported the programmes and Pakistan’s scientific and military establishment secured crowning achievements in the form of successful nuclear tests and improvements to the delivery system.

In this regard, the circumstances under which Pakistan moved ahead for nuclear tests are worth mentioning so as to understand the defensive nature of our nuclear arsenal.

Emboldened by his country’s nuclear tests, the then Indian home minister, Lal Krishna Advani urged Pakistan to realize the change in geostrategic regional dynamics (a thinly-veiled reference to Indian hegemony in the regional supposedly imparted to it by its nuclear capabilities) and to scale back its anti-India rhetoric. He also threatened to undertake a hot pursuit of Kashmiri freedom fighters – insurgents, in India’s view – to Pakistan. Amidst these naked threats of aggression and fear of erosion of nuclear deterrence, Nawaz Sharif government, on May 28, 1998, conducted nuclear tests which deterred India from indulging in any military adventure.

The history of Pakistan’s nuclear journey evidently makes it clear that the country sought defensive deterrence against the vigorous, offensive posturing of India. But, deterrence must be credible, and credibility warrants a robust command-and-control (C&C) mechanism, well-delineated and well-conveyed nuclear doctrine, effective delivery system and signalling strategies and other elements like unquestionable physical security and well-implemented legislative and regulatory frameworks.

As far as C&C is concerned, former President Musharraf established National Command Authority that is responsible for employment, policy formulation, exercise, deployment, R&D, and operational command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It oversees strategic assets of air force, army and navy, and works under the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The secretariat of NCA is known as the Strategic Planning Division which is located at Joint Services Headquarters. Military-run SPD provides physical security to different nuclear installations and strategic organizations like PAEC, KRL (Khan Research Laboratories, Kahuta), NESCOM and SUPARCO which are engaged in different nuclear activities.

Delivery system of Pakistan consists of nuclear-capable aircraft carriers like F-16 and Mirage 3 and 5; land-based solid and liquid-fuel ballistic missiles like Abdali, Ghaznavi and Shaheen, their variants with a maximum range of 2750 kilometres; ground- and air-launched cruise missiles like Babur 1 and 2 (Ground-launched) and Ra’ad 1 and 2 (air-launched) with maximum 700-kilometre range; and lastly the sea-based cruise missiles that have provided Pakistan the triad of nuclear platforms (air, ground and sea) that includes Babur 3 with capability to carry both conventional and non-conventional payload from underwater dynamic platform to land-based targets.

Pakistan has maintained calculated ambiguity in its nuclear doctrine – a theoretical military strategy that promotes deterrence by guaranteeing an immediate, massive retaliation to an aggressive attack – in order to make flexible its nuclear threshold to a wide range of dynamic threats posed by India. Pakistan neither denies nor accepts the No First Use nuclear strategy and has let the Indian policymakers wonder what constitutes Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Out of statements given by Pakistan’s well-known military strategist, Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, we can classify our nuclear threshold into four kinds: spatial threshold, military threshold, economic threshold and political threshold. The large-scale Indian incursion to the mainland Pakistan, if it seems overwhelming or penetrating defence lines, could evoke strong nuclear response from Pakistan (Spatial threshold). Comprehensive destruction of military assets of Pakistan armed forces like nuclear installations or air force bases could cause massive nuclear retaliation (military threshold). The Indian navy-led blockage of our sea ports or stoppage of water of western rivers in violation of the Indus Waters Treaty with an aim to strangulate Pakistan economically is also widely believed as economic nuclear threshold to avoid the 1971-like situation when Indian navy blocked our seaports in operations Trident and Python. If Pakistan believes that militancy on the part of India could cause dismemberment or put national security at stake, Pakistan would response nuclearly to punish India for its act of destabilizing activities, this approach can be termed as political threshold.

Nuclear parity is considered chief determinant of maintaining deterrence. But, unfortunately, continual expansion in conventional forces of India and ensuing fast-growing asymmetry; formulating of military strategies like Cold Start and hybrid warfare to exploit the space between conventional and nuclear response on the part of Pakistan; acquisition of anti-missile defence system, discriminatory and preferential treatment on the part of international community regarding the inclusion of India and Pakistan in different multilateral Missile Technology Control Regimes like Nuclear Suppliers Group and Australia Group; India-financed and logistically-supported secessionist and insurgent activities through BLA or TTP, etc. and naked threats to stop water of western rivers are some of the most compelling factors that are driving Pakistan to enhance its stockpile of weapons-grade fissile material, diversify its delivery system and lower its nuclear threshold in order to deter India from embarking upon any military adventure. In this regard, some of latest developments that may cause disturbance in strategic equilibrium in this region are worth-mentionin here.

Nuclearization of the Indian Ocean by India’s nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant, which has provided India with a second-strike capability, is a matter of great concern for Pakistan. Pakistan expressed deep concern on the issue of first active deployment of ready-to-use nuclear warhead through completion of deterrence patrol of INS Arihant in November 2018. To counter this, Pakistan also test-launched the sea-based Babur 3 cruise missile and was compelled to explore opportunities to purchase nuclear-powered submarines from China.

In response to India’s Cold Start doctrine (launching quick strike in Pakistan within 2-4 days with 8-9 brigades simultaneously involving 32,000-36,000 troops while not crossing the red lines defined by Pakistan’s armed forces), Pakistan developed short-range, solid- fuel- and nuclear-capable NASR missile having a range of 70 kms. Known as a tactical weapon or battlefield nuke, this missile has been launched as a quick response system to add deterrence value to Pakistan strategic programme. Another threat is India’s acquisition of S-400 Russian air and defence system that is widely believed as the most effective protective shield from any kind of attack – agreement to this effect was signed in October. Pakistan can counter this new threat through operationalization and deployment of medium-range ballistic missile Ababeel that can penetrate any kind of defence system with its multiple warheads carrying capacity using Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle technology. In addition to this, Pakistan can reduce time of detection by forward-placing submarine-launched system Babur 3 sea-based cruise missile. The real threat lies not in the impregnability of S-400, but giving false sense of security to Indian military strategists and planners and under this delusion, they could launch limited war – or as they say ‘surgical strike’ – on Pakistan. This is the threat Pakistan would have to neutralize through diversification and innovation in nuclear and missile programme.

Nuclear deterrence helps increase nuclear threshold, decreases the likelihood of asymmetrical warfare and diminishes the security dilemma. States behave rationally and it causes the preservation of peace and security and provides policymakers the space and time to ensure socio-economic development of country. But, at the same time, it is very precarious and vulnerable to any change in regional dynamics. It is safe to conclude that nuclear parity and strategic balance in the region is the only way forward to safeguard our territorial integrity and sovereignty against a conventionally far-superior adversary.

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