A secure nuclear order

By Rizwan Asghar

The successful test-firing of the submarine-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile Babur-III has made many people in our strategic community feel proud. The missile, with a range of 450 kilometres, is being considered “a major scientific milestone” because it gives Pakistan a sea-based second-strike nuclear capability.

Second-strike capability enables a country to absorb the first strike and still retaliate to cause unacceptable damage. According to multiple media reports, our nuclear establishment has been working to improve its sea-based nuclear capabilities since the establishment of Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012. Foreign experts have largely remained divided over Pakistan’s ability to shrink warheads for use with sea-launched weapons. However, it is hoped that the launch of the nuclear-capable Babur-III will now put an end to the ongoing debate on the credibility of Pakistan’s second-strike capability.

A reasonable argument can be made that secure second-strike force goes a long way in strengthening Pakistan’s defence. But winning a military exchange cannot save us from utter destruction. Another major problem is the lack of intelligence. If Pakistan and India do not know the exact location of each other’s weapons, launching a nuclear first strike would be of limited utility. Many nuclear theorists hold that absence of intelligence is more critical than the problem of ensuring retaliation.

Michael Gerson argues that “a successful first strike would require near-perfect intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, a problem made more challenging as current and potential adversaries develop and deploy mobile and relocatable ballistic missiles”. Jan Lodal, another security experts, has warned that “the challenge in modern warfare is not hitting a target at a known and fixed location; the challenge is to know the target’s location”. How do our nuclear policymakers plan to tackle these challenges? No one knows the right answer.

Given India’s heavy military spending and aggressive foreign policy moves, Pakistan has every right to strengthen its overall defence capabilities. But an important question arises: is India the only security challenge to Pakistan?

The truth is that India is not foremost on the agenda of most Pakistanis in terms of what they wake up every morning and worry about. On the contrary, it is the grim employment situation, the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, and the worsening law and order situation that plagues them. Our growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles cannot do anything to solve these problems faced by the public.

As I have argued in these pages and elsewhere on previous occasions, we do not need new missile systems. Our nuclear security managers always point towards India’s growing nuclear capabilities. But we do not have enough money to catch up with India. India is the world’s fifth largest economy and we are a country under the burden of crippling external debt. Why not compete with India in the economic realm?

Pakistan has sufficient nuclear weapons to fully operationalise an asymmetric nuclear posture, ensuring the tactical first use of nuclear weapons, with enough in reserve to survive India’s retaliatory nuclear strike. With respect to delivery vehicles, we have nuclear-capable aircrafts and both operational short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles under the aegis of respective service Strategic Forces Commands. These could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead on advancing Indian forces and several major strategic targets.

It seems that after failing to bring hundreds of millions of people, living on both sides of the border, out of poverty over the past 65 years, India and Pakistan have settled on nuclear war as a solution. The truth is that after spending billions of rupees on the proliferation of these deadly weapons, both countries have made the region more insecure. Nuclear-tipped missiles may suffer mechanical failure or deflection in flight, allowing for the possibility of missiles falling within one’s own territory. In addition, the possibility of accidental or unauthorised nuclear weapons exchange exacerbates fears of cataclysmic destruction.

Policymakers continue to proceed as if the same incremental approach to limiting nuclear threats used for the last six decades will produce the same results today – in a world that is quite different.

In 2006, Alan Robock, a famous American climatologist, undertook extensive research on the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Examining the effects of this scenario, he found out that even if the two countries use less than one-half of their current arsenals, more than 20 million people would die within the first week from blast effects, burns and radiation exposure.

In addition to eradicating the social infrastructure, nuclear attacks would leave long-lasting and extreme environmental effects. A nuclear war between the India and Pakistan would totally change the politics and geography of both countries and provoke shocking responses from the people of both countries.

A stable regional nuclear order will not emerge automatically or without any consistent effort in this direction. We have to think about the steps that need to be taken to make the emergence of a stable and secure regional nuclear order possible in the years to come. We must stop the vertical proliferation of nuclear technologies. Our younger generation needs education and better healthcare way more than second-strike nuclear capability.


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