Pakistan is reportedly racing to acquire a threatening arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons – smaller and more readily usable nukes – which creates instability of another dimension altogether in South Asia. If deployed, these battlefield weapons will raise the stakes for India, while giving Pakistan’s ISI-linked jihadis a nearly impenetrable cover for terrorist attacks.
US experts are deeply concerned about the development because when pushed to its logical conclusion, such weapons make sense only when distributed near the borders for quick and early use. That, by definition, is destabilising because the decision to use them would theoretically rest with officers lower down the hierarchy. Political inputs – such as they are in Pakistan – could be lost or ignored by a local commander in the confusion of war.
The fear of theft might also increase as small nuclear weapons are distributed around the battlefield and so would the possibility of loss of command and control. No surprise that US officials are worried – their once most favored nation-state has added a new poison into the mix.
Given that Pakistan army’s main obsession remains India and memories of defeat in past wars are constantly alive, New Delhi will have to ponder the meaning of this new proliferation. An arsenal of readily available tactical weapons lowers the threshold for a nuclear exchange and possibly limits India’s options.
India’s policy is “no-first use” of nuclear weapons but of retaliation in case of a nuclear attack. Pakistan has no such mitigating thoughts and has an explicit “nuclear first use” policy. It bluntly refused India’s offer of a joint no-first-use pledge in May 1998 after both countries conducted nuclear tests. When President Asif Ali Zardaritried to walk back and suggested to an Indian audience that he was ready to accept a no-first-use policy, he was quickly dismissed as “uninformed” and as speaking “off the cuff” by the military establishment.
Many argue that the nuclear shield allowed Pakistan to launch the Kargil incursion in 1999, and to send ISI-trained terrorists to attack the Indian parliament in December 2001 and landmarks in Mumbai in 2008. India amassed troops on the border in 2001, but didn’t proceed any further mainly because of fear of crossing the nuclear threshold.
The development of tactical nukes complicates this picture even further. And it is not as if Pakistan is doing this secretly. Pakistan is running down the dangerous road openly, wilfully and announcing it in press releases. Its stockpile of plutonium has grown with Chinese help. The generals in Rawalpindi have been boastfully telling visitors about their new capability. This more dangerous and destabilising scenario is an indirect message to India that if you do “Cold Start,” you will meet a “hot end.”
Cold Start is a doctrine talked about in Indian defence circles; it envisages quick but limited retaliation with rapid mobilisation without crossing the nuclear threshold in case of a Pakistani provocation. Interestingly, the Indian political leadership has never embraced Cold Start – and in India these delicacies matter greatly. But that hasn’t stopped Pakistan’s military from assuming the worst. Dangling the threat of using tactical nuclear weapons, it wants to deny India the space for conventional military retaliation in case of a terrorist attack traced back to ISI-trained extremists.
The testing of Nasr (Hatf IX), a short-range missile with a range of 60 km, in April 2011 is Pakistan’s loud answer. It was officially announced as being capable of carrying nuclear warheads of “high accuracy” and having the ability to “shoot and scoot.” In plain English: Pakistan may have developed miniaturised nuclear warheads that can be mounted on Nasr.
Pakistan is also said to be “jumping generations, developing force structures and command and control” and doing everything else required to fight a nuclear war. It is already known from a 2008 WikiLeaks cable that US intelligence officials believe “Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.” It may soon surpass Britain and France. But how it plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons is still unclear.
The reality is that even if India didn’t ever develop Cold Start – and there is no indication it is an accepted doctrine – Pakistan would still be going down this path. When the Generals, who unfortunately continue to decide Pakistan’s destiny, see a conventional military disadvantage with India, they want to regain parity. But this time the answer they have found is highly destabilising, especially in light of the turbulent domestic situation in Pakistan.
In addition, those who control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have not publicly defined the red lines for their possible use and it would be safer for India to assume the Generals are not bluffing. While restraint is India’s fall-back position and civilian control over the military undisputed, in Pakistan nuclear weapons are under direct military command. As the military’s arsenal grows, so might its confidence for adventurism.
Nuclear weapons, while never desirable and always precarious, have traditionally been used for deterrence. But Pakistan is a different kettle of fish. It was born in insecurity and Pakistan’s military establishment hasn’t closed the book on Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 because it didn’t get Kashmir. The Generals have been talking of waging a “people’s war” in India since the 1950s to wrest Kashmir, according to academics who have studied the Pakistan army documents. Despite losing wars, they haven’t “felt” defeated. Instead, accepting the status quo is considered defeat.
The new fixation of Pakistan’s military for tactical nuclear weapons can open a Pandora’s box of moves and counter-moves. But none of the above would be required if the one factor that endangers stability in South Asia is isolated and removed – and that is Pakistan-supported terrorism. And you don’t need nuclear weapons for that.