Pakistan’s Strategic Environment

Pakistan’s security perspective remained exceedingly bleak during the decade following India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974. It’s policy of nuclear ambiguity from the mid- nineteen eighties onwards served it well. Though the country was finally forced to come out of the nuclear closet in May 1998, thanks largely to its neighbour’s renewed nuclear testing and post-blast rhetorics, the decision to do do, in retrospect, appears to be a sound one. The severe sanctions imposed eventually got eased some three years later through force of circumstances, following Pakistan’s decision to put its weight behind the U.S.- led invasion of Afghanistan.

After becoming an overt nuclear power, Pakistan, taking stock of the situation, set up the Strategic Command Authority and the Strategic Plans Division, which amongst other responsibilities, were tasked to critically analyse the issue in entirety and recommend the sort of strategic policies the country should adopt. After reconciling itself to the sudden emergence of two new nuclear powers, the U.S. began urging both countries to develop sound Command & Control systems to avoid an unintended nuclear exchange through lack of oversight.

It was but natural for both countries in the post-blast scenario to uninhibitedly commence pursuing a nuclear weapons and delivery systems programme. In order to get the best value for money, Pakistan had to undertake this under the umbrella of a well-deliberated nuclear policy. US(and NATO) doctrines of Massive Retaliation, Flexible Response, Mutual Assured Destruction, Damage Limitation, Countervailing and Prevailing strategies, developed over the years through their own strategic perceptions at the time, all appear to be irrelevant and inapplicable in our peculiar strategic environment. The nearest in approach is the long-standing French doctrine of Proportional Deterrence, which holds that a smaller nuclear power can achieve deterrence by making it apparent to the enemy that the losses it is likely to sustain may well outweigh the benefits it expects to derive.

Our endeavour apparently is to forestall even a conventional war, which our larger adversary would be more likely to initiate, through nuclear deterrence. Even a modicum of such deterrence capability would do, as the horrendous nature of a nuclear exchange, being too well known, spurs the need for avoidance of such a scenario. Pakistan should not attempt to surpass its neighbour’s production lines, as the strain on our economy would prove to be excessive. At the moment, it appears that Pakistan is presumably galloping ahead as it wants to amass as much capability as possible before it is made to yield to western pressure for a possible freeze by signing on to the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

We have to take inspiration from the example of China,which, despite a robust economy and despite grave provocation from many quarters, has refused to be drawn into a nuclear arms race and keeps its arsenal at sensible levels. We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that military power has to be backed by social and economic cohesion. Due to a relative lack of scientific and financial resources, it may therefore not be advisable for Pakistan to keep matching its adversary in terms of nuclear capability nor is nuclear parity required. Concept of minimum deterrence, in theory as well as in practice, is felt to be technically, politically, economically and strategically more appropriate and this is what we need to concentrate on. The devil as they say is in the details, as the concept of Credible Minimum Deterrence, which forms the crux of Pakistan’s declared nuclear policy, needs to be suitably translated into the physical dimension.

This doctrine should be coupled with a policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity about our threshold and prospective use, in order to maintain its efficacy. Keeping the abhorrent and catastrophic nature of a nuclear volley in mind, our endeavour should be to rely to the maximum on deterrence, both conventional as well as strategic. On our side, we need to be extremely cautious on nuclear first use, until all avenues have been exhausted. In a real time situation, if actually confronted with a conventional onslaught, we have to be clear in our own mind, as a matter of strategic policy, on how to respond. Do we unleash a nuclear strike straightaway or do we wait? What sort of nuclear threshold should we define and do we strictly adhere to a threshold agreed upon in a peacetime setting? If and when we finally decide to go nuclear, what level of force should we apply, and if we wait, for how long should we do so? Should we go in for counterforce or counter-value targets or a mix of both? We need to recognise that a nation’s strategic capability is primarily meant for deterrence and deterrence fails if even a single nuclear shot is fired. The most sensible option in case a conventional war breaks out is to desist from going nuclear for as long as humanly possible. A glance at the likely consequences: on the one hand, we possess a fighting chance of retaining our national sovereignty in the long term at least, if not the short, while pursuing the alternate course would result in instant and total annihilation. Even a one megaton strike on each of our two principal cities will not only decimate them beyond recognition but also throw the country back into the dark ages. For whosoever fires the first shot, it will be little consolation that the enemy is devastated a little earlier. Pseudo-analysts keep toying with the idea of firing the first nuclear shot in a desolate wasteland just to let our enemy know the seriousness of our intent. As if there isn’t a better way! To me, this appears to be a rather trivial suggestion to a complex issue, for once our nuclear card has been needlessly revealed, it would not only expose us as an insensitive and immature aggressor inviting the opprobrium of the international community, but also furnish the necessary excuse to our adversary to hit back with whatever it’s got. Our national interest thus dictates that we should have a relatively low threshold when it comes to public utterances, but a exceedingly high one when it becomes apparent that deterrence against a conventional attack has failed. In all probability, the international community is likely to get involved to defuse a potentially hazardous situation before it gets out of hand.

As a fledgling nuclear state, Pakistan has without doubt taken the task of formulating a viable nuclear weapons use policy, which adequately addresses its safety and security concerns, with the seriousness it deserves. This needs to be thoroughly reanalysed from time to time, as a premature or immature judgement call can have irreversible and fatal consequences. Gen(R) K Sundarji had candidly admitted some time back, albeit in fictionalised form, that ‘India has no coherent nuclear weapon policy and worse still, she does not even have an institutionalised system for analysing and throwing up policy options in this regard.’ But this was a little prior to the May ’98 nuclear blasts, after which it is but reasonable to assume that both parties have given serious thought towards formulating their nuclear policy options. The U.S. was initially quite concerned about our virtually non-existent Command & Control mechanisms, towards the strengthening of which considerable effort has since been expended.

Considering our weak economy and the exorbitant costs associated with a nuclear weapons programme, the main task confronting Pakistan is to determine objectively and independently, the level of nuclear and missile capability essential for the stabilisation of its nuclear deterrent. The normal tendency is to go in for the nuclear triad of land, air and submarine based launchers, the latter also providing a most cost effective second strike capability, with some tactical and battlefield weapons thrown into the mix.

This needs to be rationalised if the programme is to be maintained within a limited budget. The most obvious cuts that need to be imposed should be on the employment of tactical weapons. Though Pakistan is believed to be expending a lot of time, effort and money in research on the development of such weapons, to my mind, it amounts to good money going down the drain.  By going in for such weapons, Pakistan is supposedly taking a leaf from the long-discarded NATO doctrine of flexible response and acting on the assumption that any nuclear exchange in South Asia would follow a prescribed escalation sequence. The major flaw in this approach is that though we may do so at our end, there is no guarantee that the enemy would also adhere to a  similar line of thinking. It appears pretty obvious to me that any country which launches the first nuclear strike, whether it be with a tactical weapon or a cruise missile or a ballistic missile, shall earn the ire of the international community and its opponent’s counter strike, howsoever massive, will not be faulted. I therefore honestly can’t visualise any scenario in which tactical nuclear weapons would be used, because if deterrence fails and a nuclear war breaks out, each side would endeavour to offload most, if not all, of its nuclear arsenal, before it gets decimated, thus resulting in instant and near total annihilation on both sides. It would however be another story if any one or both of the adversaries decide to develop and employ an Anti-Ballistic Missile shield, which at the moment is beyond the realm of possibility, being cost-prohibitive.

The concept of Credible Minimum Deterrence demands the availability of an assured second strike capability. This is normally incorporated in the sub-surface element and constitutes one area where half-measures are deemed meaningless. So for a second strike capability to provide credible deterrence, the submarines in question need to be nuclear-powered, they should be able to carry a sufficient ballistic missile load, and the number of submarines should not be less than four, to enable at least one to be on task at any given time. This is a tall order, particularly in terms of costs involved, which would be prohibitive, for meeting the essential cycle of research, construction, operations and maintenance. A few other cogent reasons compel me to agitate against an investment of such a mammoth nature. Pakistan’s geographical location is such that a strategic submarine would need to go deep into the heart of the southern Indian Ocean, way beyond the U.S. dominated Chagos archipelago, if it is to act as a credible deterrent, and this would involve excessive transit times, thereby reducing the time on station to a minimum.

A fraction of the costs saved by not opting for such a strategic deterrent can be productively diverted towards strengthening our existing capability by making it less easily detectable and by developing an effective early warning system, which would obviate the need for a second strike capability. It also stands to reason that a conventionally stronger power would be less likely to initiate a first strike.

I personally feel that we shouldn’t fall into the all-too-familiar trap of aping our traditional adversary, which has been spending tens of billions of dollars to finally produce what can be termed as a technology demonstrator in the shape of INS Arihant. Having tried and failed to fabricate a miniaturised nuclear reactor, India had to bank heavily on Russian expertise as well as a Russian design to come up with its first prototype. The submarine still falls short of the capability desired as its time on station would be extremely limited and the core of the nuclear reactor may need to be replaced well before the designed life of the hull, an operation that would involve the cumbersome exercise of its safe disposal as well as the tedious task of cutting the hull.

Another project where public money, in my view, should not be squandered is in beefing up the NBCD capability onboard ships. To me, this appears to be a meaningless step because, if deterrence fails, all hell will break loose, and our adversary will be least interested in wasting its efforts on targeting innocuous individual vessels at sea of limited strategic or even operational significance.

After having become a de facto nuclear power, it is imperative that we retain a credible minimum deterrence capability. Having said that, it is important to be clear in our own mind as to how to translate this concept into a working reality. As mentioned earlier, it is obvious that we cannot compromise our conventional capability by banking on nuclear deterrence alone, as this would amount to unacceptably lowering our nuclear threshold. Due to limited resources, we should strike a fine balance between the budgetary allocations for conventional defence and for strategic deterrence. Having achieved credible minimum deterrence capability(which the President of Pakistan claimed way back in 2003), more money should be earmarked for research rather than hardware. In addition, as previously high-lighted, money should not be squandered in wasteful projects like tactical nuclear weapons,seemingly fool-proof subsurface based second strike capability and strengthening battlefield NBCD capacity. Sufficient conventional strength needs to be retained not only to discourage thoughts of aggression but also to be able to counter the myriad other security challenges confronting the country.


Note: This article was published in the February 2017 edition of the monthly ‘Global Age’ magazine.

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