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A nuclear warning from India

In a wide-ranging speech on India’s nuclear weapons’ programme and the country’s nuclear doctrine, Shyam Saran, chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, declared in New Delhi on April 24 that India’s plans to put in place a triad of land-based, air-delivered and submarine-based nuclear forces had made good progress.

At least two legs of the triad, including a ‘modest arsenal’, nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles, both in fixed underground silos and those mounted on mobile rail and road-based platforms, were fully operational. The third leg of the triad, namely a sea-based deterrent, was ‘work in progress’, Saran said, and was expected to be in place by 2015 or 2016.

Saran, a former foreign secretary, prefaced his speech with the caveat that it did not ‘in any way’ reflect the views of the Indian government. Nevertheless, as the Times of India reported, Saran was placing on record India’s official nuclear posture with the full concurrence of the highest levels of nuclear policy-makers in New Delhi.

A large part of the speech was devoted to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. These weapons, Saran said, were focused ‘in large part’ on the threat from India, ‘real or imagined’, but he then went on to raise the question whether, ‘given the evidence available’ the ‘so-called Indian threat’ was the sole motivation driving Pakistan’s nuclear programme. There were indications, he said, of significant shifts recently in Pakistan’s nuclear posture, taking it from the declared ‘minimum deterrence’ to a possible second strike capability.

In this connection, he spoke of a ‘calculated shift’ from the earlier generation of enriched uranium nuclear weapons to a newer generation of plutonium weapons; progress claimed by Pakistan, but not yet fully verified, of miniaturisation of weapons, enabling their use with cruise missiles and with a new generation of short-range and tactical missiles; and the steady pursuit of improvement in the range and accuracy of delivery vehicles.

Saran specifically mentioned the short-range nuclear-capable Nasr (Hatf IX) missile designed for battlefield use and first tested by Pakistan in April 2011. For good measure, Saran also added that “Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic programme continues apace.”

If Saran is to be believed, this formidable body of ‘evidence’ is proof of a ‘Pakistani mindset which seeks parity with and even overtaking India’, a cardinal sin in India’s eyes. Behind this sinister design, Saran detects a Pakistani effort to win ‘prestige’ in the Islamic world.

Saran also sees another reason, even more convoluted and self-serving, for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. As he put it, the increase in the number of weapons, the planned miniaturisation of warheads and their wider dispersal were all designed to deter the US from undertaking an operation to disable, destroy or confiscate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Saran would not have had to agonise so publicly about the ‘motivations’ for Pakistan’s programme to develop tactical nuclear weapons if he had admitted frankly that it is Pakistan’s response to India’s Cold Start doctrine. As the British weekly The Economist wrote on March 30, 2013, the Indian Army has been working for much of the past decade on this concept, which would see rapid armoured thrusts into Pakistan with close air support.

The idea, the newspaper wrote, is to inflict damage on Pakistan’s forces at a mere 72 hours’ notice, seizing territory quickly enough not to incur a nuclear response. India’s civilian officials and politicians, the paper said, unconvincingly deny that Cold Start even exists. Saran was in the same denial mode when he spoke.

Cold Start has recently been renamed by the Indians as ‘proactive defence’ strategy. In his speech, Saran tried to present it as legitimate response to a terrorist threat. Pakistan’s motivation, he said, was to ‘dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to sub-conventional but highly destructive and disruptive cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack on Bombay.’

The Economist gave one reason at the tactical level and two at the strategic level why Cold Start might not work or be a practical policy. At the tactical level, the newspaper wrote, it assumes a capacity for high-tech combined-arms warfare that India may not possess. At the strategic level, first, it supposes that Pakistan will hesitate before unleashing nukes; second, ‘it sits ill with the Indian tradition of strategic restraint’.

Pakistan, of course, cannot be complacent and cannot make its policies on the basis of the best case scenario. India might not yet possess the capacity for launching blitzkrieg warfare by integrated battle group (IBG) formations but it is making preparations. Nor can Pakistan rely on ‘the Indian tradition of strategic restraint’ that The Economist speaks of, especially in view of the encouragement India is receiving from Washington to don the mantle of a global power and assume bigger responsibilities in the region.

For Islamabad, the best option therefore is to disabuse India of the notion that Pakistan will hesitate to use its nuclear weapons if India launches a lightning attack across the border to seize Pakistani territory. For deterrence to work, it is absolutely essential that the threat to use nuclear weapons must be credible.

That is why, in addition to strategic weapons that target urban centres, Pakistan must possess tactical nuclear weapons for theatre warfare to stop advancing armoured forces. Doing so will not lower the nuclear threshold, but will strengthen deterrence by reinforcing the possibility of the use of one kind of nuclear weapons with the probability that those of another kind will be used.

There is already a precedent. During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact enjoyed conventional superiority over Nato in Central Europe. In order to guarantee that nuclear deterrence would work, Nato therefore deployed tactical nuclear weapons in the European theatre.

The possession of tactical nuclear weapons no doubt entails added responsibilities for their security and for command and control. Pakistan’s National Command Authority is no doubt taking this challenge very seriously. Washington has also taken up the question of Pakistan’s tactical weapons programme with Islamabad and pointed to the risk that they could be stolen or diverted. Pakistan’s rejection of these fears has apparently not dispelled these concerns completely.

Precisely because a tactical nuclear weapons capability would substantially enhance the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, India has been trying to generate international pressure on Pakistan not to go ahead with the programme.

In his speech, Saran warned that even a limited Pakistani nuclear attack involving short-range weapons would be met with a massive response from India and that the country would not hesitate to escalate the nuclear conflict to the strategic level. “If (India) is attacked with (nuclear) weapons,” he said, “it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive….The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.”

The Indian dilemma is that after the nuclear tests it carried out in 1998 and the Pakistani response in kind, a balance of terror has been established between the two countries which virtually rules out a full-scale conventional conflict between them. As a consequence, Delhi has lost much of its ability to threaten Pakistan with India’s superiority in the conventional field.

The Cold Start doctrine and the latest threat by India to respond to the use of tactical nuclear weapons by escalating the conflict to the strategic level are nothing but desperate and highly dangerous attempts by India to regain its former ability to threaten Pakistan.

Nuclear deterrence between Pakistan and India has worked so far. But India continues to nurse the dangerous illusion that it could wage a ‘limited’ conventional war under Pakistan’s strategic nuclear threshold. Our tactical nuclear weapons programme will fill this gap in our nuclear deterrent and is essential for its credibility. We must therefore remain steadfast in pursuing this programme, for our own security as well as for the peace and stability of the region.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.

Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "A nuclear warning from India," The News. 2013-05-18.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political crisis , Political process , International issues , Nuclear weapons-India , Nuclear weapons-Pakistan , Pakistan foreign relations-India , Political relations , Government-India , Policy making , Cold war , Shyam Saran , India , Islamabad , Washington , Delhi , IBG , NATO