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Full-spectrum deterrence

Updated Sep 08, 2013 07:08am

BLINK and you could have missed it. But something quite astonishing happened this week at the National Command Authority (NCA) meeting.

“Pakistan would not remain oblivious to evolving security dynamics in South Asia and would maintain a full-spectrum deterrence capability to deter all forms of aggression.”

Full-spectrum deterrence — endorsed by the NCA. Why? How? The who we know. But what does it mean?

First, a very basic, thoroughly imprecise rundown. Nuclear weapons were supposed to make war impossible. Except, not quite.

Conflict is still possible below the nuclear threshold. A tiny war as it were, because both India and Pakistan know the cost of escalating any conflict.

Escalate — say, a localised conflict along the LoC shifts to the international border where armies threaten to cross over — and Pakistan promises to pull the nuclear trigger.

That’s into big, proper war terrain and both sides are supposed to understand that a nuclear war will inflict terrible, unacceptable damage on the other. Deterrence, achieved.

Between the two — localised conflict and a big, proper war — however, lies space that India has theoretically tried to manipulate since, in particular, the Mumbai attacks.

Cold Start — the bête noire of the Pakistani security establishment.

Frustrated by Pakistan’s ability to launch attacks whose provenance is in dispute, via non-state actors, India is, in theory, working on the building blocks for rapid, punitive strikes inside Pakistani territory.

Another Mumbai happens. Then, quickly, Indian boots on the ground, planes in the air and, say, Muridke is taken out before the Indians pull back across the border — an attack that does not involve the seizing of territory, just the intention to hurt Pakistan for its perceived aggression via non-state players.

The idea is that a Cold Start attack will be limited enough to deny Pakistan the justification to escalate to full-fledged, inevitably nuclear, war and will be rapid enough to prevent the notoriously slow international community from intervening.

Enter the Pakistani response: full-spectrum deterrence. It’s a Strategic Plans Division, essentially military, concoction.

Since Pakistan can’t compete with India’s growing conventional military might, we develop mini nukes to nullify Cold Start: if the rapid-reaction Indian battle groups cross over into Pakistan, we nuke them.

India is supposed to understand that its forces being nuked in the battlefield is an unacceptable cost for whatever punitive damage Cold Start is meant to achieve.

So the gap that India may seek to exploit between a small, localised conflict and a big, proper war has been plugged. Full-spectrum deterrence: achieved, apparently.

Back to the NCA meeting: the logic for mini nukes that was developed, and possibly has been operationalised, by the SPD, the military-run secretariat of the NCA, the apex nuclear policy body, was given an official imprimatur this week.

With or without the endorsement of the NCA, the SPD was going to do what it has deemed necessary in the national interest. That’s the civil-military imbalance right there.

But the NCA is, theoretically, a civilian-led body. Why would Nawaz, who heads the NCA as prime minister, want to give civilian endorsement to a military doctrine whose contours and implications have never been debated?

Possibly the civilians don’t have a clue what they have endorsed, possibly they don’t really care. But not knowing or not caring doesn’t equal to not having any effect.

Nawaz wants better ties with India. But India’s ties with Pakistan are premised on what Pakistan — ie the state, the sum of the civilians and the military — does, not what the civilians want.

The crazies and hardliners in India — and yes, for every crazy and hardliner here, India probably has two, or more, of its own — will look at full-spectrum deterrence and think, hmm, what Pakistan is really trying to do is retain the option of another Mumbai.

And now that the civilians have, almost surely unwittingly, endorsed full-spectrum deterrence, why should the Indians take Nawaz at face value or believe the already impossible, that the military will let the civilians lead on India relations?

A clueless prime minister or a complicit prime minister — neither look any good.

The truly astonishing thing about the Nawaz-led NCA endorsement of full-spectrum deterrence is that it wasn’t the point of the meeting to begin with.

The point was The Washington Post revelations of hyper American scrutiny of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and the possibility that nuclear paraphernalia could fall into the hands of militants.

Publicly, all the NCA had to say was: relax, everybody, we’ve got the safety and security of the nuclear programme under control.

That would have worked because a) it’s reasonably true and b) it’s not like the US leaked the secret information to the media — in fact, there’s a very conscious attempt to not publicly pressure Pakistan on its nuclear deterrent at the moment.

Privately, the NCA did have some work to do. The WaPo story gave cold, hard details of a massive American surveillance and intelligence-gathering effort against core assets of national defence: any time a state is given such information, it has to re-evaluate its defences and see where counter-intelligence needs to be beefed up.

That’s a job for both the civilians and the military. As the controversy several years ago over the surge of so-called American diplomats to Pakistan demonstrated, civilian alacrity is needed in something as simple as visa applications.

Incredibly, however, the Nawaz-led NCA strayed from the relatively straightforward public task and the more complex covert work necessitated by the Post’s revelations and ventured into the realm of full-spectrum deterrence.

That the smaller, military-doctrine tail has wagged the bigger, national-security dog since forever is the very basis of Pakistan’s problematic national-security articulation and structure.

Why on earth would Nawaz perpetuate that? Does he even know he has helped perpetuate it? Maybe he doesn’t know, maybe he doesn’t care — but then right there is the road to civ-mil perdition.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (19) Closed

Sep 08, 2013 07:50am

Hard to understand the point the columnist is trying to make. Does the supremacy of the civilian rule means we 'should rolll over and play dead.' First of all, the likelihood of Pak military going for an adventure on Indian soil in the current environment is almost next to none. Secondly, any punitive strike by India will undoubtedly lead to a full-blown conflict. I am not sure if the NCA needed to say what is quite obvious. And there is certainly no reason to split hairs and perceive this as the submissiveness of the civilian authorities.

tariq k sami
Sep 08, 2013 08:08am

When it comes to National Security the hard liners rule the roost. Even Obama a Noblel Prize winner wants to go to War. Even Obama has signed into law indefinite preemptive detention: Some thing unheard of and does not exit any where in the world. Preemptive detention never heard of this. Basically what it means that you do not have to do the crime to do the time just his (the concerned authority) saying so is enough. No one seemed to have notice this pass into law! All this done in the garb of National Security. Check this out. Its true. So now you can see why PM Nawaz Sherrif did what he had to do. He is not lazy or misinformed.

Baba Tally
Sep 08, 2013 11:13am

Using nuclear, even mini warheads means crossing a line that has not been breached since 2nd WW. What'll be small engagement threshold? In wars there is always "decision slippage", and generals being humans cannot overcome this tendency. Nuking a small battle group will be Pakistan's military last decision.

Sep 08, 2013 11:15am

By introducing smaller nukes and operationalizing it, Pakistan has made it possible for India now to create and deploy them. Such theatre devices will easily escalate into full fledged war. Imagine 20K Indian soldiers killed or maimed by it - what will indian response be? MASSIVE. end of pakistan.

Sher Shah
Sep 08, 2013 11:31am

Very precise and focused analysis of the application of deterrence in play in South Asia. Indian Generals have faltered in formulation of cold start/proactive operations as it actually helps Pakistan. When bulk of Pakistani forces have been cleverly involved in two front war by Indians and Americans, the reduced magnitude of Indian offensive at short warning can be handled easily by Pakistan, notwithstanding deterrence of tactical weapons. So a blessing in disguise. As long we are in this internal security situation, reduction of forces is not the option. So it is not the Army's dictation but that of security compulsion. American surveillance and threat to nuclear weapons is nothing new. Pakistan's response is in place if something awful is attempted by India or USA. Their interests are in range, they should be able to appreciate...

Sep 08, 2013 01:24pm

From the Article

Sep 08, 2013 02:14pm

Of course, the meaning of deterrence is changed when it comes to India and Pakistan dynamic relationship and regional security complex. To understand the role of nuclear weapons and deterrence in south Asia, Kenneth Waltz and Scott D Sagan also debated in a book named

Sep 08, 2013 04:16pm

Dear Mr. Cyril

Again you have tried to make it another anti-Nawaz tirade. Please get real. Nawaz is playing the same role which the world over civilians and politicians are playing. The political leadership here understands the costs of different policy options and taking those accordingly. Indians are not all kosher and playing a major role in subversive activities in Pakistan. Please don't play the bogie of policy divide between military and civilians.


1) Why should media be told what sort of larger efforts are being made to do make the deterrence more robust and secure. A lot is being done to frustrate the surveillance efforts by others.

2) Secondly, having the small nukes for frustrating the Indian cold start is not really about keeping an option for another Mumbai. Indian cold start regime is not a reactionary tactic - it is offensive tactic and can be deployed any time their strategy demands it. So we better be prepared.

V. C. Bhutani
Sep 08, 2013 04:27pm

Dear Mr Almeida, I have always regarded you as a sober person. I take it, therefore, that you are aware of the dimensions and implications of what you have written.

Please allow me to quote the following extract from a piece of mine published in 2005:

Sep 08, 2013 05:26pm

Another good piece by you. In the you are asking a somewhat difficult can someone who never thought for himself in the past and has arrived where he is today due to others, start thinking today.

Sep 08, 2013 05:33pm

The irony is we created nuclear weapons for our national security, for our national defense. Unfortunately the role of nuclear weapons is reversed. We are now busy defending our nuclear arsenals

Sep 08, 2013 07:13pm

@V. C. Bhutani: Mr bhutani You might be aware of a certain General of ours by the name of Zia-ul-haq, but in case you are not let me remind you what he said to Rajiv Gandhi

Sep 08, 2013 09:39pm

If Pakistani tactical nukes are intended for use on an advancing Indian formation, the damage would necessarily be on the border or inside Pakistani territory. So the fallout would be felt by Pakistan much more than India. Then Pakistani military would be the only one in world history to have nuked its own country, won't it. The other point that the writer ignored is that India has taken the doctrine of deterrence to the next logical step, even while reiterating its adherence to the no-first-use policy. Security Adviser Shyam Saran has put the Indian doctrine in perspective saying that "any" use of nuclear weapon on Indians on Indian territory or elsewhere would trigger a massive nuclear retaliation that would cause unacceptable damage to the aggressor. This easily erases the possibility of a keeping any nuclear intervention below the threshold of a full-blown nuclear conflict.

Sep 09, 2013 12:26am

@V. C. Bhutani: Nukes are not to for display on shelf. I believe Pakistan retains the option of their use when and if necessary. As far as the thinking goes that there will be no Pakistan as a result of retaliatory Indian response, I can assure you there will be no India as well. And if India responds to a tactical nuclear use on her troops on Pakistani soil, as her Nuclear Doctrine envisages, I think it is reasonable to wipe her off the world map, even if Pakistan is also consigned to the Stone Age. Do not undermine or under-estimate the capacity of Pakistani nuclear capability.

Sep 09, 2013 05:39pm

@BRR: My first question would be what 20K Dravidians are doing in Pakistan?

Sep 10, 2013 11:55am

@V. C. Bhutani: Your original perception of Mr.Almeida is correct. Whereas he has provided an analysis of what happened at the NCA (and an explanation of what is meant by 'full spectrum deterrence'), your quote reads like a nationalistic rant.

And you probably misinterpreted his statement on 'mini-nukes': they have been adapted for low-level strikes against battle-groups (eg an armoured div) which launch a punitive strike against Pakistan.

Sep 11, 2013 12:43am

Nobody will win Nuclear War. Pakistan playing with fire, one hand Terrorist, when you get caught, then they become non-state-actors other hand Nuclear weapons, and ready to use them Wow. Pakistan is on the sucide mission, society is overheated, they cannot think straight.

Sep 11, 2013 02:53am

@Omer, @Azm,

Let your army take care of TTP who is killing Pakistanis in mosques, funerals, hospitals, school buses, markets and playgrounds and shamelessly taking credit. Can't do that because you can only deal with conventional antagonists? Well how about Salala where your soldiers were bombed for 2 hours and PAF never flew? Abbotabad ring a bell? What about drones? The story about Zia Ul Haq is irrelevant because India does not see itself as a Hindu country. IT believes in defending all Indians. Nor I would imagine are Pakistani generals keen to die just because there will be some Muslims left in the world after all Pakistanis are gone. Anyway, with all the grandstanding, was Zia-Ul_Haq able to wrest Siachen back? No.

So Pakistanis need to stop being irresponsible and talk about a limited nuclear conflict.

Sep 11, 2013 03:10am

Cyril, you said "But India