This article was originally published in Dawn on May 27, 2018.

A score and day ago from today, Pakistan conducted five nuclear tests at Ras Koh, Chagai, codenamed Chagai-I. Two days later, Pakistan conducted another test, this time in Kharan, codenamed Chagai-II. With six tests done on May 28 and May 30, 1998, Pakistan completed its hot-test validation of devices of different designs.

Since then, Pakistan has not hot-tested any other nuclear device, though it has steadily improved its missile capability, the most reliable carriers for nuclear warheads.

Earlier, on May 11 and 13, India had conducted five tests. Codenamed Pokhran II, India tested three devices: Shakti 1, 2 and 3. The world was shocked while India celebrated. India’s home minister L.K. Advani warned Pakistan that the strategic balance in the region had changed. Another leader, Krishan Lal Sharma, was quoted as saying that India was “now in a position to take control of Azad Kashmir.”

Pakistan’s decision to test was made after a flurry of meetings over several days, involving the military leadership and civilian principals. There was immense pressure from the United States for Pakistan not to carry out tests. There were some small carrots and there was the big stick. Pakistan’s economy was fragile with just three months of import cover. Questions were raised about how sanctions would impact the economy. Testing was a choice between taking an economic hit for responding to Indian tests or losing the credibility of Pakistan’s deterrent by staying the hand. It was a Catch-22 situation.

May 28 marks a full two decades since Pakistan became a declared nuclear weapons state

Several factors at the time made it a far from easy choice. There were sublime moments where issues of higher strategy were discussed, and there were ridiculous moments where decision-makers had to carry the cross of nuclear metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s ambition and ego.

Pakistan eventually detonated the bombs and the sanctions regime automatically kicked into play against both countries.

But we were told that Pakistan was now secure and invincible. The cost, in the near-term, was worth it.

Fast forward to May 4, 2011. A group of journalists met then-Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani was accompanied by the Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Waheed Arshad, DG-ISI Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha and DG-ISPR Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. Two days earlier, US Navy Seals had raided a compound in Abbottabad, flying in on stealth helicopters, found and killed Osama bin Laden and returned without the radars picking up their ingress and egress.

We were seething. Kayani had to field tough, angry questions. But one response has since stayed with me. When asked pointedly what his first thoughts were when he got to know of the American raid, he replied, “I thought they had come to get our nuclear weapons.”

The capability that was supposed to have secured Pakistan, had become insecure itself. It did not prevent the Americans from violating Pakistan’s sovereign air and land space. Since 1998, there have been other crisis points between India and Pakistan. Three stand out: Kargil (1999), the Twin Peak crisis (2001-02) and the Mumbai attack (2008).

There are two obvious questions. Are we more secure now than we were before we credibly tested our nuclear weapons capability? Has the possession of nuclear weapons added value to Pakistan’s strategic importance?

How Have We Fared?

There are two ways of answering these questions. One is to focus purely on nuclear weapons and the deterrence they offer. The other is to take a more holistic approach to security. One can either stick to these two frameworks as two different ways of looking at the issue or, having defined and analysed security in and through the respective frameworks, attempt to reconcile them: i.e., look at nuclear weapons in a broader perspective. If by deterrence we mean preventing an all-out, inter-state war, it will be safe to assert that the capability has managed it well — so far.

There’s general agreement among deterrence-optimists that despite some very serious crises between India and Pakistan since May ’98, there has been no all-out war, and that is a testament to the viability of deterrence in South Asia.

This view was also voiced by Indian General Shankar Roy Chaudhry who said that if Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons, on at least two occasions — the parliament attack in 2001 and Mumbai attacks in 2008 — India would have attacked Pakistan. It’s quite another thing that India did mobilise in December, 2001 for 10 months, and then war-gamed the scenarios to realise that an offensive would not gain its objectives.

Also, while India took the lead in mobilising, Pakistan had already mobilised because of shorter interior lines. That said, to quote a former Strategic Plans Division (SPD) official, nuclear weapons are “no panacea for all situations that could destabilise societies.”

Most experts agree with the proposition that deterrence in South Asia is no different from traditional deterrence, i.e., in the absence of effective diplomacy, engagement and resolution of disputes, the increasing frequency of sub-conventional conflict is a consequence of stability at the strategic level. As Dr Naeem Salik, former brigadier and second director of Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at Strategic Plans Division — which looks after Pakistan’s nukes — put it, “India has not been able to actualise the conventional war option although they have toyed with limited war scenarios.” Salik also flagged the point in my question: “While some people may not concede this, the classic stability-instability dilemma is at play in South Asia as well.”

Read: Pakistan, India expanding nuclear arsenals as global stockpiles decrease: report

Deterrence Stability Vs. Crisis Instability

One of the paradoxes of stability at the strategic level is that it provides the space to adversaries to create instability at lower levels of conflict.

The history of warfare is the story of the victor winning through better weapons, better operational strategies or a combination of both.

Bernard Brodie opens his Strategy in the Missile Age with a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost. After the first day of the great war in Heaven, the rebellious angels gather for the next move. Satan is convinced that the grievous injury they have suffered is owed to inferiority in weapons: “... Perhaps more valid armes/Weapons more violent, when next we meet/May serve to better us, and worse our foes/Or equal what between us made the odds/In Nature none...”

It’s an apt beginning to a book about nuclear weapons and missiles. After hearing of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Brodie is reported to have said to his wife, “Everything I have written so far has become redundant.” Later, in The Absolute Weapon, he summarised the situation in these words: “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other purpose.”

This is terribly important to understand and underpin because the acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are wedded to the concept of deterrence. At its very basic, deterrence is about mutual vulnerability. Both sides are vulnerable to unacceptable punishment and, therefore, neither must do or attempt to do something that would mean annihilation. This is what Satan means when he says, “Or equal what between us made the odds…”

One should think that the possession of nuclear weapons, by the logic of the balance of terror, should put an end to conflict by ending the possibility of war. But it doesn’t work that way.

Military personnel stand beside short-range surface-to-surface missile Nasr during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad in 2015 | AFP
Military personnel stand beside short-range surface-to-surface missile Nasr during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad in 2015 | AFP

During the Cold War, while the Permanent Five, also the nuclear-haves, were attempting to curb horizontal proliferation, the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, had embarked on vertical proliferation which saw them develop weapons and missiles in the thousands.

Both attempted, initially, to devise strategies to win a nuclear war. By the ‘70s, however, they had realised that direct confrontation was inadvisable. So, while the centre in Central Europe held, they fought each other through proxies in the periphery: Africa, Latin America, Indo-China etc. This is what threw up the term ‘instability-stability paradox’, the concept that when States X and Y have nuclear weapons, they will avoid direct hot confrontation but find space for minor, conventional or sub-conventional conflicts.

India and Pakistan have evidenced the same trajectory since May 1998. Scholars such as Lebow, Stein and Jervis believe that, “When discussing deterrence, it is important to distinguish between the theory of deterrence and the strategy of deterrence.” In other words, while the theory posits that “deterrence is an attempt to influence another actor’s assessment of its interests,” the strategy works in and through the idea that the adversary is hostile and will likely act if an opportunity arises.

This then requires plugging all the gaps: improving and diversifying warhead designs, miniaturising them, testing different missiles that will carry the warheads, improving the accuracy of missiles and putting multiple warheads on them to move from countervalue targeting (a euphemism for destroying cities) to counterforce strategies (hitting hard military targets accurately), devising strategies to fight in ways that will not force the adversary to raise the stakes, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, strategies to fight wars under the nuclear overhang have generated a large corpus of literature. But for a Pakistani (and Indian) citizen, the question of security and deterrence rests outside the strict confines of nuclear deterrence theory. Thousands of civilians have either died or been injured or maimed in the war the state has been fighting since 2002. Telling them that nuclear weapons have secured them by deterring India is a tough sell.

What good is deterrence if people die every day and commuters have to encounter checkpoints everywhere?

In other words, what does deterrence mean in the case of South Asia, especially if it has failed to constrain the two sides in exploring conflict options at the conventional and sub-conventional levels?

This is an interesting point because it serves to distinguish ‘deterrence stability’ from ‘crisis stability’. Put another way, while nuclear weapons have served to create top-line stability, they have also created the space for India and Pakistan to resort to other modes of conflict that threaten to destabilise them.

Corollary: Nuclear weapons will fail to create overall stability if a state seeks to resort to conflict at a level below the nuclear threshold. There will be no big wars but small fires can be lit, taking advantage of top-end stability induced by nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Deterrence and Non-linear Conflict

Both India and Pakistan are embroiled in non-linear wars, waged on their soils and fought through proxies. India has also been preparing for short, sharp conventional strikes through concepts such as Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) — since renamed Pro-Active Operations (PAO). The idea is to blunt Pakistan’s advantage of shorter interior lines by placing independent battle groups (fighting and support arms) in forward locations so they can be launched quickly and at short notice. India has also conducted exercises to validate the concept. It’s still not fully capable of launching such operations but is working towards it. Pakistan, for its part, has prepared itself by placing some fighting formations in forward locations and by validating its air-land response through a series of military exercises codenamed Azm-e Nau [a new beginning].

Simultaneously, Pakistan has developed for quick induction a nuclear-capable Nasr missile to plug the gap. The SPD came up with the term “full-spectrum deterrence.” Debating the utility of Nasr is outside the scope of this essay but suffice to say that some of us remain unconvinced about its employment. Nonetheless, SPD claims that Nasr is not a war-fighting tactical nuclear delivery system but part of the strategic deterrent at the tactical level, given India’s CSD/PAO concepts.

In other words, a state fighting low-intensity conflict cannot secure itself against those threats by developing and advancing its nuclear-weapons capability. Its soldiers and citizens will continue to die fighting a different kind of war. In fact — and that is deeply ironic — such internal instability can also threaten the security of nuclear warheads and delivery systems. Measures will have to be taken to ensure the physical security of weapons and their storage sites. At that point, nuclear weapons add another dimension to the security dilemma.

The SPD has a dedicated force of nearly 25,000 personnel to secure nuclear sites and other infrastructure. The safety of the warheads is built into their design. Even so, it is clear that we now need to safeguard the weapons that are supposed to have freed us from the worry of another state aggressing against us.

Yet another issue pertains to numbers. How much is enough? Pakistan describes its programme as aiming for ‘credible minimum deterrence’ (CMD). Put this way, it should be obvious that CMD is a fluid concept and responds to what the adversary is doing. In other words, it’s the credible part that’s important.

Former Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, here witnessing training activities of Army Air Defence units at Muzaffargarh Ranges, initially thought the Abbottabad raid was about grabbing Pakistan’s nukes | AFP
Former Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, here witnessing training activities of Army Air Defence units at Muzaffargarh Ranges, initially thought the Abbottabad raid was about grabbing Pakistan’s nukes | AFP

But that also means that “minimum” would be any number that’s considered credible at any given point on the trajectory.

So, how does one cap numbers, evolving technologies and their demonstration?

Put this question to SPD and they will say that there has been a conscious effort to keep the numbers in accordance with assessed needs and there is indeed an emphasis on ‘minimum’ in the Pakistani notion of CMD. That said, Pakistan is compelled to react to developments on the Indian side. SPD officials also point to the fact that Pakistan is not resorting to Ballistic Missile Defence technology even though India has already embarked on developing and procuring such a shield. Pakistan also proposed a Strategic Restraint Regime in South Asia in 2004. “That remains on the table and includes nuclear and missile restraint regimes and conventional balance,” says a former senior SPD official.

Salik, however, thinks the biggest practitioner of minimum deterrence, China, has maintained a steady level of 250 warheads. “I don’t think Pakistan would need to cross 200,” he says. “Moreover, the addition of a maritime leg, with all its attendant complications, would ease pressure on the need to build up numbers to cater for preemptive strikes.”

What does this mean?

A few things are obvious: deterrence stability remains hostage to crisis instability. Both India and Pakistan think there’s space below the nuclear umbrella for other modes of conflict. Both are engaged in non-linear war that has its own costs. Deterrence itself could fail if one adversary miscalculates the commitment of the other, which is also tied up with domestic political compulsions. Nuclear weapons can deter a bigger war, all other things being equal, but offer no defence against other types of violence that can increase insecurity to a prohibitive level.

Going back to the two levels of analysis, it appears that for the common citizen, that is a far more important concern than Pakistan’s ability to deter India from embarking on a larger military adventure.

Moeed Yusuf has argued in his recent book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia that traditional deterrence models are limited in regional nuclear contexts where crises will always pull in third parties. His book validates its finding through case studies of Kargil, the Twin Peak crisis and the Mumbai attack.

But that again leads to the problem of the regional adversaries continuing to operate below the nuclear level, confident that (a) deterrence will hold at the top and (b) third parties will intervene early into a crisis situation.

It should be clear that while experts will insist on looking at deterrence strictly in and through the nuclear framework, citizens are more concerned about the costs of non-linear war. Any credible analysis, therefore, must reconcile the two frameworks. Nuclear weapons can only do so much, but no more.

What was supposed to give Pakistan a psychological assurance has ended up making it psychologically vulnerable. It has the warheads and the delivery vehicles, but the sense of vulnerability remains. If we want to add any value to the capability, that mindset must undergo a change, resulting in policies that seek to enhance security through non-military strategies.

Also, while India has added value to its capability by getting into a strategic partnership with the US and has secured a berth in three of the four international export control regimes — Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australia Group (AG) and the Wassenaar Arrangement — and is de facto also close to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (ironically, put together after India’s ’74 test), Pakistan remains outside of these arrangements. Reason: Entry into these regimes are benchmarked for reasons other than nuclear-weapons capability. Corollary: nukes alone do not make a state interest the world. If anything, they make the world worry more about a state that already worries the world.

Pakistan needs to retain its nuclear capability, for sure. But, equally, it needs to appreciate that nuclear capability works in tandem with other elements of national power. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons when it came apart because nukes were just a fraction of what had kept it together. The SPD has become a club that discourages outside debate. That must change. Club-ness is incestuous and must never be encouraged.

As in the case of the US and the USSR, technology begins to derive strategy. This point was flagged as early as 1970 by Ralph Lapp in his book, Arms Beyond Doubt: The Tyranny of Weapons Technology. Although much more slowly, but that is happening here, too. SPD and the scientific enclave cannot be allowed to carry on without external conceptual auditing. There’s also the need to revisit the National Command Authority Act for more civilian oversight. The last time someone tried to table a bill to tweak the NCA Act, he was pressured to the point where he gave up. He was a senator and his name is Farhatullah Babar.

Having reached the 20th year from the moment we took out our capability from the basement and put it on the shelf, we are at a stage where we need to debate what value has been added in terms of improving overall security and what significance can be assigned to the nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

Finally, though not least, we need to be aware of what Charles Perrow called the ‘normal accidents’ theory, a concept that began with his investigations into the Three Mile Island Reactor accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. High-end, tightly-coupled technologies are prone to normal accidents. No one seems to be aware of this and there’s no discussion of this. That must change.

The world is also now exposed to cyber attacks. Cybersecurity expert Adam Segal calls it ‘the hacked world order’. The threat has already spawned cybersecurity literature and it is growing. Whenever India and Pakistan begin to deploy their nuclear arsenals, they will be exposed to cyber threats, the rising costs of deployment and sea-based second strike capabilities. This is the next phase, but so far, there’s not much debate about it. One reason for that is the narrative built around the nuclear capability: it’s something to be celebrated, not discussed. That is very different from how these issues were debated in the United States.

Today, Pakistan is a certified nuclear-weapon state. But policies from the past have added to other vulnerabilities, even as nuclearisation has sought to address the overarching concern of India attacking and defeating Pakistan. To that extent, nuclear weapons have done their job. But more needs to be done, given other threats, and that is beyond the remit and effectiveness of nuclear weapons. In fact, the fragility of the state serves to pose a threat to the very arsenal that is supposed to keep the state secure.

We have reached a point where the nuclear capability secures us from all-out aggression, but precisely for that reason, exposes us to low-intensity violence at levels below the nuclear threshold. In other words, we have to understand clearly the limits of this capability: it can secure us from a certain kind of violence but is unable to stem violence altogether. If anything, it might actually encourage conflict at the lower rungs while holding the balance of terror at the top-end. Such are the ironies we have to live with.

The writer is executive editor at Indus News and writes on defence and security. He tweets @ejazhaider

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 27th, 2018



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