Nuclear deterrence

Published May 26, 2024
The writer is former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute, Islamabad
The writer is former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute, Islamabad

FIFTY years ago, in May 1974, India detonated its first nuclear device, calling it Operation Smiling Buddha. While the world remained largely silent, Pakistan’s foreign minister declared Pakistan would “never submit to nuclear blackmail” or “accept Indian hegemony over the subcontinent”. Earlier, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had expressed the resolve that if India ever built a nuclear weapon, Pakistan would ‘eat grass’, but build one of its own. Given India’s role in dismembering the country in 1971, the Pakistani leadership found it imperative to restore the power equilibrium by nuclear capability to deter further Indian aggression.

In 1998, South Asia became overtly nuclearised. On May 11, 1998, India tested its nuclear devices. Given the significant conventional asymmetry, Pakistan followed suit on May 28 as it could not remain vulnerable. Its nuclear tests restored the strategic balance and re-established nuclear deterrence, which essentially means deterring an adversary from conventional or nuclear aggression due to concerns that there would be retaliation that could eventually lead to mutual assured destruction.

Nuclear weapons are political weapons, ideally not intended for war-fighting. Their main purpose is to deter wars. Since 1998, South Asia has not seen a major war, primarily due to nuclear deterrence. However, nuclear deterrence could not prevent confrontations below the nuclear overhang — for instance, clashes in Kargil in 1999, troops mobilisation in 2001-2, and Indian aggression in Balakot in 2019. While none of these confrontations assumed the proportions of a major war, owing to nuclear deterrence, the risk of kinetic confrontations escalating into the nuclear dimension could not be ignored. With India’s aggressive doctrines like Cold Start, Pakistan opted for a full-spectrum deterrence posture, while remaining within the ambit of credible minimum deterrence to deter all aggression — from tactical to strategic level.

That said, nuclear deterrence is not a panacea to deter all forms of aggression and resolve our conflict with India. Pakistan has to rely on other instruments of national power, including conventional capabilities, to tackle threats on its borders. Political stability, economic strength, and public support for defence also enhance deterrence. Diplomacy, too, has an important role. Both countries agreed in 1988 not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. There is also an agreement to prevent airspace violations (1991). The Vajpayee-Sharif meeting in Lahore in 1999 introduced several confidence-building measures to reduce the danger of nuclear warfare. An agreement was reached on advance notification of missile testing in 2005. In 2006, both sides agreed to reduce the risk of nuclear accidents or the unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are political weapons.

Given the dangers of a nuclear conflagration, both countries have, directly or indirectly, engaged in discussions on how to maintain strategic stability in South Asia. In nuclear parlance, strategic stability is often defined as removing incentives for the use of nuclear weapons or for engaging in a nuclear arms race.

Another view of strategic stability, to which Pakistan subscribes, is that the nuclear discourse cannot be segregated from regional geopolitics. US-India nuclear cooperation has created an environment of discrimination and imbalance in South Asia, which can be destabilising. Strategic stability requires that there should be no armed conflict or unresolved dispute or even grave mutual grievances, which could lead to instability or a wider war.

The need for re­­gional adversaries to show nuclear res­traint and responsibility, nuclear safe­­ty and security, and effective command and control cannot be over-emphasis­­ed. India’s accidental firing of a BrahMos missile into Pakistan and its failure to inform Pakistan well in time could have easily escalated matters. Nuclear arms must never fall into unauthorised or the wrong hands. Equally important, the leadership must eschew irresponsible rhetoric and brandishing of nuclear weapons (Diwali fireworks, ‘qatal ki raat’).

Emerging technologies, particularly AI, multirole drones, hypersonic missiles, and cyberspace, could also adversely affect nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. Of particular danger are lethal autonomous weapons that can search and engage targets without human intervention.

International negotiations have made little progress towards evolving an international regime that could minimise the dangers of emerging technologies.

It is of utmost importance that India and Pakistan engage in meaningful dialogue to avert risks of escalation in crisis situations, enhance understanding of each other’s nuclear postures, and address mutual threat perceptions.

The writer is former foreign secretary and chairman of Sanober Institute, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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