Pakistan’s nuclear spectre is a bargaining chip
Two connected issues, one strategic and another operational making recent news need to be put into perspective. Given the uncertainty in India-Pakistan relations, a relevant question being asked is will India respond militarily in case of another 26/11 attack by Pakistan? The other question concerns the use of Pakistan’s recently test-fired NASR or Hatf-9 ballistic missile with a purported 60km range. It is being said by Indian and international experts that NASR will be used to deliver tactical nuclear weapons; low-yield nukes meant for a tactical battlefield to halt adversary’s conventional blitzkrieg.
Let’s take the second issue first. A US nuclear expert, Hans Kristensen, who is project director for the Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information has been prominently quoted in India’s leading newspaper, The Times of India, holding the view that NASR, a tactical nuclear ballistic missile, is meant for battlefield use. He argues that given the Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine, which will be employed to make deep and precise incursions into Pakistan territory in the event of another Mumbai-like (26/11) attack, NASR will be used to thwart such attacks. Why else would Pakistan increase its stocks of fissile materials, warheads with differing yields, and variety of ballistic missiles? Hans’ assessment pre-supposes four operational imperatives: In case of another 26/11, India will retaliate with full military might; the Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine will make deep incursions into Pakistani territory; the Pakistan military is incapable of fighting a conventional war with India; and the imbalanced Pakistan Army will use tactical nuclear weapons early in the war. All these assumptions are incorrect and need to be challenged as otherwise they would lead to (a) fallacious conclusions on the above mentioned strategic question, and (b) help Pakistan justify its fast growing nuclear arsenal against India’s destabilising factor in the shape of Cold Start doctrine.
For beginners, the Indian Army does not have a Cold Start doctrine, which implies that from the word go the Indian land-forces will cross the international border into Pakistan. Having learnt the lessons of Operation Parakram, the 10-month military stand-off between India and Pakistan beginning December 2001, what the Indian Army is devising is a pro-active war-fighting strategy meant to reduce both the mobilisation time of its offensive formations and the break-out of forces into Pakistan. This is meant to ameliorate the Indian Army’s disadvantage of longer lines of communications as compared with the Pakistan Army, and the fact that the next war will be short, swift and intense. This strategy is not fully conceptualised yet. Questions remain on the usefulness of offensive (strike) corps and battle groups or the need for both depending upon the theatre of war. Whether all offensive formations should be under a single strategic command or be organic with holding (pivot) formations?
What committed operational support will the Indian Air Force provide to the land forces considering that early in the war, its main effort will be on counter-air operations. There is also the spectre of the activation of the second front by China. Will, how much, and in what ways will China militarily support Pakistan in a war with India, especially when the two militaries are working together in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir; a prominent war theatre? This prospect will severely constrain the Indian Army to move its forces deployed on the Chinese front for a war with Pakistan, unless of course additional formations get raised, which is a long process. This is not all. The capabilities needed for the pro-active strategy, especially land-based firepower and real-time communications within most theatre, do not exist. If anything, it is years away.
Liberal estimates place the Indian Army’s comparative advantage at 1.3. I personally, would not do that for three reasons. One, decision-making in the Pakistan military will be faster, and thus the early advantage will rest with them and not the Indian Army. Two, unlike the Indian Army, the Pakistan Army will operate with ease across the spectrum of war: conventional, sub-conventional or irregular and in the nuclear sphere, simply because it controls all domains. In the Indian military, while cooperation has increased at tactical levels, there is sufficient disconnect between the three defence services at the operational level; all three services are expected to fight their own wars. And three, for a conventional war, the Pakistan Army is overall matched at the operational level of war in all but one theatre for a short war with the Indian Army. The exception is the Jammu and Kashmir theatre where the presence of Chinese troops has added uncertainty to Indian advantage. Moreover, Pakistan is adjusting its operational requirements by practising switching of forces across theatres in the form of addition and detachments to match the Indian Army’s evolving pro-active strategy. Given this reality, the Pakistan Army has no need to use nuclear weapons early in a short all-out war. Hans’ contention that the Indian Army’s Cold Start strategy will make deep penetration into Pakistan is ignorance at best, and mischief at worst. All that the pro-active strategy desires to achieve is multiple and shallow penetrations below the perceived theatre-wise nuclear red lines.
Once the conventional military balance, which implies more than bean-counting of assets, is understood, the employment of NASR also becomes evident. The defect with Hans’ argument that NASR could be used to deliver tactical nukes to arrest Indian Army’s blitzkrieg is that he does not understand the traditional battlefield. Pakistan’s real problem is both its elongated geography and the fact that too many high value targets and population centres are close to the border. Were Pakistan to use tactical nukes on its own territory as suggested by Hans, it would devastate its own population with nuclear radiations depending on how the wind blows. Given the sparse medical facilities with either side, the havoc wrecked by Pakistani nukes on itself use would be of unimaginable magnitude.
So what will NASR do? The answer lies in Operation Parakram. During the 10-months period when the two armies stood eyeball to eyeball, Pakistan test-fired three different ballistic missiles. The message being sent was that ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) would be used early in the war to balance Pakistan Air Force’s comparable weakness against the IAF. This is straight from the Peoples Liberation Army’s war-fighting doctrine, which make little distinction between ballistic missiles with conventional warhead and air power except that the former be used with tighter control. While the Pakistan Army is certain to employ its range of ballistic missiles to supplement its air force effort, the question is — do its missiles have the requisite accuracy and consistency. Considering that the PLA has been working on converting its short and medium range ballistic……… to be used only with conventional warheads, it would have passed on such technology (terminal guidance and seekers) to its close ally.
If this is probably what is going on, why is the Pakistan Army furtively enhancing its fissile material stockpile and nuclear warheads? The increasing stockpile is to meet the dual challenge of the stalled talks on fissile material cut-off treaty where Pakistan with its stand that both present and future stockpiles should be taken into account is a hold-out nation, and the Western assessment that the civil nuclear agreement between India and the US will free India to employ its indigenous power-plant capabilities to produce more fissile material. The increased nuclear warheads of varied yields are meant to ensure that a US assault to capture Pakistan’s nukes, should it ever happen, does not succeed in divesting it of the strategic capability.
But why does Pakistan require tactical nukes considering that India’s declaratory no-first-use nuclear policy has forsaken them? Two reasons. One, a nation’s nuclear declaratory and employment policies need not be similar and sacrosanct. Given the distrust between the two countries and the absence of bilateral talks on the nuclear issues, Pakistan cannot be certain that India does not possess tactical nukes. And two, there is another lesson for Pakistan from the Chinese nuclear thinking. In the Sixties, Chinese foreign minister, Marshal Chen Yi, said after China demonstrated its capability to make nuclear weapons: “Without that bomb, I cannot be very firm at the negotiating tables.” For this reason, rejecting US’ grandiose offers, the Pakistan Army went ahead with its own nuclear tests to maintain the strategic-balance with India’s 1998 series of nuclear tests. Now, with a range of nukes including tactical ones Pakistan gets the confidence for defiance, especially when it has a pro-active strategy of supporting terrorism against India.
Given Pakistan’s strategic and near operational parity with India, the question is what will New Delhi do in the event of another 26/11? The response may be found in what was done after 26/11. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the three service chiefs only once on September 29, three days after the Pakistani assault which itself lasted an astonishing 72 hours, to elicit their views on the military response. The three service chiefs spoke of a graduated response, which would certainly have escalated into a full-fledged war. This is what the Prime Minister did not want. While he did not say so to the defence services chiefs, no further meetings with them settled the matter. In the larger sense, the difference between Manmohan Singh and his predecessor, A.B. Vajpayee who ordered Operation Parakram cannot be missed. Vajpayee succumbed to outside US pressure to not go to war (later he admitted publicly that not going to war with Pakistan in January 2002 was a mistake); Manmohan Singh required no external restraint. It appears that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a fixation about India’s economic growth, unfortunately, at the cost of national security, a subject he cares little to understand. Thus, unless the media manages to drum up domestic pressure to teach Pakistan a lesson, the Prime Minister is not expected to retaliate against Pakistani provocations, more of which will follow.