Even as nuclear weapons remain a grey area
Answering a question via satellite link from the President House in Islamabad, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari recently told the Hindustan Times Summit conference held in New Delhi that Pakistan will not use nuclear weapons first against India. This has resulted in disbelief amongst the strategic community in both countries. Pakistani analysts say that it was an off-the-cuff remark and may not go down well with the Pakistan military establishment that controls nuclear weapons. Indian commentators, on the other hand, are disconcerted and opine that Zardari should not be taken seriously.
The situation is ironic on two counts: Pakistan’s Army leadership that controls nuclear weapons has never said that it has a nuclear first-use policy. But then unlike India, they have not committed to a no-first-use policy. It is always Pakistani analysts (retired military officers) who speak about the possibility of an early use of nuclear weapons to offset India’s conventional weapon superiority. To recall, at the height of Operation Parakram when India and Pakistan were close to a war, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf had said that nuclear weapons would be the last resort. The irony from India’s stand-point is that our analysts are dismissive about an elected President. The reality is that Zardari today carries more clout that General Ashfaq Kiyani. The Pakistan Army is domestically a tad discredited as General Musharraf dragged feet in relinquishing office, and is up against the wall on its western front bordering Afghanistan. Zardari, on the other hand, holds enormous Presidential powers inherited from the Musharraf presidency and his party rules the country. Moreover, since taking office, Zardari has consistently spoken of improving relations with India beyond the Musharraf peace process. He indeed needs to be taken seriously in India, much more than Musharraf who maintained an insincere India policy
The moot question is what new has Zardari said? The response should be in two parts. First, even as Zardari is the first Pakistani President to say this, and presuming that India takes him seriously, a country’s nuclear weapons’ declaratory and employment policies will never be similar. As war has its own dynamics, there will always be situations when there will be a clash between the two policies. Thus, a nation’s declaratory policy is good for peacetime alone, and hence the talk that India should now ask Pakistan to formalise its no-first-use against India does not amount to much. The second issue that merits consideration is if Pakistan indeed had a first-use policy why would it care to match India’s conventional weaponry? It is true that Pakistan lags behind in bean counting of conventional weapons. But a war is not about matching weapon for weapon. It is about matching the adversary at the operational level of war. The operational level for a particular war theatre is the sum-total of weapons, forces that can be brought to bear at the decisive point, capability to switch forces fast, morale, motivation, training, quick decision-making at the strategic and operational levels, and directive style of command.
The truth is that for a short war, the Pakistan Army matches the Indian Army at the operational level of war. However, in this reality, there are two caveats: One, how short would a short war be? Even as the Indian Army has enunciated its Cold Start doctrine, nothing less than 10 to 14 days of war will produce meaningful results. Will New Delhi be strong enough to bear enormous international pressure to continue war for so long? Moreover, there will be umpteen threats of nuclear strike during this period from Pakistan. And two, as the Pakistan Air Force lags behind the IAF in numbers, their daily sortie generation rates will fall much faster. The PAF will certainly use its array of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads to supplement its dwindling sortie rates, maybe after a week of intense war. This will raise alarm in India and the world as both countries do not have a ballistic missiles understanding, especially when the ballistic missiles will be the preferred nuclear weapons vector of the Pakistan military. In another situation, just in case the Indian Army manages a deep thrust in Pakistan’s sensitive territory (crosses the red line), what if Pakistan uses a tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to stop an Indian armour and mechanised advance. It is known that the Pakistan Army has TNWs, while India, given its no-first-use policy, has foresworn its acquisition.
Thus, rather than worry about Pakistan’s nuclear declaratory policy, India should ponder over two important matters:
possession of TNW with Pakistan, and the need to establish a ballistic missiles verification regime. If Pakistan ever uses TNW in self-defence, it is difficult to conceive that India will up the stakes with counter-value strike against cities and civilian targets. Thus, even if the need for TNW is agreed, given the low credibility of the outcome of 1998 nuclear tests, it is unclear if India indeed has this capability. The second matter appears doable. Both countries have a memorandum of understanding on ballistic missiles as part of the February 1999 Lahore Declaration, which was anathema to General Musharraf. India should commence talks on this with the Zardari regime.