Dealing with Pakistan’s brinkmanship

Islamabad’s expanding nuclear capability is no longer driven solely by its oft-cited fears of India but by the paranoia about U.S. attacks on its strategic assets

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:07 pm IST

Published - December 07, 2012 12:16 am IST

121207 - Lead - Nuclear brinkmanship

121207 - Lead - Nuclear brinkmanship

During the past decade, there have been notable shifts in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, away from minimum deterrence to second strike capability and towards expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal to include both strategic and tactical weapons. Islamabad has described these developments as “consolidating Pakistan’s deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum.” These shifts are apparent from the following developments:

(1) There is a deliberate shift from the earlier generation of enriched uranium nuclear weapons to a newer generation of plutonium weapons.

(2) This shift has enabled Pakistan to significantly increase the number of weapons, which now appears to have overtaken India’s nuclear weapon inventory and, in a decade, may well surpass those held by Britain and France.

(3) Progress has been made in the miniaturisation of weapons, enabling their use with cruise missiles, both air and surface-based (Ra’ad or Hatf VIII and Babur or Hatf-VII respectively) as also with a new generation of short range and tactical missiles (Abdali or Hatf II with a range of 180 km and Nasr or Hatf-IX with a range of 60 km).

(4) Pakistan has steadily improved the range and accuracy of its delivery vehicles, building upon the earlier Chinese models (the Hatf series) and the later North Korean models (the No-dong series). The newer missiles, including the Nasr, are solid-fuelled, which are quicker to launch than the older liquid-fuelled versions.

Not under safeguards

This rapid development of its nuclear weapon arsenal has been enabled by the setting up of two plutonium production reactors at Khusab with a third and fourth under construction. These have been built with Chinese assistance and are not under safeguards. The spent fuel from these reactors is reprocessed at the Rawalpindi New Labs facility, where there are reportedly two plants each with a capacity to reprocess 10 to 20 tonnes annually.

Olli Heinonen, a former Director of Safeguards at the IAEA has observed: “Commissioning of additional plutonium production reactors and further construction of reprocessing capabilities signify that Pakistan may even be developing second-strike capabilities”.

These developments are driven by a mix of old and new set of threat perceptions and, equally, political ambitions. The so-called existential threat from India continues to be cited as the main driver of Pakistan’s nuclear compulsions. The rapid increase in the number of weapons is justified by pointing to India having a larger stock of fissile material available for a much more numerous weapons inventory, thanks to the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement. Tactical nuclear weapons are said to be a response to India’s so-called “Cold Start” doctrine or its suspected intention to launch quick response punitive thrusts across the border in case of another major cross-border terrorist strike.

Pakistan’s strategic objective has been expanded to the acquisition of a “full-spectrum capability” comprising a land, air and sea-based triad of nuclear forces, to put it on a par with India.

However, the focus on India has tended to obscure an important change in Pakistan’s threat perception which has significant implications. The Pakistani military and civilian elite is convinced that the United States has also become a dangerous adversary, which seeks to disable, disarm or take forcible possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

This threat perception may be traced to the aftermath of 9/11, when Pakistan, for the first time in its history, faced the real prospect of a military assault on its territory by U.S. forces and the loss of its strategic assets. In his address to the nation on September 15, 2001, President Pervez Musharraf justified his acquiescence to the U.S. ultimatum to abandon the Taliban and support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, on account of four over-riding and critical concerns — “our sovereignty, second our economy, third our strategic assets and fourth our Kashmir cause.” Pakistan once again became a “front-line state,” this time in the U.S. war on terrorism in Afghanistan in contrast to the U.S.-led war against the Soviet forces in that country in the 1980s. But this time round, Pakistan became an ally by compulsion rather than by choice.

While the immediate threat to its strategic assets passed, Pakistan’s suspicions of U.S. intentions in this regard did not diminish and have now risen to the level of paranoia. The American drone attacks against targets within Pakistani territory and, in particular, the brazenness with which the Abbotabad raid was carried out by U.S. Navy Seals in May 2011 to kill Osama bin Laden, have only heightened Pakistan’s concerns over U.S. intentions. These have overtaken fears of India, precisely because the U.S. has demonstrated both its capability and willingness to undertake such operations. India has not.

Recent shifts

Thus the recent shifts in Pakistan’s nuclear strategy cannot be ascribed solely to the traditional construct of India-Pakistan hostility. They appear driven mainly by the fear of U.S. assault on its strategic assets. The more numerous and compact the weapons, the wider their dispersal and the greater their sophistication, the more deterred the U.S. would be from undertaking any operations to disable them or to take them into its custody. The U.S. finds it as difficult to acknowledge this reality as it has, until recently, Pakistan’s complicity in terrorism directed against its forces in Afghanistan. This permits putting the onus on India to reassure Pakistan through concessions rather than admitting that the problem lies elsewhere. There is also a strong non-proliferation lobby in the U.S. which believes it could leverage the threat of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange to reverse some of the concessions made to India in the civil nuclear deal. More recently, it is being argued that since the U.S. is finding it difficult to get its promised share of the civil nuclear business in India due to concerns over the country’s Nuclear Liability legislation, a major rationale behind the agreement no longer exists. And meanwhile, it is further claimed, the civil nuclear agreement has only heightened the danger of India-Pakistan nuclear war by feeding into Pakistani fears of India’s enhanced nuclear capabilities.

In this context, I wish to recall an exchange over dinner hosted by President George Bush for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2008 in Washington. The then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remarked that after the “heavy lifting” the U.S. had done to get the nuclear deal through, she hoped India would ensure that U.S. companies got a share of the orders for new reactors. Before our Prime Minister could reply, Mr. Bush stated categorically that he was not bothered if India did not buy even a single reactor from the U.S., since he regarded the agreement as confirming India as a long-term strategic partner rather than a mere customer for U.S. reactors.

Pakistan encourages the arguments of the U.S. non-proliferation lobby since this keeps the pressure on India and enables the camouflage of Pakistan’s real motivations. It would not wish to project, as an adversary, a much more powerful U.S., and lose out on the economic and military support it receives, however transactional these deals may have become.

The implications

What are the implications of these recent developments?

One, it is not through “strategic restraint” or security assurances by India that Pakistan would be persuaded to change its behaviour and revise its strategy. India and Pakistan have some nuclear CBMs in place and India would be prepared to go further. The main levers for such persuasion lie in Washington and in Beijing, not in New Delhi.

Two, whatever sophistry Pakistan may indulge in to justify its augmented arsenal and threatened recourse to tactical nuclear weapons, for India, the label on the weapon, tactical or strategic, is irrelevant since the use of either would constitute a nuclear attack against India. In terms of India’s stated nuclear doctrine, this would invite a massive retaliatory strike. For Pakistan to think that a counter-force nuclear strike against military targets would enable it to escape a counter-value strike against its cities and population centres, is a dangerous illusion. The U.S. could acquaint Pakistan with NATO’s own Cold War experience when tactical nuclear weapons were abandoned once it was realised that use of such weapons in any conflict would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Instead of urging India to respond to Pakistani nuclear escalation through offering mutual restraint, the U.S. should convince Islamabad that a limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms and that it should abandon such reckless brinkmanship. The U.S. knows that India’s nuclear deterrence is not Pakistan-specific. Any misguided attempt to constrain Indian capabilities would undermine, for both, the value of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership in an increasingly uncertain and challenging regional and global security environment.

Three, Pakistan is no longer India’s problem. Its toxic mix of jihadi terrorism and nuclear brinkmanship poses a threat to the region and to the world. Even China, whose culpability in continuing to assist Pakistan in developing its nuclear and delivery capabilities is well documented, is not exempt. It needs to reassess its own policies. An apparently low-cost and proxy effort to contain India may well become China’s nightmare, too, in the days to come.

(Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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