During a crisis, nuclear weapon powers are supposed to conduct themselves in a very responsible manner, as millions of lives are at stake if they don’t. Even the nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, complied with this international norm throughout the Cold War period. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the only exception, but it was also eventually managed successfuly. If this has been a general rule in the nuclear world, then why should India and Pakistan as nuclear weapon states conduct differently, especially during a cisis?
Unfortunately, since the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India has frequently threatened war against Pakistan, despite the consistently restrained approach of Pakistan’s current rulers. However, there are hardliners in Pakistan who have lately adopted an offensive attitude, especially when they talk about Pakistan contemplating the use of nuclear option in the eventuality of a limited war with India.
This poisoning rhetoric by India’s war mongers and Pakistani hardliners is not rationally grounded but based on a grave misperception: that India has an overwhelming conventional superiority over Pakistan; or that Pakistan does not have credible conventional deterrent against India.
The fact is that Pakistan’s deterrent with India is based on a mix of conventional and nuclear arsenals. Therefore, even if a limited war with India becomes all-out, Pakistan has sufficient conventional forces to fight it without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.
An all-out war falls between a limited conventional war and a nuclear war. If the outcome of battle is decisive in this middle period, then why should Pakistan, which is misperceived to be conventionally inferior to India, contemplate using nuclear weapons at a moment when it perceives a limited war is turning into an all-out conventional battle?
If Pakistani hardliners are wrong, India’s war-mongers are wrong too. Given Pakistan’s qualitative edge over India in conventional weaponry, which considerably negates India’s conventional numerical superiority over it, India would be foolish to ever think of expanding the limited war and defeating Pakistan in an all-out conventional battle.
As my colleague Zafar Nawaz Jaspal argued last week, “India’s military acquisition trends have produced an imbalance of conventional military power in India’s favor, particularly in air and naval forces. But this asymmetry does not give India overwhelming military superiority. Moreover, the missile and nuclear weapon capabilities of Pakistan establish strategic equilibrium between India and Pakistan.”
Let me substantiate the above argument with some facts. Pakistan’s minimum deterrent capability is based on conventional and nuclear forces, which are designed against a threat which has been quantified in numbers and quality. The country has a far more streamlined and quick response military force.
Pakistan’s conventional forces are modeled after Western militaries, especially those of the United States and NATO. Pakistan’s army, air and naval services have obtained high tech defense equipment from modern Western countries, especially the United States and France. Its military officers have been trained in the historically superior Western military tradition, especially at world renowned military academies in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Pakistan’s defense linkage with the West never ended with the end of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent in 1947, as, within a year of partition, it joined the US-led world. Throughout the past 60 years, with some gaps in between, Pakistan has had almost regular interaction with US, British and other Western defense establishments, including exchange of officers, expertise and the holding of mutual exercises. The country’s extremely close cooperation with China in military ties, especially in defense production, is aside.
As against Pakistan, India’s military linkage with the modern Western world is only less than a couple of decades’ old, during which it has indeed held joint exercises with Western forces. But we cannot ignore a 40-year long Indian break with Western military tradition, during which India’s military acquisitions and indigenous defense production was always with the militarily less modern and less sophisticated Soviet defense establishment.
For instance, if we compare the two countries’ armies, Pakistan army enjoys qualitative superiority in armor and artillery weapon systems, including self-propelled M-109 and A2 155 mm Howitzers guns, and 203 mm systems. It has upgraded its tanks such as Al-Khalid and Al-Zarrar using Western, Chinese and the best of indigenous R and D. The army has T-80 UD tanks from Ukraine. India’s only qualitative match with Pakistani tanks is its 310 T-90 tank.
In air capability, India surely enjoys an overwhelming numerical superiority over Pakistan. But the history of war generally disproves numerical air superiority being a decisive factor in winning a war. Even otherwise, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has always focused on rigorous training against Indian threat as a best-possible defensive force. Moreover, PAF’s existing fleet has been, or being, upgraded considerably, especially its fleet of F-16s and Mirages upgraded. More F-16 aircrafts from the United States are in the pipeline. JF-17 Thunder aircraft is being inducted from China.
Pakistani military is in the process of obtaining high tech AWAC systems from China and Sweden. Swedish systems are already on trial. The Navy is equipped with French Augusta 90-B submarines and US P-3C Orion reconnaissance anti submarine aircraft equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles. These, along with PAF Mirages equipped with anti-ship Exocet missile system, are sufficient to prevent Indian naval blockade.
It is in the missile technology that Pakistan has a clear-cut edge over India, and this edge is not restricted to cruise missile Babur. The country has a vast array of ballistic missiles from short to medium ranges, including liquid fuel Ghauri and solid fuel Shaheen, the Hatf series, as well as Anza anti aircraft and RBS 70 Swedish systems.
The Indian Air Force has the world’s largest ratio of peacetime air crashes and a severe shortage of trained pilots. Pakistan has hundreds of kilometers of motorways, which can be converted into runways. With its missile superiority, Pakistan can destroy Indian runways and communication centers, without committing its aircrafts to carry out attacks inside India.
The primitive nature of India’s defense capability is visible from its nuclear testing as well. For instance, it is now known that at least three of the five nuclear tests conducted by India in May 1998 had failed. Moreover, their yield was almost similar to the Indian nuclear test of 1974, meaning India had not advanced much in the nuclear field since 1974.
The above narration, thus, establishes that Pakistan’s current conventional arms’ threshold is a sufficient deterrent vis-à-vis India, and that nuclear weapons for it are only the weapons of last resort. If Pakistan’s conventional forces erode in any prolonged conflict with India, even then its nuclear weapons will be used as counter force arsenal. For the purpose, the country’s nuclear doctrine envisages scenarios like the failure of conventional forces’ deterrent, occupation of a large part of territory or population. Only in such eventualities, the defense establishment can contemplate counter-force, not counter-value, targeting.
In short, the essence of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is first-strike in self-defense. It is an essentially defensive nuclear doctrine, whereby the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort does not mean that Pakistan will start attacking Indian cities or population centers. In fact, President Asif Ali Zardari has further neutralized its military value by publicly announcing the country’s adherence to nuclear No-First Use principle. He may have done that out of ignorance, but those engaging in nuclear rhetoric in Pakistan are certainly harming Pakistan’s principle nuclear stand.
Contrary to Pakistan, India’s No First Use is a ploy. This is because India’s nuclear doctrine, as it has evolved over time, considers exercising the nuclear option even in response to a biological and chemical weapons attack against Indian territory and Indian forces deployed outside India.
Like its overall military forces, Pakistan’s Command and Control system is also modern and based on best practices of the established nuclear powers, especially in the West. Barring the proliferation of nuclear weapons by A Q Khan, the country has a good record of nuclear responsibility. The feat of acquiring nuclear weapons was performed by hundreds of unsung scientists and engineers of Pakistan Atomic Energy Agency (PAEC), who were responsible for the design, development and testing of nuclear arsenal in addition to supervising the entire nuclear fuel cycle.
It is our greatest misfortune that A Q Khan and the gang are once again active in generating nuclear rhetoric in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks. With his irresponsibility, A Q Khan caused huge embarrassment for Pakistan in the international community. His current nuclear jingoism is unaffordable for Pakistan, especially when the world is quite seriously worried about the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling in the hands of terrorists.
Obviously, such possibility can be easily ruled out on purely technical reasons, or by pointing out the fool-proof nature of our command and control structure and especially the fact that A Q Khan’s Kahuta Research Laboratories’ enrichment project was only a tiny segment of a vast and highly complex chain of nuclear production.
But this won’t quell international sensitivities regarding the proliferation potential of our nuclear programme, as long as a handful hardliners among us, who felt no shame for A Q Knan’s irresponsible nuclear conduct and the irreparable damage it did to Pakistan, remain engaged in nuclear rhetoric. Such rhetoric is in sharp contrast to the highly restrained conduct of the country’s present civil-military leadership, which understands the severity of our current crisis with India and is conscious of its international obligations vis-à-vis the War on Terror and national responsibility of safeguarding territorial integrity in the face of Indian aggression.
My friend Munir Ahmad Khan, who headed the PAEC for 17 years and from whom A Q Khan had hijacked the nuclear programme, spent years until his death in April 1999 to protest nuclear rhetoric on the part of A Q Khan and his lobby, and stress the need for nuclear responsibility on Pakistan’s part.
During those years, I had myself defended Pakistan’s right to acquire nuclear capability to neutralize security threat from India. I still maintain that position, but perhaps this is my first article in years on the nuclear subject. Friends often ask me why I stopped writing on nuclear issue. I ask them in return: what has A Q Khan left us to argue?
I remember preparing the draft document about nuclear events in the run-up to Pakistan’s nuclear response to India in late May 1998, which was presented to the press when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed a press conference after Pakistan’s first nuclear tests. On that occasion, we had gone at length in assuring the international community that Pakistan has assumed added responsibility after testing, for not transferring nuclear technology or material to any country or entity abroad. It is A Q Khan and his associates who failed us.
Today, when the issue of nuclear proliferation is being linked to terrorism, the world expects Pakistani scientific and technological community possessing the expertise to develop nuclear weapons to “self police” to prevent the spread of nuclear material and technology to terrorists. It expects our professionals having the technical skills and access necessary to support or conduct nuclear development not to provide any support to terrorists.
However irrational such expectations may appear to be, their articulation will continue to assume grave dimension, if Pakistan’s internal security environment remains volatile and its economic and political setup uncertain. Nuclear weapons are not baby toys. They have to be handled with extreme care. We must be vigilant about any threat to the safety and security of these assets, be it directly from a terrorist organization or from a section of those, the likes of A Q Khan, who acted irresponsibly before and are likely to conduct similarly in future.
Coming back to where I began, we must understand that Pakistan’s conventional arsenal is superior enough to avert any Indian military adventurism. It is only now that New Delhi has handed over to Pakistan the evidence it alleges establishes Lashkar-e-Tayyiba’s hand in Mumbai attacks. In the last over a month, Indian leaders have done nothing but engage in saber rattling againt us. We should, therefore, study this evidence carefully, separating fiction from fact. India cannot coerce Pakistan into accepting what it unilaterally believes to be a ground reality. The government of Pakistan has already acted against the front organization of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. We should not let our soil be used for conducting terrorism at home or in the region. And we should take appropriate measures in this regard not in response to external demands or pressures but because doing this is in our own national interest first and foremost.
The main problem between India and Pakistan, as I have stressed in previous columns, is a serious lack of trust, a factor that four-year long peace process between them failed to address sufficiently. Extremist terrorist violence has an amazing capacity to exacerbate the fear and uncertainty between the parties engaged in a peace process. That is why it collapses so suddenly as a result of a terrorist act, as it happened in the case of Mumbai attacks.
Given the increased level of this trust deficit post-Mumbai attacks, India and Pakistan can look for a neutral third party, which can be the United States or the United Nations, both having equal stake in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and the region, to play a role in the joint Indo-Pakistan investigation into Mumbai attacks. After all, what is at stake is the loss of years-long hardwork that went into the peace process, which itself began because a much greater struggle against terrorism in the region has been under way since late 2001.
Access column at weeklypulse.org