Nuclear borderline

Ever year, come January the Indian and Pakistani governments exchange lists of nuclear facilities (along with their coordinates), that each side undertakes not to attack in case of hostilities. Presumably, new power stations and other sensitive nuclear military-related installations are added to the lists as and when these go on stream. This is a civilized way of dealing with an adversarial fellow nuclear weapons-state. It provides some assurance that, even in the most volatile situations, neither government will slip in actions to make bad situations infinitely worse. It is an aim that’ll be furthered by the Foreign Secretaries presently meeting in Islamabad discussing other nuclear confidence-building measures (CBMs) and, more importantly, ways to foster links between the Indian and Pakistani militaries.

That vulnerable nuclear power stations provide attractive military targets  is an issue I have plumbed in my writings. It was a problem that troubled NATO and Warsaw Pact member-states during the Cold War for which the protagonists found no solution such as the one India and Pakistan have devised. Bennett Ramberg, a sometime official in the George W Bush Administration, in the 1970s had first voiced the danger of nuclear power plants located in or near Western European cities proving high-value targets in the first wave of Soviet attacks were the Cold War to turn hot.

In the subcontinental context, the worrisome question is this: Notwithstanding any agreement with India prohibiting such strikes, will the Pakistan army be able to resist the temptation of hitting or holding hostage proliferating Indian nuclear power stations per Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ill-thought out plan to produce 40,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2050? Indeed, considering the disproportionate payoffs that could accrue to Pakistan, not so much from taking them out as holding these power plants hostage to “good behaviour” on the battlefield, meaning, India’s not exploiting, say, such advantage as has been obtained by its conventional forces.  Assuming GHQ, Rawalpindi, will not pass up this stratagem in war, it is best Indian war planners take such a contingency seriously.

What is the best antidote to such thinking? Construct a string of nuclear power plants at sites along the border with Pakistan so as to neutralize the remotest chance of the Pakistan Nuclear Command Authority considering such strikes in the first place.  The reasons why Pakistan will shrink from attacking nuclear power plants on the border are obvious enough. There is no way of guaranteeing that the plumes of radioactivity arising from damaged nuclear power stations will not drift across to affect the Pakistani heartland of the Punjab. This prospect will also deter Pakistan from launching missile salvos at bunched reactors in the Indian hinterland, because should Pakistan opt for “total war”, the more reactors on the border the better, paradoxically, the chance these will not be hit.  The other reason Pakistan will desist from striking nuclear power plants is that it has a number of the Chinese-built nuclear complexes at Chashma and Khushab, and the civilian nuclear power plant in Karachi that are readily available as targets. The certainty of like response to Indian reactors being struck will incentivize the Pakistan army and its directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence to keep close tabs on the terrorist outfits they have nurtured lest, in their zeal, they mount such an attack and start an affray that will end up costing Pakistan dearer than anything Pakistani strikes can inflict.

The Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd. has already identified several sites in Indian Punjab to host high-yield nuclear power plants. Rajasthan and Gujarat too have been scouted for this purpose. It will not be difficult to tweak the plans a bit to ensure that most of these reactors are located in the border zone. Who can deny Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat, need nuclear power? This strategy will turn potential nuclear hostages for Pakistan into counter-hostages against Pakistan within this country.  Such ruses may seem hard and bloody-minded to the Nervous Nellies populating the Indian government at the political leadership and bureaucratic levels, and, perhaps, even the Indian armed services (not to mention the Commentariat in the Indian media). But, as history shows, preparing for the worst usually prevents the worst from happening — a lesson India seems terminally incapable of learning.

In the nuclear context, it is not clear what additional CBMs Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir discussed. But Raja Menon and Lalit Mansingh, involved in officially-sponsored Track-II dialogue, have revealed one particular issue that, perhaps, was on the agenda, to do with the mutual withdrawal of the early generation short-range ballistic missiles – Prithvi-I, Abdali, Ghaznavi.  The trouble with formalizing reciprocal actions using a diplomatic agreement is that it accords Pakistan parity with India in the nuclear realm that Islamabad has been seeking for many years, and sets a precedent. As part of second-stage CBMs, for instance, it will hugely complicate arriving at mutually acceptable nuclear force-size and quality levels considering that the Indian strategic deterrent is primarily keyed to the China threat, and Pakistan’s fears are India-centric.

It would have more advisable if, as I have advocated in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy,  India had unilaterally withdrawn the nuclearized Prithvi-I batteries from deployed status on the western border, as a means of diluting Pakistan’s mistrust and inspiring confidence. This symbolically and politically potent gesture would have reassured the Pakistan army and people without India in any way conceding an equal nuclear status for Pakistan. Moreover, it would have been a safe thing to do because all potential target-sets within Pakistan can be reached by the longer range Agni missiles fired from hinterland launch points.

The fact is positioning the Prithvi-I at the forward edge of the battlefield – whichever genius thought that up — is a damn fool idea; worse, an obvious tripwire neither the existing situation nor the correlation of forces warrant. That the Indian government actually ordered such deployment and it has been in place for over a decade suggests a void in official thinking where substantive nuclear military knowledge ought to be.

[Published in ‘The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’ on June 23, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/nuclear-borderline-071 ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

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