Nuclear mind games

When contemplating Pakistan’s nuclear build-up, Major General Ausaf Ali, an engineer officer and, as Director General – Operations and Plans, arguably the most important man in the Strategic Plans Division, Chaklala, the secretariat for that country’s Nuclear Command Authority, comes to mind. The occasion was his briefing on the Pakistan nuclear weapons programme at an “international seminar” in March 2007 held in Bahawalpur. As the lone Indian invitee, I was apparently the offline channel to convey nuclear signals to interested audiences in India. (The contents of the signalling may be found in my 2008 book — Índia’s Nuclear Policy — and in my numerous writings since then).

Among other things, Ausaf Ali indicated that Pakistan planned to beef up its nuclear forces sufficient to enable a “counterforce third strike” – a scheme too ambitious not to prompt scepticism. A counterforce third strike essentially means having enough surviving nuclear weapons/warheads and delivery systems (missiles and aircraft) to take out Indian nuclear force assets after absorbing an Indian retaliatory hit in response to Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons. His impressive confidence, notwithstanding, this strategy is unsustainable for the reason Ausaf Ali also mentioned, namely, that the location of 70 percent of Pakistani nuclear weapons is known to American, Indian and Israeli intelligence agencies and, in a nuclear crisis or conflict, will face pre-emption. The remaining 30 percent, he asserted, “will never be found”. It is reasonable to deduce that the underway augmentation of the nuclear arsenal – with reports of Pakistani nuclear weapons strength now exceeding India’s estimated arsenal and the 100 figure mark, is meant to increase both this force-fraction considered immune to pre-emptive destruction and Pakistan’s margin of safety.

The more noteworthy aspect is Pakistan’s resolve not to be overwhelmed in a nuclear confrontation with India. It is reflected in the reported construction of a fourth plutonium reactor at Khushab. This is a speedy follow-up to the first and second reactors that went on stream in 1996 and 2009 respectively and the third which is at the half-way stage of construction. Deterrence is a mind-game — how I wish I had patented this phrase first used by me in a 1998 book and commonly used by Indian analysts! — and Pakistan seems to be psychologically fortifying itself for it.

None of this will matter very much in an actual nuclear exchange though because however large the Pakistani weapons inventory, especially its protected force fraction, the certainty of Pakistan’s extinction (given the extreme vulnerability of the narrow “strategic corridor” near the Indian border, containing most of its cities and economic centres) versus the obliteration of a couple of Indian cities will compel Islamabad, I have argued, to avoid nuclear first use no matter what the Indian provocation, including limited ingress into Pakistani territory by Indian conventional forces (‘Cold Start’). Of course, Pakistan has discovered that India scares easy and simply having its leaders indulge in nuclear bombast at the first sign of trouble, deters Delhi from approving even punitive strikes.  This happened after the 13 December 2001 attack on Parliament and the 26/11 strike against Mumbai.

A nuclear Pakistan, in any case, poses a greater danger to itself than to India – with the possibility of fanatics accessing nuclear materials, if not whole weapons, in unsettled domestic situations. These jihadis, geared to blowing themselves up, may decide that the use of nuclear weapons or radiation diffusion devices as means of national suicide either by turning them against the Pakistan Establishment or India, advances their cause.

But, Pakistan’s nuclear preparations nevertheless highlight the Indian government’s over- relaxed attitude and quite extraordinary complacency. The stock answers by senior officials to any sensitive questions regarding national security is usually un-illuminating counter-questions: “How do you know we are not taking appropriate actions? And, If we are, would we be announcing them?” Alas, excessive opacity hurts nuclear deterrence when there’s little evidence of meaningful measures on the ground.

For instance, dedicated military-use plutonium reactors cannot be conjured out of thin air nor erected in a trice. Indeed, with the decommissioning of the CIRUS reactor at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, courtesy the nuclear deal with the United States, a third of the weapon grade plutonium production capacity was lopped off. The upcoming breeder reactor having been ruled out of the military ambit by former National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, there’s only the 100 MW Dhruva reactor, if the eight power plants are discounted as source owing to the huge economic costs of diverting these from electricity generation to running them on low burn-up mode for plutonium production. A second Dhruva was approved in the mid-1990s and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao sanctioned Rs 600 crores for it. But 15 years on, the project is in the doldrums.  Moreover, instead of constructing a straight-through graphite-moderated reactor exclusively to output weapon grade fissile material such as the ones Pakistan has obtained from China, another multi-purpose Dhruva-type reactor (tasked to also produce isotopes, etc) is on the cards. This last is the result mainly of professional laziness on the part of the Indian nuclear engineers who would rather duplicate something old than design and build altogether new, efficient and, militarily more useful, plutonium reactor.

There are two great nuclear deficit areas: In the light of the failed hydrogen bomb test in 1998, the absence of proven high-yield thermonuclear armaments – a condition only further explosive testing can remedy, and curtailed weapon-grade plutonium production capacity. These shortfalls are particularly onerous when considering it is China with ramped up strategic wherewithal India has most to worry about. With the gaps in Indian weapons performance and fissile material production capacity widening into chasms, achieving credible deterrence vis a vis China, already problematic, will soon become unthinkable. Lulled by the comforting illusions of “minimal” deterrence based on the 20/20 hindsight of the Cold War rather than the verities of the harsh and unforgiving world of international relations, the Indian government seems to be paddling around in the strategic shallows, unmindful of the rapids ahead.

[Published in ‘The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, February 17, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/nuclear-mind-games-007 ]

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 China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

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