No nuclear war, but an arms race?

[Published in South Asian Journal (Lahore), Issue No. 33, July-September 2011]


Talk of a four-node vicious circle! Pakistan is perennially at loggerheads with India, whose conventional military handicap it seeks to overcome with significant arms transfers by China and a stiffening nuclear missile muscle it acquired courtesy Beijing’s stance strategically to distract India and keep it preoccupied with the subcontinent. Pakistan’s “chronic sense of insecurity”, write Howard and Teresita Schaffer, old South Asia hands formerly at the US State Department,  is sought to be addressed centrally with “efforts to counter-balance the Indian threat.”[1] China and the United States have helped Pakistan deal with India in the past, and will calibrate their military assistance so as not to alienate India. Indeed, given the precipitous slide in its relations with Pakistan triggered by the special forces operation to kill Osama bin Laden,[2] Washington may not  play ball at all if the ties don’t recover.


     Considering its size and all-round heft, India is willy-nilly the natural ideological, political, and economic rival to China in Asia against whom India’s nuclear and conventional forces are principally orientated, even as it maintains sufficient military wherewithal to deter Pakistan’s adventurism.[3] Besides, India is concerned about the entrenched Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus. China, on its part, apprehends the United States with quite considerable military capabilities in Asia as its main adversary, one that props up an independent Taiwan, which China ferociously covets, and in alliance with Japan and South Korea in the Far East, limits its options, Pacific-wards, and in league with many Asian states, encourages resistance against its territorial claims and prevents the spread of its influence.[4] Then there is the United States seeking to extend its status as the predominant power into the new century, and in Asia to fence in China using its own significant military presence, but also in cooperation with traditional allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and new strategic partners, including India, on the Chinese periphery.[5]


     Add to this combustible mix the likely fuze in the subcontinent of the al-Qaeda-inspired global jihadi terrorism that was initially nurtured by the US as a means of unsettling the Soviet occupation order in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and has since been seen by Pakistan as a sometime useful asymmetric sub-conventional military asset to deploy against India. But in its Taliban guise, the militants established themselves as the ruling regime in Kabul and, in the wake of 9/11, have been relentlessly targeted by the US and NATO and, in turn, have waged a protracted war against the foreign interventionist forces in Afghanistan and north Waziristan region of Pakistan. Post-9/11, the al-Qaeda-Taliban are feared by the West as potential perpetrators of spectacular acts of terrorism, especially nuclear terrorism. To fight this scourge, an ambivalent Pakistan has been shoehorned by Washington into a frontline role which the former finds difficult to play. Among other reasons, because of the Pakistan army Inter-Services Intelligence directorate’s continuing links with the al-Qaeda-Taliban and the Lashkar affiliates at home.[6]  At the same time, Pakistan is not in a position to tell Washington where to get off. The unsatisfactory compromise has resulted in the Pakistan army fitfully  fighting certain factions of the home grown Tehreek-i-Taliban and sections of the Haqqani tribal network at America’s bidding, prompting unending terrorist attacks by the TTP and its offshoots such as Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad it had previously nurtured, against the Pakistani state itself.[7] It has added immeasurably to the prevailing unsettled domestic condition — the breakdown of law and order, social and religious violence, and the ongoing secessionist movements, such as the one in Baluchistan.


     In this confused milieu with cross-cutting motivations and interests of the four nodal players, isolating the India-Pakistan nuclear tangle is difficult.  This has not, however, stopped professional Track-2ers to try and do just this. Many of them, trained in concepts such as nuclear risk reduction centres conceived by the Sandia Corporation, seek to implement them in the India-Pakistan context. This may not work because, for starters, both sides will have to disclose the size and quality of their respective nuclear-missile inventories. These Second Trackers talk of the two sides withdrawing their early generation short-range ballistic missiles – Prithvi-I, Abdali, Ghaznavi, as part of nuclear confidence building measures, which action they hope the Foreign Secretary-level talks will formalize.[8] By making missile drawdowns a two-way street, India essentially has conceded parity which will complicate its nuclear arsenal buildup to meet the greater threat from China without spooking Pakistan and rendering agreements on mutual reductions infructuous. Except, India has lost the opportunity of making serious headway in diluting mistrust and psychologically blunting Pakistani threat perceptions of India, which reciprocal action will not do. What would have worked, as this analyst had suggested over ten years ago, is India’s unilaterally and unconditionally withdrawing its nuclearized Prithvi-I SRBM from forward deployment on the Pakistan border. This could have been safely done as all target-sets inside Pakistan are covered by longer-range Agni missiles fired from hinterland launch points.[9]


     India, China and Pakistan alike profess “minimum deterrence”. But for each of these countries deciding what is the “minimum” nuclear force necessary and “how much is enough” presents insuperable difficulties. It requires each country to ascertain exactly what nuclear forces of what range and other attributes are in the others’ inventories. From India’s point of view, China’s arsenal is the primary concern particularly if things get rough owing to internal upheavals within China,[10] with Pakistan being a secondary worry. From China’s perspective the issue relates to American nuclear wherewithal and, regionally, the Indian nuclear weapons holdings. Pakistan’s imperative is simpler. Given its India-centric security focus, the quality and quantity of Indian nuclear weapons systems and the manner of, and preconditions for, their use are its only concern.


     In their different calculi, each government also faces the task of gauging the enemy’s intentions, to do which, with any certitude, is almost impossible. Pakistani perceptions of the supposed Indian animus are stark enough. But, India has no such reciprocal fear. What has begun to preoccupy Delhi are the imponderables attending on China’s two-pronged non-linear strategic policy of seeking increased trade and friendly exchanges (including an “annual strategic dialogue”) on the one hand and, at the same time, diverting the Brahmaputra River, massing troops on the Tibetan plateau and pressuring the Indian military units stationed along the nearly 3,000 km-long-border, particularly opposite Tawang – the center of Tibetan Lama-ist tradition China, possessing which will enable Beijing to get a handle on the Tibetan “splittist” problem, are hugely troubling. A separate concern is what China may next transfer by way technology, materials and expertise to its “all weather friend” Pakistan – know-how for boosted fission weapon? Thermonuclear weapons design data? If such transfers do take place, even the most circumspect Indian government (of the Manmohan Singh kind) will be compelled to respond in tit-for-tat fashion and, as I have been advocating for some 15 years now, level the strategic playing field by nuclear missile arming Vietnam and other interested states that fear Chinese expansionism, which will roil the over-all strategic “correlation of forces” in Asia.[11]


     As the third side of this triangle, China is keyed to dealing with the significant US forward military presence offshore on its eastern and southern flanks, and to keeping India off-balance but quiet (with promises of good relations that the Manmohan Singh government has swallowed whole but successor governments may not) by selectively pressing the pressure points, not excluding reviving aid and assistance to rebel movements in the Indian north-east.[12]


     Governments in these countries, in the circumstances, find themselves reasonably assuming the worst about each other and building up so they are not caught short in a strategic contingency.[13] In this situation, it is futile to preach the merits of small nuclear forces as the US and West European governments, and the globally active US arms control and nonproliferation lobby have been doing but, which they have learned to their dismay, doesn’t work. Asian nuclear dynamics are not susceptible to outside influence and blandishments and have, in fact, now become an immutable part of Asia’s strategic reality. In the event, India, China and Pakistan will build to whatever level each state believes will best protect and safeguard its national security interests. By substituting for actual conflict, arms races help bad situations – such as the one existing during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and that, of and on, afflict India and Pakistan relations and, to a lesser extent, India and China ties, stabilize.[14] The only constraint is how much each country is willing and able to spend for how long on beefing up its nuclear forces, an investment that has an “opportunity cost” in terms of strengthening and modernizing the conventional military. In this regard, the question is whether Pakistan can sustain a nuclear arms race for very long.[15]


Pursuing the Chimera of Parity


     Double-digit growth rates ensure that India and China will not lack the financial resources for military build-up[16] but the sheer paucity of resources handicaps Pakistan. Defence allocations in Fiscal 2011-2012 of Rs 495 billion (approximately US$ 6 billion), an increase of 12% over last year’s level but, in absolute terms, around a third less than Pakistan’s annual debt servicing obligations of some $700 billion, and projected gross domestic product growth of 4.25% and an inflation rate of 12% amounts in real terms to a receding Pakistani defence budget.[17] Compare this with the US$ 37 billion current year Indian subvention for defense and rising and the US$ 92 billion for like purpose by China, to begin to understand both the extent of disparity and its inevitable impact. Indeed, this level of defense expenditure accounts for only 2.2% of the galloping Indian GDP, for instance. Worse, capital hardware acquisition costs annually rise by roughly 50%-250% depending on the equipment. For Pakistan, even armaments that are “gifted” by China, such as the 50 JF-17s or stuff obtained at cut-rate prices, suck up scarce resources as operating and maintenance costs as India has learned from its long experience of running ex-Russian military hardware acquired at “friendship prices”. There is the other thing Islamabad has to be mindful of.  Supplying military hardware and nuclear materials and information is one thing. Getting directly involved in shoring up Pakistan’s military position vis a vis India is something else altogether, because that will have a  bearing on the tolerance thresholds of not just India but the US and the West, that China will not brashly cross. It is the reason why China publicly declined to build and develop the Gwadar naval base even when implored by the visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani.[18] So, beyond a point Pakistan cannot depend on China and the West to do the rescue act. This realization would actually work to temper the bellicosity Pakistan affects with India, unless Pakistan army means to sequester all the national resources to indulge its conceit of nuclear parity with India.


     Considering, moreover, that Pakistan invests very little on education and health, it finds it has booby-trapped itself. The pauperization of the people has led to more families in urban and rural Pakistan consigning the futures of their children to the tender mercies of the fundamentalist madrassas. These last are talent pools, supplying masses of religiously motivated illiterates and semi-literates that constitute cannon fodder for the jihadi cause, and fill the ranks of affiliates of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Mass-produced terrorists and suicide bombers, once believed by ISI to be easily diverted to Kashmir, end up, as is happening now, attacking the Pakistani society and fighting the army.[19]  Apparently, the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, has belatedly recognized the country is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Why else would he urge the channeling of US military aid into “reducing the burden of the common man”?[20]


Talking up Nuclear First Use


     In the circumstances, Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear weapons to deter India, is understandable even if the resulting nuclear stance assumed by an impoverished country resembles, in Maozedong’s words, “a poor man or beggar [walking] out in a beautiful suit.”[21] The central pillar of this deterrence scheme is to talk up the credibility and imminence of their use in hostilities with India. Except, Pakistan may have succeeded only too well! It is, after all, the sort of thing that Western audiences are predisposed to hear anyway as it reinforces their prejudiced views of Pakistan – an immature nuclear up-start. It motivates the US and West European governments, strategic enclaves, and powerful arms control lobbies to launch relentless campaigns to bring Pakistan, as also India, somehow into the nonproliferation net and to shackle their nuclear programs in the belief that nothing less will suffice to ensure regional and international peace. The doom-sayers have not moderated their tune over the years despite their worst case-scenarios not panning out. South Asian nuclear ambitions are not that easily reined in. Not the strictest adherence to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty provisions nor the imposition of the numerous capability denial regimes (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, Wassenar Agreement, the Australia Group, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Treaty), has quite worked.   


     However, home-grown fright-mongers among the local intelligentsia on the two sides have joined their Western counterparts in stoking nuclear paranoia at home owing to few among them understanding the India-Pakistan conflict characteristics and even fewer appreciating the nuclear dynamics at work. The fear is Delhi and Islamabad simply cannot be trusted to be cool in a military crisis and not to stumble into doing the “unthinkable”.[22]  It is in the country’s deterrence interests believes the Pakistan army’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), Chaklala — the nuclear secretariat of the Nuclear Command Authority in Pakistan, to make more of the possibility of a nuclear calamity in the offing than is actually warranted by reality. Erstwhile stalwarts – serving and retired – from SPD arms control directorate (such as Brigadier Feroze Hassan Khan), are sent out to, and are absorbed in, Western strategic communities, where they paint word pictures of a situation on the brink, as a means of reinforcing the stereotyped views of Indians and Pakistanis pushing the supposedly hair-trigger nuclear situation existing between them over the edge. But how “hair trigger” can the situation be if both countries keep their nuclear weapons safely in a disassembled state? It is nevertheless a line indefatigably pushed by US institutions (like the unit at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory working on geopolitics and the Sandia corporation), a host of American and other thinktanks, and by US officials, such as Peter R. Lavoy, responsible for South Asia – god help us! — on the US Intelligence Council.[23]


     The SPD calculation seemingly is that by raising the spectre of imminent or even immanent nuclear war and rooting the idea of this impending catastrophe in Western minds, the United States, Britain, and other NATO states, will be primed to intervene to save Pakistan’s goose in an actual nuclear crisis. What the Pakistan army, government and people have to consider is whether and how much such a thesis mainly hurts Pakistan’s credibility as a responsible nuclear weapon state and the prospect of legitimating its nuclear status and standing, particularly when juxtaposed against the prevailing view in international circles of a perennially unstable Pakistan in the throes of social and religious chaos, and emerging as both a full-blown “failed state” and “epicenter of global terrorism”.


     The Indian counterparts of the SPD-Chaklala gang (or Chaklalus, for short) purvey the same “Kashmir-flashpoint, Danger!, minimal deterrence”-thesis as they circumambulate the international seminar circuit with ears cocked to whatever their mainly Western audiences want to hear. In these ranks are opinionated retired civil servants and long-in-the-tooth soldiers reaching for second careers as strategic analysts, liberal, left-leaning, jhola-wallahs (as they were earlier called), denizens of local think-tanks — whose “research” is funded by Western Foundation monies, and Indian academic types who have got on to the American arms control gravy train and mean to stay on board and newer ones eager for a ticket to ride on it. (Luckily for India, many of the leading lights from this group left for lucrative stints in Singapore at the cash-rich Rajaratnam School of International Relations at the National Technical University, even as some of them, unfortunately for the cause of clear, realistic, thinking on nuclear deterrence, have returned to muddy the waters!) The views of this latter group invariably converge with those of the Chaklalus, and of the usual nonproliferation-fixated US academics and thinktankers in the business of scaring uninformed audiences witless. Except, after years of hearing the same old alarms, the audiences are becoming inured to the block-buster nuclear fright scenarios (witness how few international seminars and conferences these days anymore deal with this topic). But to reiterate, SPD is convinced that all this brouhaha helps their cause of drawing attention to their nuclear plight vis a vis India.


     In fact, Pakistan’s tom-tomming of its program of nuclear weapons augmentation and the implied threat of use have had an unintended effect. Given the quite considerable stockpile of spent fuel/fissile material at hand, the Indian government merely orders accelerated production of weapons/warheads to augment the weapons inventory in response to credible reports of Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, and, typically, turns the subject around to the accessibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons to terrorist outfits and their vulnerability to terrorist action, and highlights the risk of the Pakistani program leaking fissionable material and expertise for the al-Qaeda-Taliban to fashion “dirty bombs” or radiation diffusion devices (RDDs).[24] It results in an up-tick in concerns being voiced in the US and Western policy quarters about nuclear terrorism, and ultimately in more pressure on the Pakistan army and government to contain the potential menace, and in greater covert efforts by major countries to “map” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities, perhaps, as a prelude to preemptively grab and/or destroy them in a crisis.[25] The net-effect of nuclear chest-thumping by Pakistan, in the event, is negative.


     There are three reasons for the Indian government’s relaxed attitude to Pakistani provocations these days. One, the quiet confidence that no matter what Pakistan does by way of beefing up its nuclear production wherewithal, India has enough reprocessable spent fuel and weapon grade plutonium holdings to ratchet up the pace of weapons production. So far this action-reaction sequence has remained relatively slow and low-key. But should Islamabad force the pace, Delhi will resignedly embark on a nuclear arms race that Pakistan will find impossible to catch up, let alone win. In this regard, it must be borne in mind that, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the 2006 US-Indian civilian nuclear deal, India has the 100 MW Dhruva dedicated military-use reactor plus eight natural uranium fueled 220 MW power reactors that can run at “low burnup” to produce weapon-grade plutonium at will versus 3-4 plutonium-outputting reactors at Khushab gifted and erected by China. The second factor is a better understanding in Indian official quarters of a fact this author has been stressing since well before the 1998 test, namely, that the salience of nuclear weapons is somewhat tangential to the essentially limited nature of India-Pakistan conflicts, meaning that none of the classical deterrence notions of the Cold War really apply to the South Asian situation, primarily because, ultimately, the extant disparity will be mirrored in the “exchange ratio” that is extremely unfavorable to Pakistan in an all-out nuclear exchange.[26] And finally, that the Indian National Technical Research Organization has built up its nuclear forensics data and capability to a point where it can identify any Pakistan-sourced fissile material that the ISI may leak to the jihadi elements under its wings to detonate “dirty bombs” in Indian cities. Such a terrorist act will at once catapult the ensuing conflict into the nuclear realm, which Pakistan cannot afford to let happen.[27]


The Nature of India-Pakistan Wars


     In order, however, to dissect Pakistan’s stated nuclear first-use strategy, it is important to establish the socio-cultural context in which India-Pakistan conflicts occur. To reprise the arguments I have made at length in my writings regarding the essentially constrained nature of India-Pakistan conflicts (which, curiously Indian and Pakistani analysts/commentators are unwilling to acknowledge and Western experts are unable to refute and, therefore, end up ignoring, the more easily to purvey their unsupportable theories of India-Pakistan conflicts):[28] These have been remarkably tame and controlled affairs, more “communal riots with tanks” as the late Indian army Major General D.K. Palit observed with tongue firmly not in cheek, than real wars. Like riots, India-Pakistan “wars” are, firstly, restricted in geographic space, with most of the action localized to the desert and semi-arid tracts of the Thar fronting on Rajasthan and northern Gujarat where there is room for thrust and parry by armored and mechanized formations, and which space for maneuver is unavailable in the plains terrain of the Punjab (on either side) with ditch-cum-bund anti-tank defenses, and the aerial bombardment of each other’s cities is eschewed.  Secondly, the action is limited in time: The longest slugfest, incidentally, were the first operations in Kashmir in 1947-48 that stretched to one and half years; the 1971 fight lasted all of 12 days, and the 1965 War ended in less than a fortnight with both sides, in the last case, coming perilously close to exhausting their ammunition and spares stocks – Pakistan had only a week’s war materiel left, India 10 days worth by the time closure was applied. Thirdly, the intensity levels (“intense rates of fire”) usually high at the start of hostilities quickly petered out into desultory fighting, with both sides extra careful in husbanding their scarce holdings of POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants), ammunition, and spares. And, finally, except in 1971 – when the military opportunity was too inviting for India to ignore — all the extended skirmishing, which is what the vigorous to-ing and fro-ing around the border by tanks and mechanized infantry in the India-Pakistan “wars” have amounted to, eventuated in the usual impasse and, after the inevitable post-conflict confabulations, a return to status quo ante, i.e. a return to the territorial situation as existed prior to hostilities, which included the return by India after the 1965 war of the strategic Haji Pir salient in disputed Jammu & Kashmir, which international law permitted India to keep.


     This unique nature of India-Pakistan wars is because of the still strong organic links of religion, (classical and popular) culture, language and ethnicity between the two societies and nations and, most importantly, owing to kith and kinship ties that are continually renewed by communities and families (albeit to a lessening extent as time passes) – across the social spectrum, keeping cross-border family ties in tact and forging new links of marriage. While Pakistan, post-Zia ul-Haq’s rule, is more radicalized, these social links have not frayed (as is reflected in the fact that the first point on any bilateral “normalization” agenda is usually a mutual easing of visa regulations). Moreover, a politically conscious Muslim electorate in India that wields the swing vote in nearly half of the Lok Sabha constituencies will patriotically countenance bloodying Pakistan’s nose but may not as readily accept a “war of annihilation” against it, assuming any Indian government would be fool enough to carry out a war that will end in an additional 180 million Muslims pickled in fundamentalist juices, willy-nilly joining the Indian fold.[29]


A Brief Dissection of Pakistan’s Nuclear First Use Strategy


     The most commonsensical view of nuclear weapons is Maozedong’s circa September 1961. Nuclear weapons, he asserted, are “something to scare people [with], [but while producing them absorbs] a lot of money  [they are] useless.” However, he added that “the more [of them] there are, the harder it will be for nuclear wars to break out”. And further, that if a war nevertheless breaks out in a nuclearized milieu, “it will be a war of conventional weapons.” He thereby implicitly supported the notion that a nuclear arms race resulting in more weapons is a stabilizing factor because it will make it harder for nations indulging in conventional military skirmishing to cross the nuclear Rubicon. Mao then explained to the visiting Field Marshal Montgomery just why he did not care for nuclear weapons (and why most conventional militaries have not either). Unlike nuclear weapons, “If conventional weapons are used,” he said, “the arts of war, such as strategies and tactics, can be emphasized, and commanders can change plans to suit the situation.” In a nuclear war, in contrast, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman rued, “it will be just a matter of pressing buttons, and the war will be over after a few presses.”[30]


     The Pakistan army, despite enjoying parity with the Indian army in deployable armored and mechanized forces is, apparently, not confident enough about its warfighting capability or the qualities of its generalship, for it to consider initiating first use of nuclear weapon as soon as the situation begins turning bad on the battlefield. In this regard, the testing and induction of the Hatf-9 (Nasr) 60 km range nuclear warheaded short range ballistic missile has occasioned a bit of euphoria in Pakistani circles. The Pakistan army now believes that this particular missile provides them the means of stanching a determined Indian armored advance into their country. The strategy seemingly is for the Hatf-9 to be used first, in the full knowledge that India will respond, its declaratory stance of massive retaliation notwithstanding, with its own like missile, the nuclearized Prithvi-II, on similar Pakistani targets. With this exchange, the Pakistan military is convinced, the hostilities will be brought to an abrupt halt by the big powers, unwilling to tolerate further escalation.[31] Indian Track-2ers, like Rear Admiral Raja Menon, incidentally, believe that a whole bunch of Hatf-9 missiles will enable Pakistan to prosecute a counterforce strategy. How a 60-km mainly battlefield missile can be considered a counter-force weapon is anybody’s guess, unless Rear Admiral Raja Menon and his ilk think of Pakistani counterforce only in terms of advancing Indian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry combat vehicles![32] 


     The weakness in Pakistani strategy are many. It is wrongly assumed, for instance, that the Indian army’s ‘Cold Start’ strategy can, in fact, register the kind of advance by armored formations — the eight independent battle groups (IBGs) re-constituted from the mechanized elements of the holding corps positioned along the border — into Pakistani territory, with the thrust being deepened once the three strike corps go into action from the points where the IBGs have reached. This is to buy into the Indian army’s brochures! The truth is ‘Cold Start’ will permit the Indian armor to penetrate on the same old Rahim Yar Khan-axis but only to a marginally greater extent than in conflicts past. Moreover, what will still be “shallow” penetration is sought mostly as a  “bargaining chip” in the post-war negotiations. Indian armored advance, moreover,  is unlikely to reach deep enough to threaten, say, the north-south Karachi-Peshawar lifeline – a credible “red line” that can be inferred from  the albeit opaque enunciation of the four tripwires by Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, Director General, SPD, some years back. In any case, the IBGs have no great staying power to affect very deep penetration in the initial phase to establish a jump-off line for the strike corps, I have argued, in the main, because of the inherent limitations of the logistics load these formations can carry into battle, and the difficulty of firming up, sustaining, and safeguarding a vulnerable supply line stretching into Pakistan territory to fuel the advance.[33]


     For the purpose of analyzing Pakistan military’s logic, however, let us assume that, whatever the depth of Indian ingress, Pakistan army will hit the Indian units in the vanguard with the Hatf-9, fully expecting that it will have to absorb the loss of some of its forward units to an Indian tactical counter-strike. The first thing to remember is that Pakistan’s first use of a nuclear weapon will break an extremely strong taboo against such use that has held in the most trying circumstances post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is now accepted as an inviolable international norm.[34]  Even China – that most brazen transgressor of international rules, has disavowed nuclear first use.  “How can an atom bomb be used irresponsibly?” asked Maozedong. “That won’t do. We can’t use it irresponsibly…To use it irresponsibly means committing a crime.”[35] Besides, it will be an unprecedented action and break the mould of contained India-Pakistan conflicts. Coming as it would, in the wake of a conflict that, going by the past record, Pakistan will have started[36] or substantively provoked, it could be calamitous for Pakistan. While such use will be intended by Pakistan as first and only use, it could turn out to be the first blow in an ostensibly limited nuclear war that is unlikely to remain limited for the simple reason that an Indian retributive strike in the circumstances will naturally go beyond the contours of “proportional” response and be manifestly punitive. China, United States, and other Western states that Pakistan is expecting to step into the imbroglio at this stage may refuse to do so. If they do get involved, they might demand an immediate termination of hostilities all right but, equally, will deem the disproportionate and hard-hitting Indian punitive retaliatory strike(s) valid, reasonable, and maintainable under international law. The violator of the nuclear taboo will have to pay the price.


     The Pakistan army could, of course, shrug off the international pressure to end the conflict, and decide to call the intruding great powers’ bluff and escalate unleashing, in the process, spiraling strikes and counter-strikes. It will prove the senior official who served in both the Nixon and Reagan Administrations right, when he likened limited nuclear war to limited pregnancy, saying “there’s no such thing”.[37]  Its great power patrons, after their futile good faith attempt, will withdraw, leaving Pakistan to its condign fate. And that’s when that little matter of a seriously adverse exchange ratio will kick in. The loss of 2-3 Indian cities and economic “value targets” will not be recompense enough for the certain extinction of Pakistan.[38] The critical question is: Will the Pakistan army place “national pride” above the nation’s survival?  Past record of pragmatic decisions suggests the Pakistan army will not allow the situation to come to this pass.




     As I have written elsewhere, “Whatever one may think of the Pakistan army, it is a professional force driven by cold calculation. If it thinks it can get away with some outré action against India, it does not hesitate to prosecute it (think Kargil). Equally, it will do an about turn and sue for ‘honorable peace’ if some adventurist action misfires (recall Pervez Musharraf’s prodding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to seek US intervention in the Kargil conflict, and his virtual mea culpa of January 12, 2002, after the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament the previous year), in order to preempt a punitive Indian response and potentially uncontrollable escalation.”[39] When the chips are down, the Pakistan army always makes the right decision and extricates itself from tight corners. Bluff, bluster, and belligerent posturing aside, the question of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, does not arise.




[1]Howard B. and Teresita C. Schaffer, “Dealing with India in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship”, Hindu, June 13, 2011.


[2] Karen DeYoung and Griff White, “Pakistan-U.S. security relationship at lowest point since 2001, officials say”, Washington Post, June 15, 2011 at


[3]Former Pakistani Ambassador, Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry writes: “Dissension, chaos and uncertainty”, which he believes have been endemic to Pakistan are, he writes “anathema to a state; when that happens, the void engenders adventurism.” See his “Setting the course right”, Daily Times, June 20, 2011.


[4]Edward Wong, “China Navy Reaches Far, Unsettling the Region”, New York Times, June 14, 2011, at


[5] For the current nuclear inclinations and trends in Asian countries, see Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy [Newport, RI, and London: Praeger Security International, 2008], ch. 1.


[6] Recently, CIA Director Leon E Panetta made an unannounced trip to Islamabad to provide evidence of ISI links with the Taliban the US is fighting in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, and to warn the Pakistan Army to cease and desist from such ties. See Elizabeth Bumiller, “CIA Director Warns Pakistan on Collusion with Militants”, New York Times, June 11, 2011 at


[7] “Taliban vow attacks on Pak govt, military”, Press Trust of India, Indian Express, June 4, 2011.


[8] Raja Menon and Lalit Mansingh, “Reaching Across the Border”, Times of India, June 20, 2011. Menon is a retired  Rear Admiral and Mansingh a former Foreign Secretary and both are participants in the officially sponsored Track-II talks.


[9] Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, 2nd edition [New Delhi, Chennai: Macmillan India Ltd, 2005, 2002], pp. 572-573.


[10] The 18th Communist Party Congress in September 2011 is expected to feature clashes  between various factions as the Fifth generation leadership, under Xi Jiping, takes charge. The fear is that the deep differences in dealing with internal dissent and equitable development could mean a hard struggle between the neo-Maoist, Bo Xilai, party secretary of the Chongqing Municipality and the Deng-ist moderate Wang Yang, party secretary from the prosperous Guangdong region. If the ultra-nationalists subsume the Maoist line. it could eventuate in aggressive policies in the neighborhood. See Bhaskar Roy, “Red Song Over China”, June 9, 2011 at; Kathryn Hille and Jamil Anderlini, “Red Alert”, Financial Times, June 3, 2011.


[11] Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp.  and Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, pp. 30-31.


[12] See Jagdamba Mall, “Vultures (sic) eye of China on Northeast Bharat”, Parts I and II, April 3, 2011 at


[13] China has a fissile material stockpile equivalent of over 1,000 weapons/warheads. And, according to SIPRI, India and Pakistan are enlarging their fissile material stocks and machining weapons, with each country’s arsenal attaining the 100 weapons/warheads threshold.  Refer “India. Pak added 20-30 N-warheads each in 2010: Study”, Times of India, June 8, 2011.


[14] For a mathematical validation of this proposition (viewed from the economic angle), see K.K. Shjak, “Competitive Analysis of the Arms Race”, Annals of Economic and Social Measurement, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1976 at


[15] Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security; pp. 563-564.


[16] Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik has called for India, as a would-be great power, to design, produce and deploy inter-continental range ballistic missiles. Refer Rahul Singh, “Air chief in favor of flexing missile power”, Hindustan Times, June 11, 2011 – a development this analyst has been urging for a long time, see Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security; pp.614-647; Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy; p. 79.


[17] Imtiaz Ahmad, “Pakistan hikes defence budget by 12%”, Hindustan Times, June 4, 2011.


[18] “China declines to build naval base in Pakistan”, Nation, June 6, 2011. For the adverse Western reaction to such Chinese involvement that will enable China to interfere with the Western oil shipping routes, see Peter Hartcher, “Best pals pact puts wind up the world”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2011.


[19]Yaawar Abbas, “Pakistan’s H Bombs”, India Today, June 20, 2011


[20] Quote in Griff  White, “Pakistan army chief: Give US military aid to civilians”, Washington Post, June 6, 2011 at


[21] Maozedong, “Nuclear Weapons Are to Scare People, Not to Use”, Sept 24, 1961 (in a meeting in Beijing with the visiting Field Marshal Montgomery) , On Diplomacy, [Beijing: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Language Press, 1st  ed., 1998], p. 365.


[22] See James J. Wirtz, “Introduction” and Lewis A. Dunn, Peter R Lavoy, Scott D. Sagan, “Conclusion: Planning the Unthinkable” in Peter R. Lavoy, Scott Douglas Sagan and James J. Wirtz, eds., Planning the Unthinkable: How New Nuclear Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons [Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2000].


[23] Lavoy has talked of India and Pakistan not gaining in “international standing and prestige”, of “the risk of India-Pakistan conventional war seem[ing] higher than ever before, and India’s relations with China hav[ing[ deteriorated”. He has also ballyhooed the “risks of inadvertent or accidental use because [of] unsophisticated nuclear command and control systems and poorly defined nuclear doctrines.” See his “The costs of nuclear weapons in South Asia”, in US Foreign Policy Agenda, [Washington: United States Information Service, September 1999]. In hindsight, everyone of these conclusions and observations  have been proved wrong, at least as regards India. Also see end-note # 21 for all the dire prognostications that have been belied.


[24]In a recent interaction with the Press, the Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony in part said:   “We know Pakistan is strengthening  its nuclear arsenal. We are also taking care [to build our arsenal]. We are not unduly worried by it because we are capable of meeting any threat…Our only worry about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is that there is always the danger of it going into the hands of militants and terrorists.”  ‘Not Pak nukes, but their vulnerability a worry’ ”, Times of India, June 11, 2011.


[25] Brigadier (ret) Farooq Hameed Khan, “Targeting Pak nukes!”, Nation, June 16, 2011.


[26] Bharat Karnad, “South Asia: The Irrelevance of Classical Nuclear Deterrence Theory”, India Review, Volume 4, Number 2, April 2005.  


[27] Bharat Karnad, “Preempting and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism” in Maroof  Raza, ed., Confronting Terrorism [New Delhi: Penguin-Viking India, 2009].


[28] Bharat Karnad, “Key to Peace in South Asia: Fostering ‘Social Links’ between the Armies of India and Pakistan”, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, No. 338, April 1996, and  Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 564-572.


[29] From my experience, this is a sensitive point with the Muslim intelligentsia in India  and especially with Muslim officers in the Indian military, who think that  raising such an issue is tantamount to questioning their loyalty and patriotism.


[30] Maozedong, “Nuclear Weapons Are to Scare People, Not to Use”, p.365


[31]Pakistan’s position on nuclear Hatf-9 first use was gleaned from a discussion on the subject principally with Defence and Army Adviser, Pakistan High Commission, Brigadier Sarfraz S. Chaudhri, and secondarily with the Naval Adviser, Pakistan High Commission, Captain Muhammad Saleem, at a recent dinner party in Delhi.


[32] Menon and Mansingh, “Reaching Across the Border”.


[33] Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, pp. 115-119.


[34] George Quester, Nuclear First Strike: Consequences of a Broken Taboo [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005].


[35] Maozedong, “Talk with Edgar Snow on Taiwan and other questions”, October 22, 1960, On Diplomacy; p. 347.


[36] Former Pakistan Air Force Chief, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, and other well known Pakistanis, military and civilian, endorse the historical record that shows Pakistan initiating all the conflicts, ranging from Kashmir in 1947 to Kargil in 1999. See Sheikh Asad Rahman, “Myths versus realities”, Daily Times, June 14, 2011.


[37]  Quote in Steven Kull, Minds of War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers [NY: Basic Books, 1986], p.120.


[38] Paul Nitze, senior staffer in the US National Security Council, in 1956 wrote that while nuclear war cannot be won, victory can be denoted by “a comparison of the post war position of one of the adversaries with the post-war position of the other adversary.  In this sense it is quite possible that in a general nuclear war one side or the other will ‘win’ decisively.” Ibid, p.83


[39] Bharat Karnad, “Rethinking Pakistan”, Asian Age, March 31, 2011.

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 Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.