By Pervez Hoodbhoy
October 31st, 2015
That Pakistan may first use nuclear weapons in a future war with India was announced last week by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry. Coming just two days before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Oct 22 visit to Washington, this could be considered a reiteration of the army’s well-known stance. But, significantly it came from the Foreign Office rather than GHQ or Strategic Plans Division. Coming from both ends of the power spectrum, this confirms that Pakistan has drastically shifted its nuclear posture.
In the late 1980s, Pakistan had viewed nuclear weapons very differently; they were the last-ditch means to deter a possible nuclear attack by India. But Pakistan now says it intends to use low-yield nuclear bombs, also called tactical nuclear weapons, to forestall the possible advance of Indian troops into Pakistan under India’s ‘Cold Start’ operational doctrine.
Floated by Gen Deepak Kapoor in 2010, Cold Start calls for cutting Pakistan into “salami slices” as punishment for hosting yet another Mumbai-style terrorist attack inside India. It assumes that this limited action would not provoke a nuclear exchange. India strenuously denies that such a doctrine is official or that it has been made operational.
This denial cut no ice across the border. In 2011 a successful test of the Nasr “shoot and scoot” short-ranged missile was announced by ISPR, the Pakistan military’s official voice. Ensconced inside a multiple-barrelled mobile launcher the four 60-kilometre-range missiles are said to be tipped with nuclear warheads each roughly one-tenth the size of a Hiroshima-sized weapon. Pakistan says these tactical weapons will not destabilise the current balance or pose significant command and control problems, a claim that many believe as incorrect.
At the end both India and Pakistan would win, having taught the other a terrible lesson.
Pakistan is not the first country tempted by nuclear force multipliers. Nor, as claimed by ISPR, is making small warheads a significant technical feat. In fact in the 1950s the Americans had developed even smaller ones with sub-kiloton yields, and placed them on the Davy Crockett recoilless guns deployed at forward positions along the Turkey-USSR border. The nuclear shell, with a blast yield that would be dialled as required, could be fired by just two infantrymen. This was a tempting alternative to artillery but the Americans were eventually unnerved by the prospect of two soldiers setting off a nuclear war on their own initiative. The weapon was withdrawn and decommissioned after a few years.
Wars are fought to be won, not to be lost. So how will Pakistan’s new weapons help us win a war? This fundamental question is never even touched. But let us assume their use in a post Mumbai-II scenario. For every (small) mushroom cloud on Pakistani territory, roughly a dozen or more Indian main battle tanks and armoured vehicles would be destroyed. After many mushrooms, the invasion would stop dead in its tracks and a few thousand Indian troops would be killed. Pakistan would decisively win a battle.
But then what? With the nuclear threshold crossed for the first time since 1945, India would face one of two options: to fight on or flee. Which it will choose is impossible to predict because much will depend upon the extant political and military circumstances, as well as the personalities of the military and political leaders then in office.
Official Indian policy calls for massive retaliation. In 2013, reacting officially to Pakistan, Shyam Saran, the head of the National Security Advisory Board (the apex body concerned with security matters) declared that, “India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective”.
Simply stated: whether struck by a micro-nuke or mini-nuke or city-buster, and whether on its own soil or outside its borders, India says it will consider itself under nuclear attack and react accordingly.
This is plain stupid. It violates the principle of proportionate retaliation and pushes aside the barriers to hell. But could the NSAB be bluffing? It may be that if push comes to shove, India will not actually launch its large nuclear weapons. The sensible instinct of self-preservation might somehow prevail, and the subcontinent live to see another morning.
More likely is that in the heat of the moment, reckless passions will rage and caution will take a backseat. A tit-for-tat exchange could continue until every single weapon, small and large, is used up on either side. It is difficult to imagine how any war termination mechanism could work even if, by some miracle, the nuclear command and control centres remain intact. At the end both India and Pakistan would win, having taught the other a terrible lesson. But neither would remain habitable.
The subcontinent’s military and political leaders are not the first to believe that a nuclear war can remain limited, and perhaps even won. President Reagan puzzled over the possibility of Armageddon, uncertain whether or not God was commanding him to destroy earth or to leave it in His hands. Allen Dulles, the first CIA director, had repeatedly railed against the stupidity of those Americans, “who draw an ‘artificial’ distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons and cannot realise that atomic bombs should be treated like bullets”.
Tactical nukes will not make Pakistan more secure. This dangerous programme should be immediately abandoned. Nukes may win a battle for us but at the cost of losing Pakistan. Instead our security lies in ensuring that Pakistan’s territory is not used for launching terror attacks upon our neighbours. We must explicitly renounce the use of covert war to liberate Kashmir — a fact hidden from none and recently admitted to by Gen Musharraf.
As for India: your security depends upon adopting a less belligerent attitude towards Pakistan, stopping a menacing military build-up that is spooking all your neighbours, and realising that respect is earned through economic rather than military strength.
These are tall orders for both countries. Any optimism is currently unwarranted.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore.