Nuclear bluster or dialogue?

Dr Maleeha Lodhi
Tuesday, May 28, 2013 From Print Edition The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

What should be made of a distinguished former Indian foreign secretary‟s assertions about his country‟s nuclear posture and policy? In a speech last month in Delhi, Shyam Saran made several pronouncements about the evolution of India‟s nuclear policy and the current status of its nuclear deterrent. He cast these remarks as his personal views. But Saran is current chairman `of India‟s National Security Advisory Board. Many in India and outside saw his statements as articulating official policy on a sensitive issue, while maintaining deniability. The Times of India, for example, said Saran was “placing on record India‟s official nuclear posture with the full concurrence of the highest levels of nuclear policymakers in Delhi”. And Islamabad asked Delhi for an official clarification. Saran‟s assertions merit careful consideration. It is not surprising that he is irked by “adulatory remarks” in “Western literature” about the safe and secure custody of Pakistan‟s nuclear assets by the „Strategic Planning Group‟ (presumably he means the Strategic Plans Division). Insisting this is unmerited as the military has stewardship of these assets, Saran overlooks the fact that it is the National Command Authority headed by the prime minister that is Pakistan‟s apex nuclear authority. Saran also disapproves of the international community‟s growing acknowledgement of the security-driven nature of Pakistan‟s nuclear programme. He strains to explain that India‟s nuclear capability is security not prestige-driven – an explanation that has come four decades too late. However, the most consequential part of his speech for Pakistan‟s security policymakers is where he presents a scenario that culminates with India engaging in “massive nuclear retaliation” against Pakistan. He posits an escalatory ladder that presumably starts with a sub-conventional event or terrorist attack, after which Pakistan tries to

dissuade India from carrying out punitive conventional retaliation, by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons. India responds by using strategic weapons. Saran warns that any nuclear attack – whether by strategic or tactical weapons – would be met by “massive retaliation” from India. This will be “designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary”. “Any nuclear exchange once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level”. “Pakistan”, he declares, should “be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons”. Several of Saran‟s assumptions are open to question. First there is a presumption that Pakistan‟s decision to develop battlefield nuclear weapons represents a nuclear war fighting option. Official spokesmen have repeatedly said that Pakistan regards the surface-to-surface solid fuel-based Hatf IX (Nasr), or any additional battlefield weapon that may subsequently be developed, as primarily weapons of deterrence. Their purpose is to reinforce deterrence and restore nuclear stability that has been disturbed by i) growing conventional asymmetry in the region as India‟s military build-up continues; ii) provocative Indian military doctrines that aim to bring conventional military offensives to a tactical level and iii) India‟s development of ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems, whose purpose is to neutralise Pakistan‟s strategic capabilities. As for Saran‟s claim that “significant shifts” in Pakistan‟s nuclear posture have altered the regional nuclear equation, the fact is that Islamabad remains committed to its nuclear policy of achieving credible nuclear deterrence at the lowest practical level. The central tenet of its nuclear policy is for its capability to be maintained for the purpose of deterrence against aggression and war-prevention in all its manifestations, thereby preserving peace. Pakistan also believes that credible deterrence requires appropriate levels of conventional and nuclear capabilities to be developed and maintained. Most importantly Saran‟s escalatory scenario lays bare an underlying frustration that India‟s Cold Start Doctrine, now known as “proactive operations”, has been challenged

if not blunted by Pakistan‟s TNW response. That is why this emerges as the main thrust of his remarks and leads him to depict TNWs as “nuclear blackmail” by Pakistan. In doing so he also reaffirms the Indian intent to preserve the limited war option and prevent Cold Start from being rendered irrelevant. That Saran believes that India can or should consider a punitive war against its nuclear neighbour in retaliation for an act of terror carried out by a non-state actor is disconcerting enough. But he then warns that if Pakistan tried to deter an Indian conventional attack by its TNWs, India would retaliate with nuclear weapons. This represents dangerous thinking. But the strategic hole in Saran‟s escalatory scenario is this. In holding out the threat of “massive retaliation” he fails to factor in Pakistan‟s full spectrum capabilities to counter “massive retaliation” not to speak of its potent second strike capability. It is surprising why this typical but dangerous Mutually Assured Destruction scenario has not been carefully thought through to its logical conclusion. One interpretation of why Saran has focused attention on TNWs and declared a “massive retaliation” Indian response is that this seeks to play on Western fears about the risks of inducting battlefield nuclear weapons and the nuclear danger this could expose the region to. This may be designed to galvanise international pressure on Pakistan to abandon the TNW option. In the unlikely event that this were to happen it would „restore‟ Cold Start and re-establish India‟s conventional military edge over Pakistan. The rationale for Pakistan‟s decision to pursue a TNW capability is well known. It bears repetition to understand why there appears to be mounting Indian frustration with this development as indicated by Saran‟s speech. Pakistan perceived a number of rapid developments in the past decade to adversely affect the region‟s strategic equilibrium established after the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by both countries. They included the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and the NSG exemption under which India was enabled to conclude fuel supply agreements with many countries. These significantly enhanced India‟s ability to expand its strategic arsenal and in turn altered Pakistan‟s security calculations.

Meanwhile, the new Indian military doctrine and efforts to develop BMD, which came on the back of these developments, became game-changers. The effort to find space for limited conventional engagement below the nuclear threshold impelled Pakistan to seek a response at the tactical level in the nuclear domain. In trying to call Pakistan‟s „nuclear bluff‟ by operationalising proactive war-fighting strategies, these Indian moves urged Pakistan to develop TNWs to deter Cold Start and re-establish nuclear stability. By adding another layer to the country‟s deterrence capability Hatf IX aimed to close the gap at the operational and tactical level. Against this backdrop what Saran now seems to be signalling is that if Pakistan thinks it can deter limited conventional war by tactical nuclear weapons then India too has options and can use strategic weapons in “massive retaliation”. This makes little strategic sense but it is dangerous talk in a situation where there is a delicate balance in a strategic relationship that remains undefined between the nuclear neighbours. Nuclear powers do not define their relations by threats or bluster. The only answer to new and old dilemmas created by the region‟s nuclearisation is for both nations to engage seriously and constructively to build a better understanding of each other‟s nuclear policy, doctrines and postures. This means advancing the nuclear dialogue with the aim of putting in place credible and meaningful confidence building measures in both the strategic and conventional military spheres. The glacial progress on CBMs in expert-level talks over the past decade underscores the need to step up that effort. Indian officials have generally been dismissive about Pakistan‟s proposal for a Strategic Restraint Regime. This has three interlocking ele ments designed to achieve strategic stability – measures for nuclear restraint, conventional military balance and resolution of disputes. Even if Delhi finds it difficult to accept the linkage between these components of strategic stability, the separate proposals tabled in these areas are worthy of consideration.

The two countries have a mutual interest in stabilising their nuclear relationship. The way forward is not by ill-thought nuclear signalling but in engaging substantively to narrow the perception gaps and address the issues that lie at the root of both countries‟ security predicaments and the region‟s nuclearisation.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful