Nuclear weapons are generally believed to be ‘weapons of deterrence’ rather than ‘weapons of war’. However, despite the fact that many strategic experts uphold this view, the first use of nuclear weapons was for war termination and not for the purpose of deterrence. The ability to carry out effective deterrence against the enemy is generally determined by a country’s nuclear posture or its operational nuclear doctrine.
What constitutes a country’s nuclear posture is the incorporation of a particular number of nuclear weapons into its overall military strategy and the command & control support structure, governing under what conditions these weapons might be deployed and used. Why do countries choose one nuclear posture or another? It depends a lot on how an adversary operationalizes its nuclear weapons capability.
In Pakistan, different historical and bureaucratic realities have shaped our nuclear posture and overall national security policy making. The history of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme has been marked by a heated rivalry between the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL). Originally, the primary job of the PAEC was to develop nuclear power and fuel-cycle facilities, and the KRL was created for uranium enrichment. However, the deep-seated bitterness began between the two organisations in the early 1980s when both became involved in nuclear weaponisation and missile development.
Some experts believe that this rivalry was deliberately encouraged by our military leadership to facilitate the development of the Khan network. After Pakistan conducted six underground nuclear tests in 1998, our leaderships decided to create a ‘highly centralised command structure’ in order to ensure adequate security of nuclear weapons. With this goal in mind, in February 2000, the National Command Authority (NCA) was established to oversee all nuclear and missile programmes.
The Strategic Plans Division, established as the NCA’s permanent secretariat, administers all important agencies including the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM), the Space and upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the PAEC and KRL.
Pakistan had acquired the capability to assemble a first-generation nuclear device by the late 1980s but our nuclear establishment maintained a catalytic posture until the 1998 nuclear tests. This policy involved relying on an ambiguous nuclear capability aimed at ‘catalysing’ the United States to intervene to defuse any future crisis with India. But, after 1998, Pakistan shifted to an asymmetric escalation posture because India’s aggressive nuclear posture and an uncertain relationship with the US prompted Pakistan to fully integrate nuclear forces into its military doctrine. This first-use asymmetric escalation posture made us better able to deter conflict at various levels of intensity and produce a uniform deterrent effect.
Though Pakistan wanted to acquire nuclear capability to deter Indian conventional power, nuclear deterrence was also considered a safer choice because, in the presence of nuclear weapons, no other hostile power could blackmail Pakistan with nuclear assault. This fear has dominated strategic thinking in the country after 1971 when the threat of the India launching an overwhelming conventional attack helped define a whole generation of nuclear advocates in the country.
There is a widespread consensus that Pakistan has sufficient nuclear weapons to fully operationalise an asymmetric nuclear posture, ensuring the tactical first use of nuclear weapons, with enough in reserve to survive India’s retaliatory nuclear strike. According to the latest estimates, today Pakistan is thought to have about 120 nuclear weapons, with enough fissile material to produce more than 200 nuclear warheads by 2020.
With respect to delivery vehicles, Pakistan has nuclear-capable aircrafts and both operational short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles under the aegis of respective service Strategic Forces Commands, which could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead on advancing Indian forces and several major strategic targets. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is strictly under military control and only a small circle of military officials determines Pakistan’s stockpile and targeting requirements.
Notwithstanding Pakistan chose asymmetric escalation posture because it was facing an extremely hostile regional security environment, this new orientation of our nuclear posture has, unfortunately, raised many excruciating command and control challenges for Pakistan. Our nuclear establishment’s policy of a ‘credible first-use’ has, over the years, sacrificed a certain degree of centralised control over nuclear assets, especially in crisis situations. Under extraordinary circumstances, individual commanders may tend to use nuclear weapons without any input from the higher authorities which would be catastrophic for regional and international security.
More alarmingly, this can also make our nuclear assets more vulnerable to terrorist networks operating within the country. Any such situation would quickly spiral out of control, escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. On the other hand, a number of ‘outside’ factors could also serve as catalysts for future nuclear use. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it is pretty obvious that another large-scale terrorist attack in India would bring South Asia to the brink of nuclear confrontation. In case Pakistan is overwhelmed by India in a conventional war, it will surely employ its nuclear weapons to avert defeat.
It is so far unclear if Pakistan will use short-range nuclear weapons to annihilate advancing Indian troops near our big cities. Such an attack would turn Pakistan’s densely populated agricultural heartland into a nuclear wasteland and also cause serious radiation damage to other parts of the country. This was a major reason the idea of employing these weapons against any Soviet advance was eventually abandoned by Nato countries.
The current approach of our nuclear establishment foolishly assumes that if thousands of Indian troops move into Pakistani territory, we can use these weapons against them without killing our own citizens. Pakistan should take immediate steps to eliminate tactical weapons and spend that money on uplifting the economic situation of the people than on misconceived strategies.
Our Nuclear Trajectory | Rizwan Asghar