Time for Pakistan to Change its Nuclear Strategy: Experts
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Time for Pakistan to Change its Nuclear Strategy: Experts


Pakistan should change its nuclear strategy if it wants to be accepted as a normal nuclear state, scholars told an audience at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank Thursday.

Pakistan, which is currently one of just five states outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has sought to be viewed as a “normal” state within the nuclear order, as evidenced by is quest for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and a civil nuclear deal similar to the one accorded to India.

But Michael Krepon and Toby Dalton, both former U.S. policymakers who worked on nuclear issues with expertise on South Asia, argued that the only conceivable strategy to accomplish this would be adopting bold nuclear weapons-related initiatives to clarify its commitment to the global nuclear order and allay concerns that its nuclear practices are a major source of danger on the subcontinent.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“These kinds of steps would show that it is willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” Dalton, who was formerly an attaché at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at an event launching a new report at the Stimson Center.

Pakistan’s present course, both scholars note in the report, seen by The Diplomat, is currently not consistent with its objective of becoming a normal nuclear state. Pakistan is already outcompeting India in the nuclear realm, with Islamabad operating four plutonium production reactors (to New Delhi’s one) and possessing the capability to produce around 20 nuclear warheads annually (to India’s five). Continued or escalated nuclear competition with India in the coming decades would not only be costly for Pakistan and constrain its economic development, but run contrary to nonproliferation norms at a time when Islamabad is seeking to be mainstreamed.

“Pakistan wants to be viewed as a normal nuclear state. But it’s not normal for an economically weak state to make 20 nuclear weapons a year,” Krepon, who worked on arms control during the Carter administration before going on to co-found the Stimson Center, said.

The authors recommended a different approach. In their view, Pakistan’s military leadership should instead choose to accept success in achieving a “strategic” deterrent against India instead of striving for “full spectrum” deterrence which will fail to deter India to a greater extent, not help Pakistan address its domestic challenges, and complicate Islamabad’s efforts to join the mainstream. Pakistan should also commit to a recessed deterrence posture and limit production of short-range delivery vehicles and tactical nuclear weapons, and separate civilian from military nuclear facilities.

“Pakistan doesn’t need full spectrum dominance…it can declare victory at this point,” Dalton said.

The authors also call on Pakistan to take further initiatives that will illustrate its commitment to the global nuclear order and help proactively shape the criteria for membership in the NSG. These include lifting Pakistan’s veto on Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) negotiations and reduce or stop fissile material production, as well as inking the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) without waiting for India to do so first. Pakistan already has plenty of highly-enriched uranium “and it doesn’t need more,” Dalton said. As for testing, he argued that if Islamabad is convinced that strategic deterrence works, the utility of further tests would be quite limited.

“If it is confident in its strategic deterrence, then it need not test in the future,” Dalton said.

Both experts admitted that these initiatives would be difficult ones to take and there would be significant resistance to them. Getting to these proposals would require moving away from the worst-case scenario assumptions often inherent in military planning, and changing a military narrative already build around “full spectrum” deterrence – neither of which will be easy. Furthermore, he noted that the FMCT and the CTBT also have “historical baggage” and are often seen “in neocolonial terms” in some ways.

“This is really hard for them to do,” Krepon added.

But they also said that the report had in some ways carefully accounted for some of these challenges. With respect to the CTBT, for instance, while the authors call on Islamabad to sign it, Krepon noted that it will still be able to hold off on ratify it until India inks it too, and if New Delhi does resume testing, Pakistan can leave and began testing too. Meanwhile, on the FMCT, Dalton said that Pakistan’s commitment may not have an immediate material impact since negotiations may drag on for decades.

More broadly, as the report contends, the authors view their approach as it offers greater national security, diplomatic standing, and economic growth for Pakistan more so than its present course. They also contended that given the advances India is making in its push for admission to the NSG in 2016, the window for Pakistan’s mainstreaming into the global nuclear order is also closing. That further strengthens the case for Islamabad to undertake proactive initiatives instead of just reacting to what New Delhi does.

“We are turning this on its head and asking our Pakistani colleagues to take the lead,” Krepon said. “You get more leverage paradoxically going first rather than going second,” he said.

Asked by The Diplomat about the extent to which they thought some of these initiatives would be adopted and under what circumstances based on their conversations with interlocutors in Pakistan, both scholars said it was difficult to assess the prospects based on the limited access they had been given. Dalton noted that trends over the past few years have been against the proactive approach they are pushing for, while Krepon said there have been some changes in Pakistan’s strategic calculus in a number of areas, which suggests that shifts in the nuclear area may be possible further down the line as well.

“The nature of the think tank business is you plant seeds and you are never sure which ones will grow,” he added.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief