Pakistan’s Misguided Nuclear Sign

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Pakistan’s Misguided Nuclear Sign

Pakistan’s test-firing of the Hatf 9 missile was likely conducted with India in mind. It will only increase instability.

On April 19, Pakistan conducted a successful test-firing of the Hatf 9, a new short-range ballistic missile that’s meant to be added to its fast expanding nuclear arsenal. A surface-to-surface, low-yield battlefield weapon, it’s designed to inflict damage on mechanized forces such as armed brigades and divisions. This was the third such test-firing this year, following the testing of the Hatf 2 (range 180 kilometres) in March and the Hatf 7 or Babur (long-range cruise missile)  in February.

It’s no secret that since their nuclear tests in 1998, India and Pakistan have been engaged in operationalizing their nuclear deterrents. This has involved the creation of a stockpile of nuclear warheads, testing and deployment of missiles—especially those with greater reliability, range and accuracy—and the establishment of respective robust and survivable command and control systems.

Not surprisingly, the clearest evidence of these steps has been the periodic testing of missiles. Starting out with short-range (less than 200 kilometres) and liquid-fuelled missiles such as the Prtihvis in the case of India, and the Hatf 1 and 2 in the case of Pakistan, both countries have developed and deployed longer range and solid-fuelled missiles as the mainstays of their deterrence. Variants of the Agni series for India and the Ghaznavi, Shaheen and the Ghauri for Pakistan are now considered as credible delivery vectors.

It had been speculated that with the deployment of longer ranges and solid-fuelled missiles, both countries would eventually cut their dependence on short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) given their geographic proximity and the awkward territorial disputes. The reality is that SRBMs tend to hinder strategic stability and typically add to thedangers of miscalculation or unauthorized launch,especially in times of crisis.

Better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities would enable bothsides to quickly pick up any signs of missiles being prepared, something that can be extremely dangerous in a crisis situation, especially since India-Pakistan relations are so severely affected by the role of proxy actors operating from (and many argue at the behest) of Pakistan. All this means that mutual acceptance of the removal of SRBMs from a nuclear role would likely be extremely conducive for bilateral strategic stability.

But back to the Hatf 9. What is it for? It has been claimed that the missile is meant as a response to the possibility of an Indian conventional attack through integrated battle groups of infantry and mechanized elements utilizing rapid thrusts into Pakistani territory. Indeed, with the latest test-firing of a missile of a range no more than 60 kilometres, Pakistan has signalled that it does perceive the SRBM as an important tool of coercive diplomacy and as a weapon for use against counterforce targets.

However, this view tends to ignore the fact that even such first-use of a nuclear weapon, however small its yield, would invoke a nuclear retaliation from the Indian side. Indeed, the Indian nuclear doctrine—premised on retaliation only after first-use by the adversary—is based around the retaliation being massive, irrespective of the yield or target chosen by the adversary.  

The Hatf 9, then, will only add to crisis instability while being of little use for enhancing the credibility of Pakistan’s deterrence. Nuclear weapons are extremely ill-suited for war-fighting, something that has been proven time and again.