October of last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Many Asian policymakers will read the lessons of that harrowing episode with some self-satisfaction.
When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear weapon tests in 1998, foreign analysts repeatedly told them that, as poor countries with weak institutions, they could not be entrusted with such awesome weaponry. Nascent nuclear powers were simply less reliable stewards than their Cold War counterparts. Over a decade on, and multiple crises later — Kargil in 1999, a military standoff in 2001-2, and the Mumbai attacks of 2008 — India and Pakistan have experienced nothing quite as perilous as the Cuban scare.
U.S. officials claim that Pakistan readied nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict without the knowledge of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But, even at the height of their crises neither India nor Pakistan have attempted, as the U.S. did in 1962, anything quite as foolish as depth-charging nuclear-armed submarines or scrambling aircraft equipped with nuclear air-to-air missiles towards hostile airspace. The dawn of Asia’s nuclear age has been calmer than that of Europe, and far calmer than the nuclear alarmists predicted.
But, as Paul Bracken and others have warned, we should not get complacent. When India tested its Agni-V missile in April, I and others raised a number of potential issues: Indian scientists were making cavalier statements of nuclear posture best left to political leaders, and the development of multiple warheads for each missile (known as MIRVs) and missile defense technology could all be destabilizing if not handled extremely carefully. India has legitimate deterrence requirements vis-a-vis China, but it would be counterproductive for this to become an open-ended expansion.
Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory is, however, altogether more worrying.
This issue is usually framed in terms of numbers. Pakistan possesses what is thought to be the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world and if present trends continue, could equal or surpass Britain’s stockpile within a decade. So far, the Western world has viewed this expansion as a nonproliferation issue, not a security one. But, over the longer-term, that could change. As a recent report from the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium noted, “EU members might have military facilities within reach of Pakistani longer-range missiles … or temporary bases and personnel” and, “in the case of a deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with the West, this could be a subject of concern.” Pakistan is free to dismiss European and American anxieties, but this will only reinforce the country’s longer-term isolation.
There is also a second, more serious concern. Pakistan is developing a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) that target not Indian cities, but Indian military formations on the battlefield. The purpose of these, as former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi explained in November, is “to counterbalance India’s move to bring conventional military offensives to a tactical level.” The idea is that smaller nuclear weapons, used on Pakistani soil, would stop invading Indian forces in their tracks.
The rise of tactical nuclear weapons has been well documented over the past two years. What has received less scrutiny, however, is the doctrine on which this rise has been based. Pakistan’s nuclear advocates make the case that their approach is no different than NATO’s Cold War nuclear posture towards the Soviet Union, and like NATO is the inevitable result of a conventionally weaker country trying to negate its more powerful adversaries’ conventional advantage. But the problem is that this comparison misses some key facts.
First, NATO never intended to physically block a Soviet invasion with tactical nuclear weapons. By the 1960s, it had become clear that NATO would still lose even if it unleashed nukes. This goes for Pakistan too. According to one calculation, it would take up to 436 Pakistani nuclear weapons just to halt a single Indian armored division — a clearly absurd number, that leaps higher still if one assumes lower yield weapons and more dispersed Indian formations. Moreover, as Michael Krepon recently wrote, “Pakistan lacks the real-time surveillance capabilities to destroy [moving] armored columns, except where they are funneling into bridge crossings of water barriers.”
Second, NATO came to understand that tactical nuclear use would devastate the countries supposedly being defended. As the saying went, “the shorter the [nuclear] range, the deader the Germans.” Substitute “Punjabis” for “Germans”, and you have a clearer idea of the problem. The key insight is that NATO’s focus was on using nuclear weapons to send political signals — namely, to signal resolve with actions short of a strategic nuclear exchange — not to win on the battlefield. This distinction tends to be lost in discussions of Pakistan.
Third, tactical nuclear weapons are understood to be especially credible precisely because their forward deployment makes them so vulnerable. NATO, aware of this “use them or lose them” dilemma, pre-delegated launch authority for at least some of its tactical nuclear weapons — specifically, atomic demolition munitions — in Germany in the late 1950s.
There is some evidence that Pakistan has or will soon follow suit. In 2005, for instance, Feroz Hassan Khan, a senior official in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), explained that “partial pre-delegation” of weapons would be an “operational necessity because dispersed nuclear forces as well as central command authority … are vulnerable.” The SPD is widely admired for its professionalism, but pre-delegation inevitably dilutes command and control of nuclear weapons, however competent officials might be.
The differences between NATO in the 1950s and Pakistan in the 2010s should be obvious. Despite Germany’s Cold War problems with domestic terrorism, and occasionally questionable base security in NATO countries, it was hardly as if the Rhineland was wracked with jihadists. NATO’s military officers were also unquestionably under the command of elected civilian leaders.
Fourth, and finally, NATO’s reliance on tactical nuclear weapons was short-lived. After 1979, the Alliance withdrew more and more of these weapons from Europe. In fact, from 1980 to 1990 NATO removed a third of its nuclear weapons from Europe, much of this coming in the early part of the decade when the USSR was unveiling a new offensive military doctrine (ironically, elements of which are echoed in India’s Cold Start army doctrine today). But NATO felt able to do this because its conventional military capabilities were improving, thanks to Western technological superiority over the Russians.
Pakistan, by contrast, is conventionally falling behind in terms of military spending and technology. The gap between Indian and Pakistani military spending continues to grow. This suggests that Pakistan will continue to emphasize tactical nuclear weapons, which will entrench the risks laid out here. To be sure, India has also shown an interest in short-range nuclear-capable missiles (for instance, the Prahaar), but with nowhere near the same enthusiasm, and in a context in which Indian civilians are wary to entrusting the armed forces with such weapons in an operational context.
The Pakistani military argues that it needs to defend against India’s Cold Start. But Cold Start — itself of questionable feasibility — is about shallow incursions, hardly comparable to nation-threatening Soviet thrusts to the Atlantic. As the nuclear historian George Perkovich recently wrote, “the willingness to risk a breakdown in nuclear deterrence would only be rational if the threat that is being countered or deterred is of an existential scale. To risk suicide to redress a threat that is not itself mortal would be irrational.” A state cannot just choose to costlessly re-define all lesser threats as mortal ones. Simply reducing the nuclear threshold lower and lower is an unsustainable and unnecessary strategy, and can make it more rather than less likely that deterrence will fail in the event of a crisis.
Pakistan already has sufficient numbers and types of nuclear weapons to ensure its survival, and, like NATO before it, to send political signals through limited nuclear use even if a war does break out. Yet Pakistan’s present course, premised on a series of misunderstandings of tactical nuclear weapons, will increase friction with those nations who count themselves allies of Pakistan and generate new risks quite out of proportion to anything the country might gain.
Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute.