The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s nuclear poker bet

Pakistan’s nuclear poker bet

Pakistan’s "nuclear" missile flight test of the Hatf-9, or Nasr, on April 19 was billed as an answer to India’s provocative Cold Start doctrine. Cold Start calls for India to be prepared to wage limited conventional warfare — in response to Pakistani aggression or an attack from a Pakistan-based terrorist group — in fast but shallow attacks that have punitive effects but stay beneath Pakistan’s strategic nuclear threshold. It is intended as a deterrent against subconventional (terrorist) attacks originating in Pakistan. Since India and Pakistan went nuclear in close succession in May 1998, the group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has inflicted two major attacks deep in India, on India’s Parliament on December 13, 2001, and then the more spectacular and lethal assault on India’s commercial capital Mumbai in November 2008.

Although India’s operationalization of Cold Start will take some years to mature, its concepts are practiced in military exercises and Pakistani military planners take the threat seriously. They evidently believe the Nasr missile system will close a nuclear deterrence gap opened up by the Indian Army’s stated conviction that it can launch limited offensive strikes beneath Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Until now, Pakistan has counted on the credibility of its strategic arsenal and the nuclear option of "first use" to checkmate any major conventional war designs. That posture almost certainly deters India from contemplating an all-out war against Pakistan. But India’s Cold Start options – recently restyled as "proactive defense" strategies – are intended to sidestep Pakistan’s strategic nuclear deterrence.

What should be made of Pakistan’s unveiling of Nasr?  Is it really nuclear? How will it operate? If deployed, what new dangers may it harbor in its own right? What are the downsides? Does Pakistan have meaningful alternatives to a tactical nuclear deterrent?

The press release on the Nasr missile test stated:

[Nasr] has been developed to add deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges. Nasr, with a range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads [emphasis added] of appropriate yield with high accuracy, [and] shoot and scoot attributes. This quick response system addresses the need to deter evolving threats.

The statement bears Lt. Gen. (retd.) Khalid Kidwai’s name, giving it some credence, as Kidwai has supervised Pakistan’s nuclear command and control system and overseen nuclear weapons development since 1999. Publicity photos suggest the system is a two-tube adaptation of a multiple rocket launcher (MRL), possibly the Chinese A-100 type, on an eight-wheeler truck. Advanced MRL systems are capable of carrying multiple, tubes loaded with ready-to-fire rockets of about 20-foot length with diameters of 300 mm (11.8 inches) In this case the armament reportedly consists of ballistic missiles. A ballistic missile differs from a rocket by having its own guidance system and movable fins that adjust course for targeting accuracy.

Although the dimensions of the missile and launcher type have not been publicized, the adaptation of an MRL platform suggests that Pakistan may have developed or acquired nuclear warheads small enough to fit inside a missile whose diameter is barely one foot. Some technical experts are skeptical whether Pakistan has accomplished this. Pakistan probably produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for a warhead only after the May 1998 tests and is not known to have tested nuclear weapons explosively since. Plutonium allows for lighter weapons than uranium, but designing an implosion assembly with a diameter less than 12 inches is a real feat. And any professional military is averse to using untested weapons. Nevertheless, dismissing this announcement as a bluff may be imprudent.

If this system is actually nuclear and deployed in crises near the Indian border, it would likely have some deterrent effect on Indian limited war options, especially against an incursion by ground forces. Although the parallels are not exact, this initiative resembles NATO’s reliance on tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) configured as long-range artillery in the European Cold War corridor. Those systems were intended to provide a combination of invasion trip-wire (forces bound to come under attack, and coiled to respond) and battlefield nuclear warfighting functions. Since this NATO apparatus virtually guaranteed that Soviet invasion would trigger escalation to the strategic nuclear level, NATO’s TNW were believed to provide a broad-spectrum nuclear deterrence at conventional as well as strategic levels.

But in Pakistan’s case, it is unclear if this added level of nuclear deterrence is necessary or worth the risks.

First, Pakistan’s Azm-e-Nau III military exercises in 2009-10 tested new methods of employing mobile and dispersed air defenses and anti-tank systems against notional Indian forces in Cold Start-type operations. The results indicated that Pakistan’s conventional defenses alone are fully capable of repelling the quick but shallow incursions Cold Start envisages. Additionally, the Indian Army’s readiness to implement Cold Start is incomplete and moving forward at a glacial pace. India’s Air Force and Navy have not bought into it doctrinally, and the civilian government has not endorsed it as policy. Pakistan’s conventional modernization has kept pace and this will continue.

Second, the downside risks of battlefield TNW are huge. Command and control and physical security for battlefield nuclear weapons are demanding, given that this system would have to be pre-deployed and combat-ready to deter quick intrusions. Nasr also has a distinct signature (even if camouflaged), as each launcher would be accompanied by a radar-equipped command and control vehicle and probably a trans-loader vehicle (to arm and upload missiles into launcher tubes), inviting preemptive conventional air attack. Nuclear-equipped Nasr systems anywhere close to the front lines will also pose the classical "use them or lose them" dilemma. They may be sucked into conventional warfighting and start the nuclear escalation spiral if easily available.

Third, Cold Start threats could be reversed by the power that Pakistan leaders almost certainly have to turn off the subconventional warfare threat posed by groups like LeT, which is commonly regarded as a Pakistani government proxy. Cold Start’s appeal is its promise to deter terrorist activities once focused in Kashmir but that have gone deep into India’s heartland since 2001. Accordingly, Cold Start posturing would fold up fast if the provocation of subconventional warfare ceased. Obviously this does not mean peace would break out all over, and Pakistan surely would continue to maintain its conventional defenses and strategic deterrent for the foreseeable future. But the risks of conventional war and nuclear escalation would be reduced on Pakistan’s eastern front, and stability would have a chance to take hold and widen, if the terrorist threat to India was removed from the equation

U.S. diplomacy since the 1998 nuclear tests has urged strategic restraint on both India and Pakistan, aided by mutual strategic dialogue to reduce the chances of catastrophic mishap. Unfortunately, official India-Pakistan dialogue on strategic issues has never taken off. Unofficial bilateral discussions have considered such ideas as a mutual ban on nuclear-capable short-range missile systems as an obvious strategic stability measure. Taking this construct up officially would seem to be a far wiser course of action than going in for battlefield nuclear weapons.

Rodney W. Jones is President of Policy Architects International and a long-standing commentator on nuclear and regional security issues in Asia and the Middle East.