It is in India’s interest to work multilaterally with other global powers to eliminate battlefield nuclear weapons. Its continuance, rather than preventing conflict, is the perfect recipe for a nuclear Armageddon.

General Khalid Kidwai, who headed the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority for 15 long years, laid out the doctrinal basis of Pakistan’s nuclear program during an expansive interaction in Washington, DC, last year.

The General said that the rationale for developing tactical nuclear weapons, including the nuclear missile Nasr, that has a range of 37 miles, is to respond to India’s Cold Start doctrine. The ostensive Cold Start doctrine that has not been officially acknowledged by India envisages a blitzkrieg of a number of armoured battle groups simultaneously attacking Pakistan after being mobilised in 48 to 72 hours. Clearly, conceding the asymmetry between conventional forces of India and Pakistan, he preached that battlefield nuclear weapons would deter India from probing for gaps in Pakistani nuclear deterrence to find space for a conventional war under a nuclear overhang. (After the Kargil War, a theory was propounded by Indian strategists that there is space for a conventional war with Pakistan despite the nuclear equation. That is the rationale that Pakistan extends for battlefield nuclear weapons to stop Cold Start.) If strategic nuclear weapons had kept the peace for four decades in South Asia since 1971, tactical weapons would only perpetuate it further he argued.

He further delineated that the logic of the Shaheen-III nuclear missiles, that have a range of 2,750 kilometres, was to knock out India’s second-strike capability even if it was located on the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. It would neutralise India’s bluster by conveying that any use of nuclear weapons of any kind would invite massive retaliation. He also acknowledged that Pakistan was well on its way to developing a submarine-based nuclear capability as a second strike option, thereby completing the nuclear triad.

Gen. Kidwai was rather candid in implicitly acknowledging that Pakistan uses terrorist organisations as an instrument of state policy, though he blamed the Kashmir and Afghanistan bogey that Pakistan keeps raising to try and justify its actions.

Before contemplating the implications of these grandiloquent pronouncements, it would be worth recapitulating that Pakistan’s nuclear program emerged as a consequence of the liberation of East Pakistan as the independent nation of Bangladesh. The Pakistani establishment was mortally petrified that if India could dismember their country in two, tomorrow they may split what remained into four. Goaded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani nuclear establishment — led by the proliferator A.Q. Khan — stole nuclear technology from around the world and succeeded in developing an indigenous capability.

It did not take them long to threaten India. In 1990, the United States picked up intelligence that Pakistan was on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons, prompting the then US deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates, to travel to both Islamabad and New Delhi to urge restraint. Both countries and the dramatis persona involved denied that this was the case. But then, given that neither Pakistan or India declares how many weapons do they have, that was expected. It would be relevant to remember that India had conducted a peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, when Pakistan’s capabilities were still shrouded in secrecy.

In May 1998, all that changed when both India and Pakistan set off a series of nuclear explosions, freezing the power balance in South Asia into perpetuity. It has never been dissected whether from India’s perspective those tests made strategic sense as they allowed Pakistan’s nuclear program to crawl out of the woodwork and blunt the conventional advantage India had. To even suggest an evaluation is considered blasphemy. The contra argument is, of course, that it merely converted the de facto into de jure.

Indian Nuclear Missile delivery platforms

Coming back to the present, what does Pakistan’s policy of full spectrum deterrence mean for the stability of South Asia and, more specifically, the security of India? To start with, the development of battlefield-level nuclear weapons and their intermixing with conventional weapons raises the risk of nuclear war, overextended command and control systems leading to oversight, the possibility of a nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands and the spectre of foolish adventurism by an overzealous combat commander increases exponentially.

It, therefore, is in India’s interest to work multilaterally with other global powers to eliminate battlefield nuclear weapons. Its continuance, rather than preventing conflict, is the perfect recipe for a nuclear Armageddon.

Specifically, how must India deal with Shaheen-III and other such capabilities that threaten to counteract India’s massive retaliation philosophy? Should India seriously consider revisiting its “no first use” policy given the ominous developments in the neighbourhood? What would be its implication qua China that has a similar no first use principle? India’s nuclear deterrent is both a hedge against China as well as Pakistan and the Indian nuclear military program was a response to Chinese tests at Lop Nur commencing on October 16, 1964.

The other option is to engage bilaterally with the Pakistanis on nuclear issues. Would that be interpreted as a sign of weakness on the part of India or an acknowledgement of a reality that has to be managed? At the height of the Cold War, there was a regular interaction between the strategic force commanders of the United States and the erstwhile USSR. Notwithstanding the “mutually assured destruction” doctrine, missile-flying time between the two Cold War adversaries provided a sliver of space to ascertain a launch and interdict it.

However, the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba stood the mutually assured destruction doctrine on its head because Cuba is a mere 90 miles from American mainland. If one reviews the literature of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when the US and the USSR were a heartbeat away from a nuclear exchange, what is alarming are the number of dangerous moments catalogued in those 13 days. They range from Soviet submarine commanders calibrating a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness to American pilots possessing the ability to drop their thermo-nuclear weapons without seeking a green signal from the ground. The reason why this predicament is germane to India and Pakistan is not only because we are immediate neighbours, but because missile flying time may be three minutes or less.

It, therefore, is important that despite the “off and on talks” between India and Pakistan there must be a full spectrum uninterrupted dialogue on nuclear issues between the two. Confidence building measures with regard to the efficacy of command and control systems is an inexorable imperative. The margin of error is non-existent to prevent a nuclear apocalypse.

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