Pakistan’s Nukes: How Much is Enough?

The time has come to question why the country needs tactical nuclear forces

Marking the anniversary of Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, Nawaz Sharif on Monday boasted of the key role he played as prime minister in bringing about this achievement.  Sharif, who now heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the main opposition party, asserted that his actions have provided an infrangible guarantee of the country’s security vis-à-vis Indian military might, thereby resolving the fundamental vulnerability that had plagued Pakistan since its tumultuous founding.  “India could have attacked Pakistan many times,” he stated, “but due to Pakistan being an atomic power, India could not gather the courage to do so.”

The impact of South Asia’s nuclearization on regional security is a subject of vigorous scholarly debate.  But Sharif’s words raise a basic policy issue: If he truly believes that the country’s defenses are now impregnable, why doesn’t he speak out against the on-going expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that is rapidly leading Islamabad away from the minimum deterrence posture it declared following the 1998 tests?  After all, if he really means what he said, this expansion is not only militarily unnecessary but also diverts precious economic resources away from more pressing national priorities.

Worries have arisen that South Asia is on the verge of a nuclear arms race that, according to U.S. intelligence experts, “has begun to take on the pace and diversity, although not the size, of U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition during the Cold War.”  Islamabad in particular has added to its armory in dramatic fashion over the past few years and is reportedly on a path to soon eclipse the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons power and to become the fourth largest by the end of the decade, overtaking France.

A 2008 U.S. intelligence assessment noted that “despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.”  It is increasing its capacity to generate plutonium and just last week reports emerged about the development of a submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile.  And over the past month it has conducted a spree of missile test-launches, including an air-launched cruise missile and a ballistic missile with a 60-kilometer range that can deliver a small, low-yield nuclear warhead designed for battlefield use.  According to media reports, the military establishment is placing an emphasis on short-range nuclear forces in order to achieve “strategic parity” with India.

So what is driving all this effort?  Despite mounting internal security challenges – including a spectacular terrorist assault upon the Pakistani army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009 – the armed forces continue to be preoccupied, almost to an excessive extent, with the conventional military balance vis-à-vis India.  General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief, regularly cites the risks posed by the Indian army’s “Cold Start” doctrine – which emphasizes the threat of large-scale but calibrated punitive actions in order to deter Pakistani adventurism.

But Kayani’s alarm is exaggerated, as Cold Start is still more of a concept than an operational reality.  Indeed, the present government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to have disowned it altogether.  Moreover, the Indian army’s condition does not inspire much confidence in its ability to carry out the doctrine even of it were assured of political support.  Military leaders reportedly told Mr. Singh in the days following the November 2008 terrorist strikes in Mumbai that the army was utterly ill prepared to go to war.  A 2009 internal assessment that the army submitted to parliament concluded that it will take some two decades for the army to gain full combat preparedness.  And in a February 2010 cable to the State Department, Timothy Roemer, the then-U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, assessed that the Cold Start strategy “may never be put to use on a battlefield because of substantial and serious resource constraints.”  More recent revelations have further underscored the army’s woeful state.

All military establishments tend to inflate the capabilities of their enemies, and the one in Rawalpindi is no exception.  But something more fundamental is at work in driving Pakistan’s nuclear buildup: the dysfunctional state of civil-military relations.  The army’s fixation on the Indian threat is rooted in large measure in a desire to perpetuate its traditional praetorian role.  An important factor, too, is the cloistered nature of the nuclear weapons complex, which not only lacks any semblance of civilian oversight but also impedes interaction with the broader military establishment.  With decision-making compartmentalized within a small coterie of officials, searching examination of the political and military utility of nuclear weapons as well as the development of sound strategies for their employment is severely constrained.

One issue that demands more rigorous scrutiny is why Pakistan is moving toward a Cold War-style strategy by acquiring a capacity to execute battlefield nuclear options against invading Indian forces.  Tactical nuclear forces might have made sense when the United States and the Soviet Union were attempting to extend their deterrence shields thousands of miles away from their national homelands.  But Pakistan needs only to deter its immediate neighbor, whose two largest population centers – Mumbai and Delhi – are within easy reach of existing Pakistani nuclear weapons.  Moreover, as I have detailed elsewhere, a minimal deterrence posture seems to have worked just fine in safeguarding Pakistani territory from Indian attack during the serious military crises in 1999 and 2001-02.

The good news is that some Pakistani leaders are starting to ask the right sort of questions.  Nawaz Sharif in the past has called for a reduction in the heavy share of the budget consumed by the military, and General Kayani recently acknowledged the need for greater balance in defense and development spending.  The current government of President Asif Ali Zardari has also managed to claw back some authority in the national security arena that previously was the sole province of the men in khaki.

Parliamentary elections are due in early 2013 and perhaps will take place as soon as this fall.  Once a new government is in place in Islamabad, it would do well to ask tough questions about the direction and scope of the nuclear weapons program.  Maybe then Pakistan can find the resources to address dire domestic needs like an increasingly wobbly fiscal situation, a chronic electrical power crisis that some experts suggest is more of a threat to stability than is terrorism, or a woefully underfunded education system that features the lowest enrollment rates in South Asia.

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