by Zahir Kazmi
Hatf-IX (Nasr) missile test on April 19th brings two critical security issues into focus and these are the utility of so-called tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) for deterrence and the concept of deterrence itself. Our use of Cold War literature and related lexicon in South Asian thinking is like carrying the latest map of New York to find our way in Rawalpindi’s maze. It gets you nowhere. Let me explain why.
With the new START in force and in the spirit of Lisbon Treaty, ambassadors from 10 European countries submitted a non-paper to NATO’s Secretary General on April 14th. They sought increased transparency and confidence with regard to TNWs in Europe. Their basic argument is flawed as there is nothing tactical about nuclear weapons.
Even after five decades since the so-called TNWs stirred the European teacup, their leaders are still trying to develop a common understanding of the role that these weapons play in the strategic doctrines of NATO and the Russian Federation for further reductions after new START and their ultimate elimination. It’s a haunting issue because they were unmindful in accepting American nuclear weapons on their soil and didn’t realise that the word ‘tactical’ was probably used to make these politically palatable.
The advent of nukes and delivery systems changed the nature of warfare. Are nukes tactical or strategic? The answer – like beauty – lies in the eye of the beholder. The genie called TNW implies short-range, low destructive-yield weapons that can be used in battlefield against forces. Conversely, the strategic nuclear weapons are long-range, high-yield and are designed to destroy cities and strategic installations. In a way strategic weapons made the soldier on the front line safer than his family back home.
The short range-low yield weapons are ‘tactical’ for the Americans and Russians because their own forces and cities are not affected. There are about 350 American TNWs in Europe, down from thousands during Cold War’s peak. The poor Europeans demand transparency concerning numbers, types, locations, command arrangements, operational status, and level of storage security. Their nightmare is increased by Russian insistence to train their TNWs on Europeans till the US keeps them and till Moscow perceives a threat from American ballistic missile defence shield in Europe.
Nuclear weapons are ‘strategic’ only once their destructive power, reach and political fallout affect the states that created the related lexicon. Like Europeans, the unsuspecting Asians use Cold War gospels – no matter how inadequate – to judge their peculiar security issues. Hence the debate gets skewed and the decisions go awry too. South Asians, for instance, have increased the complexities of abstract concept of deterrence by adding prefixes like credible-minimum and minimum-credible – though with good measure in some ways.
Why is it that while the West ‘appears’ to draw down its nuclear warheads and conventional forces, opposite is true for South Asia? Realpolitik offers four simple explanations. West is slowly shifting to economic and military alliances for its own benefit and also against rising Chinese power and resurging Russia. If their military industrial complex has to remain in business, it needs big markets like India. Thanks to the legacy of British rule South Asia is inimically prone to crisis because it has unsettled disputes, which if settled may send some weapons industry out of business. Finally, the China-containment policy coincides with Western mercantilist interests and thus motivates them to “franchise” their deterrence requirement to India. Propping up India stirs the South Asian power balance and brings Pakistan into equation.
Pakistan is the major non-NATO and also the major disenchanted US ally and both seem tied to the hip for latter’s interest in Afghanistan. While US wants a strong Pakistan, it also desires to strengthen India vis-à-vis China while maintaining a relationship with both on their own merit. Hypothetically, its America’s sovereign right to cultivate relations at the level it wants to but once its allies have bilateral issues-maintaining neutrality becomes a pipe dream.
The US has ended up creating apartheid against Pakistan by allowing India entry into export control cartels and lifting space technology related sanctions. This has rung alarms in Pakistan and compelled it to plug holes in doctrinal and military asymmetries with India. Consequently, developmental work in Pakistan takes a back seat and energies are diverted to address the imposed security dilemma.
Pakistan’s April 19th test of Hatf-IX (Nasr) is largely being viewed as the latest measure to foreclose India’s proactive Cold Start Doctrine (CSD). It is characterised by swift surgical strikes as part of evolving limited war concept without crossing Islamabad’s nuclear threshold. The test is destabilising if seen with US-Russia rivalry paradigm. But can that map be used to chart India-Pakistan territory?
Few dub this 60 km range nuclear capable missile as TNW and a shift in targeting policy from counter-value to counter-force. That means Pakistan has shifted from the popular western conception of deterrence by denial by relegating the option to obliterate poor city dwellers to that of attacking Indian forces that may threaten or cross into Pakistani territory. The latter is considered a nuclear war-fighting strategy. The ‘tactical’ nature of missile also raises eyebrows over the likelihood of accidental use of nuclear weapons.
It makes one wonder if the deterrence has failed in South Asia. The test is probably one of the signals about growing frustration in Pakistan over US-led discrimination. Though Islamabad would like to avoid a nuclear war, yet win. Even with short range and smaller warhead capability, Nasr cannot be called a TNW-its use will have strategic consequences. Even if it’s a TNW, the concept has not run out of life as Russia and its NATO adversaries have sizable arsenals and their deterrence has not failed. Deterrence can be enhanced if the South Asian actors act rationally and move towards bilateral arms control measures.
Its short range indicates that Pakistan may be forced to use Nasr in its own territory against attacking Indian forces. Hence Pakistan is more likely to be self-deterred against its use. Except the desert portion, India-Pakistan border is heavily populated. Therefore, Nasr is both counter-force and counter-value weapon. Its initiation is on the heels of the Azm-e-Nau exercises that were done to check the viability of plans against CSD. Nasr adds another layer to deter India from even contemplating proactive operations.
Missile’s range and utility shows that it should be an Army Strategic Force Command (ASFC) asset, which is commanded by a senior three star general. ASFC is directly controlled by the apex National Command Authority, chaired by the PM, and the chances of accidental use are not thinkable.
The larger issue affecting South Asian arms race is US-India defence relationship that affects Pakistan. A stronger Pakistan is in American interest, assured US Ambassador in a recent speech. If that is so, it must translate into action instead of policies of discrimination and apartheid. That will be a crucial step to stabilise South Asia.