Analysis by Zia Mian and Pervez Hoodbhoy

The armies of Pakistan and India are practicing for nuclear war on the battlefield: Pakistan is rehearsing the use of nuclear weapons, while India trains to fight on despite such use and subsequently escalate. What were once mere ideas and scenarios dreamed up by hawkish military planners and nuclear strategists have become starkly visible capabilities and commitments. When the time comes, policy makers and people on both sides will expect—and perhaps demand—that the Bomb be used.

Pakistan has long been explicit about its plans to use nuclear weapons to counter Indian conventional forces. Pakistan has developed “a variety of short range, low yield nuclear weapons,” claimed retired General Khalid Kidwai in March 2015. Kidwai is the founder—and from 2000 until 2014 ran—Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, which is responsible for managing the country’s nuclear weapons production complex and arsenal. These weapons, Kidwai said, have closed the “space for conventional war.” Echoing this message, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry declared in October 2015 that his country might use these tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict with India. There already have been four wars between the two countries—in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999—as well as many war scares.

The United States, which at one time deployed over 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe aimed at Soviet conventional forces, has expressed alarm about Pakistan’s plans. Amplifying comments made by President Barack Obama, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained in April 2016 that “we’re concerned by the increased security challenges that accompany growing stockpiles, particularly tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use on the battlefield. And these systems are a source of concern because they’re susceptible to theft due to their size and mode of employment. Essentially, by having these smaller weapons, the threshold for their use is lowered, and the[re is] risk that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to include the use of nuclear weapons.”

Responding to US concerns, Kidwai has said that “Pakistan would not cap or curb its nuclear weapons programme or accept any restrictions.” The New York Times reported last year that so far, “an unknown number of the tactical weapons were built, but not deployed” by Pakistan.

India is making its own preparations for nuclear war. The Indian Army conducted a massive military exercise in April 2016 in the Rajasthan desert bordering Pakistan, involving tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and 30,000 soldiers, to practice what to do if it is attacked with nuclear weapons on the battlefield. An Indian Army spokesman told the media, “our policy has been always that we will never use nuclear weapons first. But if we are attacked, we need to gather ourselves and fight through it. The simulation is about doing exactly that.” This is not the first such Indian exercise. As long ago as May 2001, the Indian military conducted an exercise based on the possibility that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons on Indian armed forces. Indian generals and planners have anticipated such battlefield nuclear use by Pakistan since at least the 1990s.

Driving the current set of Indian strategies and capabilities is the army’s search for a way to use military force to retaliate against Pakistan for harboring terrorists who, from time to time, have launched devastating attacks inside India. In 2001, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed credit for an attack on India’s parliament. India massed troops on the border, but had to withdraw them after several months. International pressure, a public commitment by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to restrain militants from future strikes, and Pakistan’s threat to use nuclear weapons if it was attacked caused the crisis to wind down. Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, General Deepak Kapoor, then India’s army chief, argued that India must find a way to wage “limited war under a nuclear overhang.”

Paths to destruction It could come to pass that Pakistan’s army uses nuclear weapons on its own territory to repel invading Indian tanks and troops. Pakistan’s planners may intend this first use of nuclear weapons as a warning shot, hoping to cause the Indians to stop and withdraw rather than risk worse. But while withdrawal would be one possible outcome, there would also be others. It is more likely, for instance, that the use of one—or even a few—Pakistani battlefield nuclear weapons would fail to dent Indian forces. While even a small nuclear weapon would be devastating in an urban environment, many such weapons may be required to have a decisive military impact on columns of well-dispersed battle tanks and soldiers who have practiced warfighting under nuclear attack.

India’s nuclear doctrine, meanwhile, is built on massive retaliation. In 2003, India’s cabinet declared nuclear weapons “will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere … nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” According to Admiral Vijay Shankar, a former head of Indian strategic nuclear forces, such retaliation would involve nuclear attacks on Pakistan’s cities. Kidwai describes such Indian threats as “bluster and blunder,” since they “are not taking into account the balance of nuclear weapons of Pakistan, which hopefully not, but has the potential to go back and give the same kind of dose to the other side.” For nuclear planners in both countries, threatening the slaughter of millions and mutual destruction seems to be the order of the day.

There are also risks short of war, of course. Nuclear weapon units integrated with conventional forces and ready to be dispersed on a battlefield pose critical command-and-control issues. Kidwai believes that focusing on “lesser issues of command and control, and the possibility of their falling into wrong hands is unfortunate.” He claims “Our nuclear weapons are safe, secure and under complete institutional and professional control.” The implication is that communications between the nuclear headquarters and deployed units in the field will be perfectly reliable and secure even in wartime, and that commanders of individual units will not seek—or have the capability to launch—a nuclear strike unless authorized.

It is difficult to believe these claims. Peering through the fog of war, dizzied by developments on a rapidly evolving battlefield, confronting possible defeat, and fuelled by generations of animosity towards India as well as a thirst for revenge from previous wars, it cannot be guaranteed that a Pakistani nuclear commander will follow the rules.

Add to this the risks in what now passes for peacetime in Pakistan. The Strategic Plans Division may dismiss fears that its nuclear weapons will be hijacked. However, the military has rarely succeeded in anticipating and preventing major attacks by militant Islamist groups in Pakistan. Look no further than the May 2011 attack on Karachi’s Mehran naval base. The attackers, who may have numbered up to 20 and had insider help, “scaled the perimeter fence and continued to the main base by exploiting a blind spot in surveillance camera coverage, suggesting detailed knowledge of the base layout,” The Guardian reported. It took elite troops 18 hours to regain control of the base.

It is also unclear how the officers who are in charge of Pakistan’s military bases and those who make security-clearance decisions are chosen, and whether their own commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism is genuine. In 2009, the former commander of Pakistan’s Shamsi Air Force Base was arrested for leaking “sensitive” information to a radical Islamist organization. In 2011, a one-star general serving in Pakistan’s General Headquarters was arrested for his contacts with a militant group. In a religion that stresses its own completeness, and in which righteousness is given higher value than obedience to temporal authority, there is room for serious conflict between piety and military discipline.

Grasping at straws? A first step to reducing all these nuclear dangers is to prevent an escalation of tensions. This must start with Pakistan tackling the threat of Islamist militancy at home and preventing militant attacks across the India-Pakistan border. The outlook is mixed on both fronts. Pakistan’s army accelerated its war against radical Islamist groups after a 2014 attack on an army school in Peshawar that killed more than 140 students and staff. Despite military claims of success, though, responding with massive force and inflicting countless deaths will not resolve what is at its core a political and social problem. Ending the threat of radical Islam in Pakistan will require sweeping changes in public attitudes and major policy reversals in many areas. These are nowhere in sight.

To its credit, Pakistan has recently been more forward-leaning in dealing with militants who attack India. Following the assault on India’s Pathankot airbase in January 2016, Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, made the surprising revelation that a mobile phone number used by the attackers was linked to the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed based in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. To collect evidence for possible legal action against Jaish-e-Mohammed leaders, Pakistan sent a fact-finding mission to Pathankot with the approval of the Indian government. This kind of cooperation by the two governments is unprecedented.

Rather than limit cooperation to crisis management after an attack, Pakistan and India could agree on a South Asian version of the Open Skies Treaty to provide each with limited access to the other’s air space for surveillance purposes. India has an interest in monitoring possible militant camps within Pakistan and border areas where militants may cross. Pakistan seeks early warning in case India is preparing to mount a surprise attack. The 1992 Open Skies Treaty, covering the United States and fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and Russia and its former Soviet and Eastern European partners, allows for controlled surveillance flights with agreed instruments such as photographic and video cameras, radar, and infrared scanners. The goal is to promote “greater openness and transparency in their military activities” and “to facilitate the monitoring of compliance with existing or future arms control agreements and to strengthen the capacity for conflict prevention and crisis management.” The United States and other parties to the Open Skies Treaty could share their technical tools and flight management experience with Pakistan and India, as well as what they’ve learned about the value of the agreement.

The two countries should also prepare in case things go wrong. The 1999 Lahore Agreement committed Pakistan and India to “notify each other immediately in the event of any accidental, unauthorised or unexplained incident that could create the risk of a fallout with adverse consequences for both sides, or an outbreak of a nuclear war between the two countries, as well as to adopt measures aimed at diminishing the possibility of such actions, or such incidents being misinterpreted by the other.” The question is, who will each side call and how? One possibility is a direct line of communication—a hotline—from Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division chief to the head of India’s Strategic Forces Command. There are other hotlines, and they are not always used or used wisely, but in a crisis this may be better than relying on television, Facebook, Twitter, or Washington.

Progress towards even such limited measures will confront the fact that in both India and Pakistan, nationalist passions forged over seven decades are being reinforced by the institutional self-interests of emerging nuclear military-industrial complexes and their political patrons and ideological allies. The United States and Soviet Union saw such deepening militarization during the Cold War. The institutional forces and ideas—what the great English anti-nuclear activist, thinker, and historian E.P. Thompson called “the thrust of exterminism”—proved so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union fell, the Bomb remained. With expansive and costly nuclear arsenal modernizations underway in the United States, Russia, and the other established nuclear weapon states, the Bomb now seems ready for a second life. Increasingly subject to the same exterminist forces, South Asia may be locked in its nuclear nightmare for a very long time.


Originally published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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