The Elephant and the Dilemma of Nuclear Force Planning

By

Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in April 2013.

Keywords: South Asia Nuclearization, Sino-Pak relations, India’s Nuclear Doctrine, Deterrence Stability, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program

One of the open secrets of the Indian security establishment is the evolution of its nuclear weapons capability. The process did not follow any established norms that guide the discernment of theory into a security strategy or the rendition of technology into a nuclear stockpile. Rather, its development was driven by a single-point politico-scientific coterie stirred by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) combine. The leadership neither saw strategic significance in a more eclectic approach nor clarity that a theory did not endanger political ideology or scientific savvy, but was an instrument to fertilise both.

From Indian folklore, a story is told of six blind men and an elephant. The allegory underscores the limits of individual perceptions when left in stove pipes without an integrating hypothesis. Viewed in perspective of the enormous destructive power of the nuclear weapon, now in the hands of the new “destroyer of worlds”, it presented a terrifying and unspeakable nature of the truth, much as the elephant to the blind. To marry political issues and technological capabilities with military operational practices was the unheeded scream of the previous quarter of a century.

It was only after Pokhran II in 1998 and the Kargil episode that the real nature of nuclear weapons was emphasized and the imperative of military involvement dawned on the establishment. This realisation took the form of a declared nuclear doctrine with a classified section that drew a roadmap for enabling and operationalizing a ‘No First Use’ doctrine. Born of the desire not to repeat the Cold War experience, and a belief in Brodie’s maxim that nuclear weapons had changed the nature of warfare; nuclear war avoidance became primary to the political objective. While this critical discernment was slow in the offing and the product of a tangled approach, there can be no denying its rational strength and its progression.

A deterrent relationship is a balance founded on rationality. On the part of the ‘deterree’, there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the ‘deterrer’, there is rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided. The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible, provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability, and this is where the sub-continental rub lies when the search for equilibrium is one-sided.

Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons is visceral in urge, India-specific in intent and ‘at-any-cost’ in motivation. It serves to explicate (and vindicate) the bizarre extent of the AQ Khan network’s exertions, and its clandestine nuclear links with China and North Korea. Therefore, unique and intriguing to the nuclear cauldron is the tri-polar nature of the playing field, with China and Pakistan in a collusive arrangement. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was conceived, designed, and tested by Beijing from the mid-1970s onwards. In conjunction with all this is the rapid pace at which the Khushab reactors (II and III in particular) have come on-line and weapon grade plutonium is being extracted with active and persistent Chinese aid. Collaboration, technological updates, the breakneck build-up of fissile material and production and extraction facilities may even suggest a doctrinal co-relation, which any deterrent relationship overlooks at the peril of its constancy.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at the internal workings of Pakistan. What has caused this situation is the fixation with achieving military parity with India, and the precarious cocktail that the establishment has brewed in nurturing fundamentalist and terrorist organisations as instruments of their policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. This policy has blown back to the extent that it is more than plausible that elements of the nuclear arsenal could well fall into extremist hands, aided by sympathetic rogue elements in the military. The recent happenings at Abbottabad, the Plutonium rush, the assault on PNS Mehran, the conventionalising of the Hatf-9 missile, the descent to tactical nuclear weapons, and the continued opacity of strategic underpinnings of their nuclear programme defies rationality and does not in any way engender confidence in the prospects for stability. Added to all this is US Secretary of State Kerry’s recent insinuation in Beijing of Pakistan’s nuclear links with North Korea (while oddly down playing China’s role) that attached nuclear perfidy to an already vexed situation. Such ‘hare’ like nimbleness in nuclear matters, as Michael Krepon has termed it, could also suggest an incredulous belief on the part of Pakistani leadership in being able to control the escalatory nuclear ladder. This they must know is a fallacy, given the yawning power asymmetry that exists.

We stand today on the cusp of a ‘Strangelovesque’ situation caused in part by the reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving the direction in which arsenals are headed, and in part due to lack of transparency. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear force planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust nuclear postures, turn back the clock on tactical nuclear weapons, and retune doctrines with the aim of bringing about balance in posture. Policy must accommodate the reality of the tri-polar situation and the need for ‘convincing reassurances’ on the matter of rogue players.

(Written as part of a collection of commentaries by various scholars on Nuclearization in South Asia, hosted by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. To follow the rest of the debate, visit: http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/india-pakistan-and-the-nuclear-race-the-elephant-and-the-3881.html)

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