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Tag Archives | kargil

The worst offense

The U.S. is doing itself a disservice by holding on to tedious “arms race” narratives about India and Pakistan.

Tom Ricks’ The Best Defense ran a blogpost this morning entitled “The most likely apocalypse in our future: An Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange.”  As a fan of the blog, I was disappointed with the sort of arguments put forth in the blogpost, peppered as it was with pedestrian and illogical arguments (many sourced from discussions at a recent Carnegie event) . My INI colleague Dhruva Jaishankar has exceptional rebuttal to the above blogpost, but this post will try to touch on a couple of other points.  Let us examine some of these arguments put forth in the blogpost (emphasis added as needed):

The fuse to ignite a war has been lit before — at Kargil in 1999, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and most recently, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 — but a nuclear exchange has been prevented each time. With each of these incidents, though, the fuse has been cut shorter.

Way to use the passive voice.  But it begs the question, “who lit the fuse exactly?” If memory serves one right, during Kargil, it was Pakistan’s COAS, the good Gen. Musharraf, who moved his nuclear assets to the border with India at a time when India responded with limited conventional force in the face of extreme provocation from Pakistan.  Similarly, during the Mumbai attacks, it was Pakistan — not India — that tried to sell the rest of the world the story of an impending nuclear war with India. But such Pakistani hullabaloo is only to be expected — conveying the threat of a nuclear fallout is  a vital component to insulating itself, while continuing to use sub-conventional warfare against India — a “derivative of nuclear deterrence,” as K. Subrahmanyam called it.

The blogpost further states:

The greatest risk for nuclear war in our time is the scenario in which a Pakistan-based terror group with ties to ISI launches another attack on India. It’s nearly happened before. Aparna Pande, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, described the strong pro-nuclear strike faction in Indian politics after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the common sentiment of, “if Pakistan can cross the border and hit us, why can’t we hit back?”

I would submit that Ms. Pande’s quote is presented out of context.  When one state continues to use terrorism as an instrument of policy against another, isn’t it only logical that the victimized state would assess its response options?  Why does the blogpost assume that India’s response would necessarily be nuclear?  In fact, given India’s conventional superiority wrt Pakistan, why would India ever consider such an option?  “Pro-nuclear strike faction” indeed!

And the pièce de résistance:

A journalist for the Pakistani Spectator, in worried and urgent tones, told the panel that, with the prevailing popular opinion in Pakistan, the United States is “pushing Pakistan in the corner, and they are depending more on the weapon because Pakistan is literally collapsing.” It will be up to the international community, and largely the United States, to help buttress Pakistan’s faltering democracy. The success or failure of stabilization efforts in the next several years will determine which cliché the Pakistani bomb will become: common ground, bargaining chip, or loose cannon.

First, this blogger would like some clarification on what corner Pakistan is being pushed into, who is pushing it into said corner, and what all this pushing-about business has to do with its accumulation of nuclear weapons.  Are we to understand from the Pakistani Spectator’s journalist that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are no longer India-centric and that it is now acquiring nuclear weapons as a contingency against the U.S. (the alleged entity pushing Pakistan into a corner)?  And second, how would Pakistan’s continued accumulation of nuclear weapons save it from collapsing?  Nuclear weapons, after all, are built to destroy, not built to build.

As this blogpost has pointed out previously, Pakistan sees value in portraying itself an an irrational and unstable state. A nuclear-armed Islamic state teetering on the precipice is bound to attract Washington’s attention, and benevolence. There is simply no link between the sort of assurances that the U.S. seeks to obtain on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project and the emergence of true democracy in Pakistan.  In fact, Pakistan’s proliferation track record under the leadership of the likes of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto should worry D.C. even more.

But if you think you have heard this sort of spiel somewhere before, it’s because you have.  Many in D.C. are so captivated by the theme of India and Pakistan — each apparently as equally likely as the other to initiate a nuclear attack — endangering the region unless the U.S. steps in to resolve their disputes, that they have long forsaken much required rational assessments of the situation in the subcontinent.

Yet, that these sorts of dangerous arguments are perpetuated in high profile opinion pieces does the world no favors. In a recent, carefully articulated op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Messrs. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Hunn, wrote as follows:

Fifth, we recognize that for some nations, nuclear weapons may continue to appear relevant to their immediate security. There are certain undeniable dynamics in play—for example, the emergence of a nuclear-armed neighbor, or the perception of inferiority in conventional forces—that if not addressed could lead to the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and an increased risk they will be used. Thus, while the four of us believe that reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective, some nations will hesitate to draw or act on the same conclusion unless regional confrontations and conflicts are addressed. We must therefore redouble our efforts to resolve these issues. [The Wall Street Journal]

Thinking in the U.S. will hopefully evolve to understanding the nature of Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship and its impact on India, the U.S. and the world.  This will require folks in D.C. to truly examine what Pakistan is seeking to achieve and depart from the tedious narratives about a non-existent regional nuclear arms race.  Not altering the current trajectory of thought, and not doing so quickly, will be the worst offense.


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Nuclear Arithmetic, Deterrent Calculus

K Santhanam sent the Indian media into a flutter with his statement that the thermonuclear device (Shakti-I) tested in 1998 during Pokhran II was not completely successful and did not produce the anticipated (and reported) yield of 40-45 kT.  He put this apparent failure in the context of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), advocating that we do not sign or ratify the treaty until India’s thermonuclear capability can be successfully demonstrated.

Notwithstanding denials from APJ Abdul Kalam, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, R Chidambaram and Brajesh Mishra, the vast differential in the reported vs. observed yield is no secret.  International nonpartisan sources, such as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) indicated 10  years ago that yield of Shakti-I was between 12-25 kT.  Indeed, Santhanam’s statements were also corroborated by both former AEC chairman PK Iyengar, and national security expert Bharat Karnad.

However, this admission does not change India’s nuclear posture much, either with regard to Pakistan or China.  Nuclear weapons are a deterrent force and Pakistan will neither be emboldened nor hindered by the admission of this yield differential, in the event that it is contemplating a nuclear attack against India, in the face of rapidly deteriorating circumstances during a conventional war.

A nuclear bomb is a nuclear bomb. Indeed, the credibility of Pakistan’s own nuclear tests in Chagai were marred by reports of a significant divergence between reported vs. observed yields.  While Pakistan reported tests of six nuclear devices (two in the kT range, and four in the sub-kT range) with a total yield exceeding 36 kT, nonpartisan sources indicate the May 28, 1998 tests produced a total yield of between 9-12 kT.

However, despite such reports, Pakistan’s arsenal consisting largely of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) acted as a very credible deterrent against possible Indian offensives across the LoC during Kargil.  Additionally, had Pakistan’s “diminished” nuclear capability been a factor, India’s responses to the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack and the recent 26/11 Mumbai attacks would have been very different indeed.

The nuclear calculus also doesn’t change much with regard to China.  India’s current nuclear posture continues to be incongruous to its “No First Strike” nuclear doctrine.  The nuclear triad, a corollary to the “minimum credible deterrence” and “No First Strike” policies remains unfulfilled, with two of three legs of the triad not currently being operational (with respect to China).  While India has taken the first step in the development of nuclear-powered submarines, the first of these, INS Arihant, will not be operational for sometime.

The most serious challenge to India’s “minimum credible deterrence” is its crippled missile program.  India’s longer range Agni-III IRBMs are as yet incapable of hitting strategic targets such as Beijing or Shanghai. The development, production and weaponization of the Surya-I and Surya-II ICBMs have experienced delays exceeding 10 years, as a result of high-technology denials by the US and the sloth-like inertia of DRDO.

Without true ICBM capability and bereft of an operational nuclear-powered submarine, India’s deterrence against Chinese aggression remains challenged; a 12 kT fission bomb or 50 megaton hydrogen bomb changes nothing under these circumstances.

The low yield of Shakti-I alters neither Pakistan’s perception of Indian retaliatory capability in the event of a Pakistani nuclear first strike, nor does it hurt any further, India’s credibility in being able to deploy nuclear payload to strategic targets in China, should the need arise.  Shakti-I changes nothing with regard to Pakistan; however, if looked through the prism of maintaining a credible deterrent against China, should reignite a debate  on the sorry state of India’s delivery systems and the credibility and logic behind our “No First Use” posture.

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