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Neighbours’ mind games: India, Pakistan must initiate dialogue between nuclear experts

The establishment of credible mutual deterrence between two nuclear rivals, by diminishing the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack, forms the basis of what is termed “strategic stability”.

Written by Arun Prakash | Updated: February 19, 2020 11:34:01 am
india pakistan relations, pakistan nuclear weapons, Lt General Khalid Kidwai, india nuclear program, pakistan army, indian express news  Pakistan’s nuclear posture involving warhead accretion, battlefield nuclear weapons and a sea-based second-strike capability is divergent from India’s. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Even as thorny issues of force-modernisation, budget-prioritisation and joint command structures engage the attention of our newly anointed Chief of Defence Staff, he will, sooner than later, in his capacity as the first-ever Military Adviser to the National Command Authority (NCA), have to address India’s nuclear deterrent. When he does so, he might ponder over US strategist Bernard Brodie’s prescription for preventing a nuclear conflict: “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”

Just as “beauty” is said to lie in the “eye of the beholder”, the credibility of nuclear deterrence lies in the “adversary’s mind”. He must never be permitted to entertain an iota of doubt that a nuclear first strike will invite a devastating nuclear response. The establishment of credible mutual deterrence between two nuclear rivals, by diminishing the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack, forms the basis of what is termed “strategic stability”. So, when retired Pakistani Lt General Khalid Kidwai blames India for South Asia’s endemic strategic instability, we must take note.

Speaking at a recent workshop organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Kidwai claimed that the onus of maintaining strategic stability in South Asia fell on Pakistan’s shoulders since “India’s insatiable drive for regional domination, especially given its current irrational, unstable and belligerent internal and external policies” could lead to catastrophic consequences. Kidwai, as the Director-General of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) for 14 years, was at the heart of Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA), overseeing the operationalisation of its nuclear deterrent and evolution of its doctrines and strategies. Although his pronouncements are for public consumption, given the historic absence of a formal Indo-Pak nuclear dialogue, they should provide some food for thought.

Kidwai’s discourse attempts to upend conventional wisdom in an effort to show that it is India, not Pakistan, which is a revisionist power bent on destabilising the Subcontinent. His description of “major destabilising strategic steps” initiated by India provides an interesting glimpse of the Pakistani capacity for self-delusion and the visceral hostility underpinning its paranoia about an “existential threat” from India.

The starting point of Kidwai’s arguments is India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE), which, according to him, was the trigger for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon programme as the only way of redressing the “India-induced strategic instability”. However, Pakistani nuclear expert Feroze Hassan Khan writes that Pakistan’s “bomb decision” had come much earlier in January 1972, when then Prime Minister Z A Bhutto spoke to a gathering of scientists in Multan about waging a “thousand-year war” against India and boasted that “…we will make an atomic bomb even if we have to eat grass”. US analyst George Perkovich, writing about India’s post-PNE posture, mentions that “moral doubts, domestic priorities and international considerations” that prevented Indira Gandhi and successor PMs from authorising weaponisation till Pakistan’s stealthy pursuit of an “Islamic bomb” forced India’s hand.

Kidwai then refers to the massing of Indian forces for the military exercise “Brasstacks” in end-1986, which caused serious alarm in Pakistan. According to him, Pakistan not only counter-mobilised its forces, but also dropped hints of a nuclear capability due to which “India blinked and strategic stability was restored”. In actual fact, the military crisis had wound down on its own by February 1987, and it was only in March that journalist Kuldip Nayar “broke” rogue nuclear scientist A Q Khan’s boast about using the bomb if Pakistan’s existence was threatened.

During the 1990s, alleges Kidwai, “India upped the ante” through the introduction of longer range ballistic missiles and eventually, by conducting nuclear tests in 1998. The resultant instability, according to him, compelled Pakistan to induct a new family of ballistic missiles and respond by conducting its own nuclear tests, thus restoring strategic balance. He fails to mention that with the clandestine transfer of missile technology from North Korea and receipt of nuclear-weapon designs and material from China, Pakistan, throughout the 1980s and 90s, had remained ahead of India, as the latter persevered with indigenous technology.

Pakistan, apart from reserving the right to the first-use of nuclear weapons, has refrained from declaring an official nuclear doctrine since 1998. The timeline of Pakistan’s transition from “minimum credible deterrence” to “full spectrum deterrence” (FSD) is, therefore, not clear. Kidwai presents the FSD regime as a counter to the Indian army’s Cold Start doctrine, meant to be a remedial for India’s lethargic general mobilisation of 2001-02.

Kidwai claims that FSD focuses on a capability to bring “every Indian target into Pakistan’s striking range” and provides options to select amongst counter-value, battlefield and counter-force targets. Consequently, he believes that the “Cold Start doctrine has been neutralised, nuclear deterrence holds” and Pakistan is assured that its FSD will bring “the international-community rushing into South Asia to prevent a wider conflagration”.

Read | India says no to UN chief’s offer of mediation with Pakistan

Coming to India’s February 2019 air-strike on Balakot, Kidwai vehemently denies that Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff” was called, notwithstanding the IAF having crossed the international border to launch kinetic attacks. It was the presence of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, he says, that “deterred India from expanding operations beyond a single unsuccessful air strike”. The robust PAF response, according to him, restored strategic stability and “no new normal” was established.

Finally, Kidwai is not above muddying the waters through disinformation and questions India’s nuclear command and control system. Referring to the deployment of India’s nuclear submarine, Arihant, during the Balakot crisis, he poses an obscure question that would interest our strategists: “One wonders whether India contemplated the use of nuclear weapons from a second strike platform even before its first strike options?”

Pakistan’s nuclear posture involving warhead accretion, battlefield nuclear weapons and a sea-based second-strike capability is divergent from India’s. Arrival of ballistic-missile defence and multiple re-entry warheads on the scene will render the Indo-Pak equation far more complex and instability-prone. Since there is no common understanding of issues like nuclear thresholds, deterrence-breakdown and escalation-control, it is in the mutual interest of New Delhi and Islamabad to initiate a sustained confidence-building dialogue — isolated from all other issues — between nuclear experts.

Also read | Don’t move Pakistan out of terror fund grey list, key group tells FATF

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 19, 2020 under the title ‘Neighbours’ mind games’. The writer is a retired chief of naval staff.

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