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Pakistan’s army is building an arsenal of ”tiny” nuclear weapons—and it’s going to backfire


Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal and, within the next five to ten years, it is likely to double that of India, and exceed those of France, the United Kingdom, and China. Only the arsenals of the United States and Russia will be larger.

In recent years, Pakistan has boasted of developing “tactical nuclear weapons” to protect itself against potential offensive actions by India. In fact, Pakistan is the only country currently boasting of makingincreasingly tiny nuclear weapons (link in Urdu).

Pakistanis overwhelmingly support their army and its various misadventures. And the pursuit of tactical weapons is no exception. However, there is every reason why Pakistanis should be resisting—not welcoming—this development. The most readily identifiable reason is that, in the event of conflict between the two South Asian countries, this kind of weaponization will likely result in tens of thousands of dead Pakistanis, rather than Indians. And things will only go downhill from there.

Why would Pakistan want “the world’s smallest nuclear weapons”?

In late 1999, Pakistan’s general Pervez Musharraf (who took power of Pakistan through a military coup in Oct. 1999 and remained in power until 2008), along with a tight cabal of fellow military officials began a limited incursion into the Kargil-Dras area of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. While planning for this began in the fall of 1998, by the time Pakistani troops were discovered there in May of 1999 Pakistani forces had taken territory that was several miles into India-administered Kashmir.

Because the Pakistanis had the tactical advantage of occupying the ridge line, India took heavy losses in recovering the area from the invaders. The so-called Kargil War was the first conventional conflict between India and Pakistan since the two conducted nuclear tests in May 1998. International observers were wary that the conflict would escalate either in territory or aims, with the potential for nuclear exchange.

Fearing such escalation, then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif sought support from China and the United States. Both were adamant that Pakistan respect the line of control, which separated the portions of Jammu-Kashmir administered by India and Pakistan.

Under international pressure and branded an irresponsible state, Pakistan withdrew its forces from Kashmir. It initially claimed that the intruders were mujahedeen—but this was later found to be pure fiction. While Pakistan was isolated internationally, the international community widely applauded India’s restraint. The Kargil War provided the United States with the opportunity to reorient its relations away from Pakistan towards India, while at the same time, demonstrated to India that the United States would not reflexively side with Pakistan.

In retrospect, the Kargil war catalyzed the deepening security cooperation between the United States and India. It also galvanized a serious rethink in India about its domestic security apparatus, intelligence agencies’ capabilities, and overall military doctrine.

Crucially, India learned from this conflict that limited war is indeed possible under the nuclear umbrella. In Oct. 2000, air commodore Jasjit Singh, who retired as the director of operations of India’s air force and headed India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses until 2001, laid out the lineaments of an India’s limited war doctrine. However, no apparent effort was made to make this a viable military concept immediately and India persisted with its defensive posture. In late Dec. 2001, Pakistani terrorists from the Pakistan-backed military group Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked India’s parliament in New Delhi.

In response, India’s government began the largest military mobilizationsince the 1971 war, which resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. Just as the crisis was subsiding, another group of Pakistani terrorists, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked the wives and children of Indian military personnel in Kaluchak, Kashmir. India again seemed poised to take military action but ultimately backed down. The crisis was officially defused after India held elections in Kashmir later that fall. Pakistan concluded that its nuclear arsenal had successfully deterred India from attacking.

As Walter Ladwig has written, analysts identified several problems with India’s posture during that crisis. First, the Indian army took a long time to mobilize which gave Pakistan time to internationalize the conflict and to bring international pressure to bare upon India. Second, the mobilization of India’s strike corps had no element of surprise. Even Pakistan’s modest surveillance capabilities could easily detect their movements, and given their “lumbering composition,” could quickly discern their destination. Third, according to Ladwig, India’s holding corps’ were forward deployed to the border but lacked offensive power and could only conduct limited offensive tasks.

In response to these collective inadequacies, and the prospects of enduring threats from Pakistan, the Indian defense community began formalizing what came to be known as “Cold Start.” Ladwig, who wrote the first comprehensive account, claims that the doctrine aimed to pivot India away from its traditional defensive posture, and towards a more offensive one. It involved developing eight division-sized “integrated battle groups” that combined infantry, artillery, and armor which would be prepared to launch into Pakistani territory on short notice along several axes of advance.

These groups would also be closely integrated with support from the navy and air force. With this force posture, India could quickly mobilize these battle groups and seize limited Pakistani territory before the international community could raise objections.

India could then use this seized territory to force Pakistan into accepting the status quo in Kashmir. While Indians insist that this doctrine never existed, other analysts discount Indian demurrals and note slow—but steady—progress in developing these offensive capabilities. Irrespective of India’s protestations, Pakistanis take “Cold Start” to be a matter of Quranic fact.

Worried that its primary tools of using terrorism fortified by the specter of nuclear war, and fearing that India would be able to force acquiescence, Pakistan concluded that it could vitiate “Cold Start” by developing tactical nuclear weapons. As Pakistan’s former ambassador the United States and current ambassador to the United Nations,Maleeha Lodhi, explained, the basis of Pakistan’s fascination with tactical nuclear weapons is “to counterbalance India’s move to bring conventional military offensives to a tactical level.’’

Pakistani military and civilians often boast of their fast growing arsenal of the world’s smallest nuclear weapons and routinely update the world on the progress of the short-range missile, the Nasr, that would deliver this ever-shrinking payload.

Why should ordinary Pakistanis care?

While Pakistanis overwhelmingly applaud their army’s continued efforts to harass India in pursuit of Kashmir—a territory that Pakistanwas never entitled to but fought three wars to acquire by force—there are numerous reasons why Pakistanis should be more sanguine, or evenalarmed by Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons.

The first reality that should discomfit ordinary Pakistanis is that there is really no such thing as a “tactical nuclear weapon.” Even the smallest so-called tactical nuclear weapon will have strategic consequences. (Simply calling them “battlefield nuclear weapons” does not obviate this serious problem.) If Pakistan should use such weapons on India, there is virtually no chance that India will be left responding alone. The international community will most certainly rally around India. The response to Pakistan breaking a nuclear taboo that formed after the Americans used atomic bombs on Japan will most certainly be swift and devastating.

Second, as Shashank Joshi, a war studies researcher at the University of Oxford, has argued, these weapons do not have the military benefits that Pakistan’s military boasts, yet they exacerbate the enormous command and control challenges, including the possibility that nefarious elements may pilfer them once they are forward deployed. For one thing, tactical nuclear weapons do not have significant battlefield effects on enemy targets. For another, it is not evident that these weapons are in fact capable of deterring an Indian incursion into Pakistan.

Third, while Naeem Salik, a former director for arms control at Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Directorate, has said that Pakistan has shifted away from merely doctrinal thinking towards “actual nuclear war fighting,” such thinking is hardly viable for the simple reason of faulty math.

Even if, for the sake of argument, one assumes that Pakistan deploys its one hundred odd weapons of 15 to 30 kilotons at India’s major cities, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to deploy all of these weapons to conduct a “splendid first strike,” by which Indian capabilities are completely destroyed.

Moreover, it takes considerably fewer weapons of similar magnitude to utterly destroy Pakistan. Pakistan has thoughtfully concentrated all but three corps in central the Punjab region, which is also its most populous province and the country’s industrial and agricultural center. In short, Pakistan will cease to be a viable political entity while India, though grievously hurt, will survive as a state. Even if Pakistan obtains a functioning triad and retains launch capabilities from submarines, they will be launched in defense of a state that, simply put, no longer exists.

There is a fourth problem that should disquiet Pakistanis perhaps even more than the triggering of the destruction of their country through the deliberate or inadvertent use of their micro-weapons—these tactical nuclear weapons are intended to be used first against Indian troops on Pakistani soil. According to a conference report by the Naval Post School, which hosted Pakistan’s military and diplomatic officials, one Pakistani luminary opined that the “Nasr creates a balancing dynamic that frustrates and makes futile the power-maximizing strategy of India.”

He envisages the Nasr’s shells being used to carry atomic explosives that would annihilate advancing


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