Pakistan leaves arms calling cardNon-proliferation experts and anti-nuclear activists have long highlighted South Asia as a "hot" theater insofar as a potential nuclear war is concerned. With both India and Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, and the added threat of a simmering Kashmir dispute between the two countries, it is no surprise that world leaders such as former US president Bill Clinton have referred to the region as a "nuclear flashpoint".
Think-tanks in the United States, both private and government-funded, have long been a place for Indian and Pakistani retired officials, as well as Western experts on South Asia, to raise issues and discuss potential solutions, or at least a modus vivendi for doing so. Some known discussion centers include the Stimson Center in Washington, Sandia Labs in New Mexico and the Center for Contemporary Conflict in Monterey, California. However, it is interesting to note that within the past few months, many Pakistani military officials and government-affiliated specialists have made a series of public and private presentations and studies highlighting the potential nuclear dangers in South Asia. The sequence and timing of these presentations may suggest a coordinated approach by Pakistani strategists to win over American opinion makers.
In this context, a senior Pakistani military official made a presentation to a Washington-based think-tank on this very topic a few days ago. The audience included some influential US government officials and prominent academics. The study by the official, who wished to remain anonymous, in essence made a case that there is no scenario in South Asia where a conventional war would not turn nuclear.
To understand the possible reasons behind the sudden and seemingly coordinated Pakistani effort to raise the nuclear bogey in the United States, one must consider past Pakistani nuclear postures and their evolution, and set them against recent developments in the subcontinent.
While India has a stated policy of not using nuclear weapons first, Pakistan has deliberately maintained an opaque nuclear posture for a long time, which in essence seeks to keep India off balance and confused with regard to when and under what conditions Pakistan might choose to use nuclear weapons.
In January 2002, General Khalid Kidwai, the head of the Pakistani army's Strategic Plans Division, which oversees nuclear-weapons development and deployment, gave an interview to Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Maurizio Martellini of the Landau Network, an Italian arms-control organization. It has since then become apparent that the Pakistani establishment felt the need to clarify its position given the concern expressed in Western circles since September 11, 2001, about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear estate, and used the Landau interview for that purpose.
Among other things, Kidwai gave the possible conditions under which Pakistan could use nuclear weapons against an adversary. Stating that Pakistan would use atomic weapons only "if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake", Kidwai proceeded to give details.
Pakistan's nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India. In case that deterrence fails, they will be used if:The context in which Kidwai made these proclamations was the 2002 border crisis with India. After the December 13, 2001, attack on India's parliament by militant groups that the Pakistani government later accepted as originating from Pakistan, India started a military mobilization titled "Operation Parakram" (Operation Valor).
India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold). India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces (military threshold). India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic strangling). India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilization).
Studies hence have stated that during Parakram, India was considering "hot pursuit" of militant groups into Pakistani territory, thereby raising the prospect of at least temporarily capturing territory. Indian officials also spoke of surgical air strikes on jihadi training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Pakistan. There was even talk of an Indian naval blockade of Karachi, Pakistan's only functioning port, thereby threatening an economic chokepoint. It is clear that all of the above options bore a significant risk of breaching the explicitly stated Pakistani nuclear "red lines".
India ended Operation Parakram in 2003 soon after the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the Indian buildup and the Pakistani reaction showed the Indian brain trust that similar maneuvers in the future were only likely to yield diminishing results.
In the 1990s, Pakistan's army created a strong centralized corps of reserves for its formations in the critical semi-desert and desert sectors in southern Punjab and Sindh provinces, and rapidly equipped them with assets needed for mechanized capability. These reserve formations are dual-capable, meaning they can be used for offensive as well as defensive purposes, and some analyses say that they even give Pakistan an edge at the theater level. When one adds the fact that Pakistan has smaller lines of communication and can mobilize its formations in less than 96 hours, as opposed to 10 days for India, it was clear that Indian strategists had to think of an alternative military doctrine that was both credible and did not cross the nuclear threshold.
To this end, Indian military circles recently revealed a new doctrine, "Cold Start". According to knowledgeable Indian observers, Cold Start reorients the Indian focus away from attrition-based operations, and instead talks about "maneuver-based warfare". In other words, Cold Start in essence envisages the use of all service arms to launch punitive strikes, rather than looking to gain the opponent's territory or threatening their national survival, with the aim of avoiding nuclear escalation.
The Pakistani study was especially scathing on Cold Start. The unnamed Pakistani official stated that for Pakistan, Cold Start "will be a full-scale war, and Pakistan will respond with full resources, and if we fail to contain the Indians, the nuclear factor will definitely come in".
The conventional 'imbalance'
It can be discerned that the various Pakistani studies mentioned above have a common theme of highlighting a dangerous conventional-weapons "imbalance" that Pakistan faces vis-a-vis India. Retired Pakistani army Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan recently told the US publication Defense News that the Pentagon and others should "realize that Pakistan's main threat remains India", adding that "the immediate problem is the imbalance, particularly in the air force". Khan also wrote an essay in a widely circulated book by the Stimson Center highlighting the "structural imbalances" in South Asia and its effect on nuclear "escalation control".
Retired Pakistani air force Commodore Tariq Mahmud Ashraf recently made a presentation titled "Air Power Imbalance and Strategic Instability in South Asia" to the US Naval Postgraduate School, highlighting the supposed Pakistani inferiority in terms of aviation assets. Ashraf followed up with a paper at the US Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the need for Pakistan to respond to Cold Start by waking up from a "doctrinal slumber".
Another well-circulated study is by retired Pakistani army Major-General Mahmud Ali Durrani, titled "Pakistan's Strategic Thinking and the Role of Nuclear Weapons". Durrani wrote this study for the US government-affiliated Sandia National Labs in New Mexico and presented it in Washington as well. While the primary aim of this study was to assuage US concerns about Pakistan's nuclear assets, Durrani left subtle hints about the need to lower Pakistan's nuclear threshold. The underlying thread in all these studies is to support the Pakistani government's position that the United States should supply major weapons to Pakistan, similar to the 1980s.
Some experts point out that instead of maintaining stability, major weapons sales could encourage Pakistan to try another military operation like the one in the Kargil area of Kashmir in 1999. A former State Department official dealing with South Asia, Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, told the US Senate that it would be inadvisable to sell major weapons such as F-16s to Pakistan for this very reason.
As if to highlight the concern that Pakistan still does not rule out a military maneuver in Kashmir, the unnamed Pakistani study, while highlighting potential Indian attacks on Pakistan, actually brushed aside Pakistan's aggression in Kargil by stating that the war in 1999 was a continuation of the "skirmishes" in the Siachen Glacier region. It must be noted that while as many as 3,000 Pakistani soldiers were killed in Kargil, Pakistan still does not officially accept its role in the operation.
While Cold Start has become the latest bogey for Pakistan to raise with the US, it is worth noting that even Pakistani experts have called into question the idea that Cold Start poses a major threat to Pakistan. For instance, to achieve success in a Cold Start-like operation, India would have to improve rapidly its military command and control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I), merge all its operational assets into a "network-centric warfare" ambit and gain lethal precision-guided strike capabilities, both in the air and on the ground (see Asia Times Online, India makes a play for F-16 fighters , February 9).
Retired Pakistani Brigadier Shaukat Qadir openly questioned whether the Indian army had the assets to achieve this and whether the Indian political leadership had the will to take the risk. Many Indian experts have also raised questions about the current Indian capability in the context of Cold Start. It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether Pakistan faces an imminent threat because of Cold Start.
It appears that the well-coordinated Pakistani studies are aimed at creating a sense of acceptance in US strategic circles that Pakistan needs to be given advanced weapons to maintain strategic stability in South Asia. A US Department of Defense official revealed to this correspondent, on the condition of anonymity, that official circles in Washington are coming around to accepting this line of thinking. The upshot may be a massive US rearming of Pakistan. The designation of Pakistan as a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally of the United States last year only makes this easier for the US government.
Last November 16, the US Defense Security and Cooperation Agency sent notifications to Congress of a US$1.3 billion arms package for Pakistan. This includes eight P-3C Orion naval reconnaissance planes, possibly with anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, 2,000 TOW-2A anti-tank guided missiles, and the PHALANX Close-In Weapon Systems for ships. Washington sources indicate that even as the F-16 request is being considered, another mega-deal for E-2C AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes to Pakistan is close to fruition.
It now appears that Pakistan's "nuclear war" scare tactic is yielding great results.
Kaushik Kapisthalam is a freelance analyst on South Asia affairs.