Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Nuclear Trajectory in South Asia

David Sanger has routinely raised concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program. In his latest article in the New York Times, he talks of Adm. Mullen’s confirmation to a Congressional committee of the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear complex. The second ‘David’ and American expert on Pakistan’s nuclear program, David Albright, confirms this assessment. American attention springs from Obama’s determination to see there is no diversion of the aid that Pakistan is receiving from the US to support its nuclear programme and more importantly, with the Taliban in the vicinity, that these do not fall in to their hands. Also involved is the more complex issue of signaling between the two in this war of nerves on the pressures on Pakistan ‘to do more’ in the war against Taliban.

For India the concerns are more acute since Pakistan’s nuclear program is known to be India-specific. Expansion of the program would indicate that Pakistan is reading India’s action with regard to its weaponization in a certain way. This begs the question as to the direction of India’s program and its impact on Pakistani perceptions.

In South Asia, there is an element of unreality surrounding thinking on nuclear war. The assumption is that since it will not occur, thinking through its implications is not required. Therefore, both India and Pakistan proceed with a nuclear build up in the belief that deterrence would hold. In case it does not, then they would have the means to cope with the aftermath. Their respective narratives of the manner a nuclear war may pan out bears attention.

In India, the favoured nuclear war scenario is one in which Pakistan is severely punished with a ‘massive’ punitive retaliation for the temerity of nuclear first use. Since in theory, strategy can depart from doctrine, there is no guarantee that its response would be ‘massive.’ The only guarantee is of a nuclear response. Thus, India has the option of departing from its doctrine in the event it is tested by Pakistani first use.

Pakistan, on the other hand, finds ‘massive’ punitive retaliation for its nuclear first use of a lower escalatory order less than credible, and therefore relies on an ambiguous nuclear doctrine that does not rule out first use. Given that first use as ‘first strike’ is not possible, in light of the assessed sizes of the two arsenals; it would be for self-preservation, and likely keep the provocation at the lower end of the escalatory scale in order to elicit a similar restriction on India.

Taken together these two narratives portend Limited Nuclear War in case of breakdown in nuclear deterrence. There is skepticism whether it would at all be possible to keep such a war ‘limited.’ Inability to do so implies Assured Destruction.

In the Indian narrative, this would not amount to ‘MAD’ (Mutual Assured Destruction) as India would survive, while Pakistan would be ‘finished.’ Pakistan would presumably be consoled by the fact that in going down it would have inflicted ‘unacceptable damage’ on its foe. Thus, the impression nuclear strategists leave one with, is that the possibility of a nuclear war is viewed with some equanimity. This may perhaps be an effort to bolster deterrence and keep self-deterrence, seen as undercutting ‘resolve,’ at bay. It is also a self-serving mindset that contributes to the rationale for the build up.

Currently, India is apparently moving towards a counterforce capability. Rightly, this is to expand the response options away from counter-value. With ‘city avoidance’ made possible, it facilitates in-conflict deterrence of escalation holding cities as hostage. In Pakistani eyes, such a movement enables a potential first strike capability for India, with increasing numbers and counterforce capability taken together. Therefore, the buildup by Pakistan has the rationale of denying India a first strike capability; or alternatively acquiring a second-strike capability. Since this is deemed healthy for deterrence in theory, an increase in the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is not of itself a matter of concern for India.

Of concern, however, are the emerging contours of the respective doctrines. Pakistan may resort to nuclear weapons, while India responds in kind and there is an in-conflict endeavor to keep the nuclear conflict limited. This is admittedly better than ‘MAD’ in case of breakdown of deterrence. However, to ensure escalation is avoided, an understanding on discontinuing the nuclear exchange earliest and at the lowest possible level, is an overriding imperative.

Such a mutually shared understanding requires a strategic dialogue to exchange respective concepts of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war. This is not in place currently. Since China figures in India’s nuclear calculus, additional compulsions can be conveyed to Pakistan through such a mechanism.

It is another matter that India, through its buildup may be wanting to up the ante and exhaust Pakistan. With the tenth anniversary of the Kargil conflict at hand such a policy is myopic. If former CIA Pakistan expert, Bruce Riedel, is to be believed, the two states came closest to the nuclear threshold ten years ago. Retrospect could yet prove that a strategic dialogue, though ten years too late, may nevertheless be timely.

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