The Nuclear Rubicon

The recent announcement by Pakistan regarding successful trials of its tactical nuclear weapon (TNW), the short-range (60 km) nuclear capable Hatf-9 — or Al Nasr — missile comes at a time when events in AfPak as well as inside Pakistan remain in uneasy equilibrium. It introduces an additional and potentially destabilising new factor into the Indo-Pak matrix.

TNWs are not strategic heavyweights designed as distant stand-offs for mutual deterrence, but tactical bantamweights meant for trading punches in actual nuclear warfighting, should such an event ever come to pass. The existing classifications of nuclear weapons (strategic, theatre and tactical) are holdovers from Euro-centric Cold War perceptions. They are largely irrelevant in the India-Pakistan context, where the entire spectrum of nuclear weapons ranging from megaton down to sub-kiloton can reach most of the regions in the two countries. This, in effect, will bring all types of nuclear weapons on both sides of the border into the strategic category.
Nuclear warfare at any level has always been considered unthinkable by the Indian establishment, and rightly so. However, such assumptions presuppose a corresponding modicum of rationality on the part of the potential opponent that does not seem to find much place in the radically crazed jihad, which has developed deep roots in the Pakistani military establishment and extensively infects that country’s armed forces.
The serial impacts of the Raymond Davis incident, the continuing American drone strikes inside Pakistani territory and the Abbottabad incident have deeply enraged the middle piece and rank and file in the Pakistan military against their own government as well as senior commanders. This has left them seething with impotent rage against the United States. This rage finds ready expression in vicious side-swipes at India, always perceived as a softer, flabbier target, whenever opportunity presents itself, as demonstrated most recently in PNS Babur’s “shoulder charge” against INS Godavari during the retrieval of MV Suez from the custody of Somali pirates.
Pakistan is being consumed by its internal wars, as shown by the fidayeen attack on PNS Mehran, the naval base at Karachi. The prospects of TNW with Pakistan’s radically Islamicised armed forces is undoubtedly a matter of concern for India, which must review its responses to cater for the emergence of a Dr Strangelove figure in the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment.
Some idea of the Pakistani mindset can be found in the enunciation by Lt. Gen. (retd) Khalid Kidwai, the director general of the Strategic Plans Division of the National Command Authority, of the contingencies under which Pakistan would take recourse to nuclear warfare in the event of hostilities towards India. According to Gen. Kidwai, these would be extensive losses of territory, destruction of a large part of the defence forces, economic strangulation, political destabilisation or large-scale subversion.
In this context it would be interesting to speculate whether the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 might have constituted a trigger for the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan had these been available at that time. The new TNW factor will obviously require these earlier perceptions to be revised downwards. India for its part has imposed on itself a self-perceived “nuclear threshold”, in its dealings with Pakistan, an undefined (and indefinable) Rubicon which has to govern the limits of Indian responses, even against the most appalling provocations for fear of provoking Pakistan, an approach, which provides a convenient excuse to the national leadership for total inaction regardless of the degree of provocation. This has been amply demonstrated both after the attack on Parliament in 2001 as well as after the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks in 2008 regardless of the government in office. It seems India never learns lessons when dealing with Pakistan. If India is incapable of taking hardline action, then it must at least avoid repeatedly shaming its own people in front of the world by gratuitous overtures to Pakistan followed by undignified climb downs. Pakistan for its part has gleefully capitalised on India’s tremulous indecision from its “sum of all fears” outlook by brandishing its nuclear arsenal and provocatively proclaiming its exclusive focus on India.
Meanwhile, not too many details have emerged about Hatf-9, apart from its extraordinarily short-range capability of 60 km and stated “shoot and scoot capability”, along with glimpses of a multi-barrel mobile launcher, resembling the conventional Russian SMERCH, or its Chinese equivalent — the Type 03/PHL03 (sometimes designated A-100) held with Pakistan.
Among the possible inferences that can be drawn from these very elementary details are that Hatf-9 is likely a solid-fuelled missile, possibly mounting sub-kiloton or low kiloton warheads, which will possibly require to be deployed in locations well forward on the battlefield, almost in the manner of conventional artillery. This is an issue which presents several problems, notably that of vulnerability. All this certainly goes against accepted tactical norms, but the twists or surprises in such a situation have not fully unravelled as yet. As a matter of purely historical analogy, it may not be out of place to remember that as far back as 1953, in the early years of the Cold War, the United States fielded the 120-km range Corporal, its first nuclear capable missile for tactical support of ground forces which was also deployed along with conventional artillery.
No one has experienced the nuclear battlefield. Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide no precedents, since they were strategic bombings of population centres which nuclear jargon would later categorise as “value targets”. It was not tactical warfighting with nuclear weapons in the heat, dust, smoke, confusion and haze, which have been the characteristics of all battlefields since Kurukshetra, and will undoubtedly remain in the nuclear age as well.
The issue of nuclear warfighting has been extensively researched and written about, but obviously on the basis of theoretical estimates or academic extrapolation, not hard practical experience. So if, when, or whenever, a nuclear war does come to pass, it will be a first experience for everyone, including the uninvolved bystanders. The introduction of Hatf-9 has diminished the nuclear firebreak and will certainly not help matters.

The author is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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