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A Bomb for a Bomb?

A Bomb for a Bomb?

Will Pakistan's defence planners be tempted to match India's declaratory
nuclear rhetoric word for word, or will they restrain themselves?

by Samina Ahmed

Even while Pakistan is still recovering from the diplomatic, strategic and economic consequences of its reactive nuclear tests of May 1998, the BJP caretaker government in India has exploded another nuclear bombshell. On August 17, the National Security Advisory Board released the BJP's draft nuclear arms doctrine. The scope and intent of the doctrine appear alarming.

Predictability recommending an aggressive nuclear posture and an ambitious force structure, the BJP's advisory group of nuclear hawks have abandoned India's post-test announcements of restraint. According to the draft nuclear arms doctrine, India will develop a triad strategic defense system in which nuclear weapons could be delivered by aircraft, submarines and mobile land-based ballistic missiles. Furthermore, should a nuclear conflict occur, India will respond with punitive retaliation with the intention of inflicting "unacceptable damage." Thus India's earlier rhetoric of "minimum credible (nuclear) deterrence" has been replaced by a new emphasis on "effective, credible nuclear deterrence and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail."

The BJP's nuclear intentions have understandably caused concern in Pakistan. The Prime Minister and the chief of army staff have consulted, sessions of the defense committee of the cabinet have been held and the joint chiefs of staff committee have met to formulate an appropriate Pakistani response. Nuclear hawks amongst Pakistan's strategic community have launched their own campaign though print media to pressurize the Sharif government to match India blow by nuclear blow, arguing that an Indian decision to deploy nuclear weapons and their delivery systems leaves Pakistan no choice but to follow suit or else face perpetual Indian nuclear blackmail.

Pakistan's official response to the draft Indian nuclear doctrine has thus been far circumspect. Pakistan has launched a campaign in international fora including the UN Conference on Disarmament, calling upon the international community to condemn India for flouting non-proliferation norms and warning of an impending nuclear arms race in the subcontinent if India goes ahead with nuclear deployment. Pakistan officials are also attempting to use the draft Indian doctrine to gain tacit international acceptance of Pakistan's nuclear deterrent. According to the defense committee of the cabinet, following India's decision to deploy operation-ready nuclear weapons, Pakistan's "minimum nuclear deterrent capability" has become "an indispensable part" of our security doctrine.

Pakistan's cautious reaction can be understood in the light of external constraints. The Pakistani economy has still to recover from the punitive sanctions imposed by the US and other international actors, including the European Union and Japan, after its May 1998 tests. Although most sanctions on multilateral lending have been withdrawn to prevent a total collapse of the ailing Pakistani economy, the Pakistani is in the midst of negotiating with the US for the removal of the remaining economic and military sanctions in return for a nuclear posture that stops short of deployment. Nuclear adventurism at this stage would not only undermine Pakistan's bargaining position but could also result in the reimposition of a stringent sanctions regime. There is, however, no gainsaying that the Pakistani response will remain measured. Pakistan's defense establishment is not known for caution and its security planners have repeatedly demonstrated a deplorable tendency to react in a reckless fashion to Indian nuclear initiatives, the May 1998 tests being one example.

According to Brahma Chellany, member of the BJP's national security advisory board, Pakistan tested in may "solely for political reasons after India forced it hand." As a result, international attention was diverted from India's nuclear ambitions while Pakistan's reactive nuclear tests landed in the economic and diplomatic soup. Will Pakistan's defense planners, once again, into mirroring India's proposed nuclear policy? For a Pakistani establishment which is still smarting from India's diplomatic and military gains during the Kagil crisis, the temptation to match India's declaratory nuclear rhetoric will be great. The climb down at Kargil and the prevailing atmosphere of heightened tensions with India along the LoC and the international border also make Sharif's government vulnerable to pressure from domestic hawks to adopt a more aggressive nuclear posture. The possibility of a reactive Pakistani response is high, evident in Foreign Minister Shamshad Ahmed Khan's statement that "Pakistan doctrine of nuclear weapons programme will be determined by India's actions." There is little awareness that the nuclear trap India could be baiting would have disastrous consequences for Pakistan's national security economically, diplomatically, and strategically.

The finances required for an operational and survivable nuclear triad would severely strain India economy, with one Indian analyst conservatively putting the cost of nuclear weapons alone at more than twice India's current military budget. For heavily indebted Pakistan, where, according to Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar, 61.4 per cent of the defense budget in 1996-'97 was dependant on borrowed resources even a modest survivable nuclear force structure would be far beyond its means. Pakistani policy planners should keep in mind that the US spent trillions of dollars in it nuclear weapons programme while the Soviet economy collapsed in large part due to an untenable nuclear and conventional arms race with the US.

If India opts for overt deployment of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, it would be subjected to international approbation and isolation. Should Pakistan opt for a retaliatory policy of overt deployment, India would be giving the perfect opportunity of diverting international attention away from it irresponsible behavior. The result in diplomatic isolation would also render Pakistan far more vulnerable to Indian nuclear blackmail.

If international pressure on both states to cap and rollback their nuclear weapons programmes takes the form of a comprehensive, multilateral and sustained sanctions regime, Pakistan would once again find itself the main regional loser. It is possible that the draft Indian nuclear arms doctrine will main just that -a draft doctrine, which has been released to sound out international opinion and to assess the international response to a potential Indian deployment of nuclear weapons. BJP policymakers could also have a secondary objective: to bait Pakistan into deploying and operationalising its nuclear arsenal. Pakistani planners should therefore refrain from a knee-jerk reaction and bide their time until India's new elected government makes its nuclear intentions public. If India remains bent on violating international non-proliferation norms, Pakistan would then find itself on an advantageous position to bargain with the international community for appropriate economic, diplomatic, and strategic incentives in return for responsible nuclear behavior. Given the past record of Pakistani security planning, such foresight could, however, bee too much to ask for.


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For Academic Citation: Ahmed, Samina.“A Bomb for a Bomb?.” Newsline, .

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