Forty-seven years ago, in 1972, compelled by worsening threat perception, Pakistan reluctantly embarked upon the nuclear journey when Bhutto ordered his scientists to work on building the nuclear bomb. Twenty-one years ago, on May 28, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests in response to Indian nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998. It is time to review the developments that have taken place since then and examine how Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme has evolved and the challenges it faces. Two points must be kept in mind; one, had India not embarked upon the nuclear path, Pakistan would not have either; second, had India not tested, Pakistan would have kept its program opaque and ambiguous. Why? Consider this: since 1947, Pakistan has faced an existential threat from India. Yet in its initial years, Pakistan was not interested in developing nuclear weapons. Post-East Pakistan debacle, in 1972, after becoming the President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto held a meeting with key officials in Multan and ordered them to build a nuclear bomb. After the Indian nuclear explosion in 1974, Pakistan’s own quest, accelerated
nuclear weapons development.
It would be fair to say that Pakistan reluctantly embarked upon the nuclear path. In keeping with the fact that Pakistan was motivated to build a nuclear weapon due to its security concerns, Islamabad offered New Delhi several arms control proposals such as the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia; simultaneous signatures to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) by India and Pakistan; mutual acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards; bilateral inspections of each other’s nuclear facilities; a joint declaration to renounce the development of nuclear weapons; and the signing of a regional test-ban treaty. These proposals were rejected by India as its nuclear programme was not only Pakistan specific, it also had the China factor to consider. This left no other option for Pakistan but to intensify its own quest for a nuclear deterrent to ensure its security. Despite making considerable advances in the field, Pakistan refrained
from testing until 1998.
On 11 and 13 May 1998, India once again tested its nuclear bomb. After intense policy debate, Islamabad decided to test its nuclear bomb. The statements from the Indian leadership between 11-28 May and the American inability to engage Pakistan also affected the decision.
Unsurprisingly, a militarily weaker Pakistan lacking strategic depth places its reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure its national defence. With increasing conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons for the latter assume the role of an essential penalty to offset India’s conventional superiority.
There are four objectives of Pakistan’s nuclear policy:
- deter all forms of external aggression that
can endanger Pakistan’s national security;
- deterrence will be achieved through the development and maintenance of an effective combination of conventional and strategic forces, at adequate levels within the country’s resource constraints;
- deter Pakistan’s adversaries from attempting a counter-force strategy against its strategic assets by effectively securing the strategic assets;
- threatening nuclear retaliation should such an attempt be made and stabilization of strategic deterrence in the South Asia region.
During this period, Pakistan has made significant progress in the sphere of command and control of its nuclear weapons. On 2 February 2000, the National Security Council approved the creation of the National Command Authority (NCA). The NCA is responsible for nuclear strategic policy formulation and exercises control over the employment and development of all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations. The NCA comprises the Employment Control Committee (ECC) and the Development Control Committee (DCC), as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which acts as the Secretariat. The “Employment Control Committee”, chaired by the head of the government, includes the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Chairman), Defence, and Interior; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) and the Services Chiefs; and the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division, who is also the secretary of this committee.
Technical advisers and others can attend if and when asked and/or required by the Chairman. The main duty of this committee is to formulate the country’s nuclear strategy, including the targeting policy. The Development Control Committee is responsible for the development of strategic assets. This committee includes the Chairman of the JCSC, who acts as Deputy Chairman; the three Services Chiefs; the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division; and the heads of concerned strategic organizations as and when required. The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) acts as the Secretariat for NCA. The primary duty of the SPD is the planning and coordination of the establishment of a reliable command, control, communication, computers and intelligence (C4I) network for the NCA.
Although Pakistan has not officially declared a nuclear doctrine, it is broadly understood to be based on: first use option, credible minimum deterrence/ full spectrum deterrence and undefined nuclear threshold or redlines. Being a weaker party with comparatively lower conventional capabilities, Pakistan has to retain the option of first use. However, Pakistani leadership has made it clear time and again that its nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort. Pakistan argues that it maintains a credible minimum deterrence capability in which numerical parity with India is not necessary as its nuclear policy is based strictly on deterrence, and not on warfighting.
Pakistan’s deterrent posture is directly proportional to India’s military nuclear advancement, which to date is the primary nuclear threat. Therefore, Pakistan’s deterrence cannot be quantified in numbers because what (and how many) deters India today may not be enough for tomorrow. In light of the ever-widening imbalance between the conventional capabilities of India and Pakistan, and the Cold Start Doctrine, Pakistan has responded with developing tactical nuclear weapons to counter the possibility of a limited war under a nuclear umbrella.
This comes under the new terminology used by Pakistani leadership of Full Spectrum Deterrence. A number of analysts consider this a clear departure from the initial policy of credible minimum deterrence and see it as an offensive and destabilising factor. One can see the full spectrum deterrence policy as a continuation of credible minimum deterrence policy of Pakistan in light of its contours discussed above.
Nuclear weapons have figured prominently in Indo-Pakistan crises. Even before overt nuclearization of both countries in 1998, nuclear weapons played a decisive role in at least two crises; Brasstacks and the Compound Crisis of 1990. After nuclearization, India and Pakistan came close to a nuclear confrontation twice according to various accounts: the Kargil conflict in 1999 and the military standoff in 2002.
One thing that becomes obvious looking at these Indo-Pakistan crises is how a militarily weaker Pakistan, without sufficient strategic depth, places its reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure its national defence. With the increasing conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons for the latter assume the role of an essential penalty to offset India’s conventional superiority. This is exactly why Pakistan has opted for a No No First Use (NNFU) policy and has kept its nuclear threshold undefined.
In April 2004, the Indian army created the idea of a Cold Start doctrine. Under this doctrine, the Indian army is to be divided into eight smaller division-sized “integrated battle groups” (IBGs). To provide highly mobile fire support, the IAF and naval aviation would help IBGs operations through close air support. The major element of the doctrine was speed: rapid mobilisation of forces to achieve a quick victory. The aim of this limited-war doctrine was to initiate a conventional strike against Pakistan that would cause significant harm to the Pakistan army before the international community could intervene to resolve the dispute.
The most important question that needs to be asked is what objectives will be set for any strikes under the Cold Start Doctrine on Pakistan, and in which geographic area? As Pakistan lacks strategic depth, any strike is likely to threaten Pakistan prompting it to respond in a way the Indian planners might not be able to contemplate. The Cold Start war doctrine is a risky proposition because the Indian army, which increasingly regards its political leadership to be spineless, could initiate such a situation to prove its point. One has already witnessed this tendency during the 2002 stand-off. Although New Delhi failed to operationalize this doctrine post-Mumbai attack, Islamabad considers this a real possibility, a serious threat and has revised its strategy and included tactical
nuclear weapons to counter it.
In these twenty-one years, Pakistan has made steady progress in the nuclear field. Apart from what has been highlighted above, Islamabad has also acquired ballistic and cruise missiles as well as developed tactical or low yield battlefield nuclear weapons. The test of Babur-III submarine launched cruise missile is a testament to its second strike capability.
In these twenty-one years, Pakistani nuclear establishment navigated between transparency and opacity. The latter was required for security reasons while the former to ensure the global community that Pakistani nuclear weapons are safe and secure. Where does Nuclear Pakistan go from here? Would Pakistan continue to be a reluctant nuclear weapon state? How reluctance will be defined? Would it strive to match India? Would it continue to support different nuclear disarmament initiatives? What would be Pakistan’s nuclear projection strategy? How will it balance its national security concerns and ensure that its stance should not be beneficial to states that are part of its threat perception? How will Islamabad conduct its nuclear diplomacy to achieve the objective of mainstreaming, in keeping with its growing relations with China, a country that is increasingly being viewed as a foe by Trump’s Washington.
Dr. Rizwan Zeb is an Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University Islamabad. A slightly different and an earlier version of this article was published in University of Nottingham’s Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies IAPS Dialogue. I am grateful to Elliot Newbold for being an excellent editor and colleague.