Nuclear war in South Asia
Any future war will be initiated by India to teach Pakistan a lesson and stop the alleged cross-border-terrorism, despite its avowed no first use policy. India cannot risk losing face by being unsuccessful in such a venture. Consequently, it is my considered opinion that in the immediate future, India is more likely than Pakistan to resort to nuclear weapons
Soon after both India and Pakistan went overtly nuclear, speculation was rife as to which was the most likely to use this weapon. Given India’s conventional superiority and its avowed policy of “no first use”, the consensus appeared to be that in the event of a conventional war, Pakistan was most likely to resort to nuclear weapons. I held, and still hold, the minority view that this conclusion is incorrect.
Let us review some of the factors. Firstly deterrence is a state of mind, as discussed in an earlier article, and that quantifying “unacceptable damage”, which would constitute deterrence, in a region where the value of human life is rather insignificant, is far more difficult. Secondly, a cursory look at the map reveals the size and depth of India and the fact that Pakistan lies linear across the northwest face of India. From this it would be fair to conclude that the boastful claims of the likes of L K Advani and George Fernandez that in the event of a nuclear war, India might survive but Pakistan would not are not far from the truth.
Logically therefore (barring sudden insanity in our leadership) Pakistan, while maintaining the policy of “nuclear ambivalence”, would avoid what would be a “zero option” nuclear exchange as this would result in national suicide. Even a pre-emptive strike by Pakistan would result in the same outcome — national suicide — since India’s longer-range missiles would survive. Hence, Pakistan cannot afford to allow its conventional military capability to fall below a certain proportion of India’s so that an asymmetrical balance is maintained. This balance which does not permit India to inflict a military defeat on Pakistan, a subject discussed at length in an earlier article. The earlier article also mentioned that, in the opinion of this author, India’s conventional forces are at present incapable of inflicting a defeat on Pakistan (barring an exceptional display of incompetence by the Pakistani military hierarchy). However, after a few years, India’s capabilities are likely to outpace Pakistan’s.
Keeping in mind the short time needed for missiles to reach their targets in the subcontinent — three to five minutes — it is likely that either side will discover “it has been nuked only when it has been nuked”. This problem will probably not be resolved even if the two adversaries acquire the latest technology equipment, which is unlikely to be available to either side for quite some time to come.
It is my opinion that both India and Pakistan possess a crude type of “second strike” capability: India by virtue of its depth and its longer-range missiles; and Pakistan by virtue of the diversity of mountainous terrain close to its borders with India. As a consequence of this, in the event of a pre-emptive strike by either one, there will be no guarantee that all, or even almost all nuclear warheads and missiles have been “taken out”.
One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that it would be logical for Pakistan to move towards a more credible “second-strike” capability (even though it is unlikely to have it for many years to come). On other hand, India’s acquisition of a more credible second-strike capability might not materially affect the equation. This entire argument only reinforces the earlier conclusion that Pakistan, though not subscribing to the policy of no first use, will not strike first.
But we still need to consider the question that I raised in last week’s article (The Indo-Israeli Nexus, Daily Times, February 1, 2003). Will India, bolstered by technologically advanced weaponry, emboldened by the US-Israel support, decide to follow the policy of pre-emption against what it has successfully portrayed to the world as “Pakistan-sponsored-cross-border-terrorism”? What would happen then?
One option for India, with Israeli support would be a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear assets, before launching a conventional attack. The pre-emptive strike would be justified by pointing out that in the event of a conventional defeat, Pakistan would use its nuclear weapons and hence they must be taken out first. There are no guarantees that this pre-emptive strike would succeed.
Despite Israeli assistance, my considered opinion is that it will not succeed, in which case Pakistan might immediately respond and face obliteration. Alternately, Pakistan might not respond immediately and only warn India that it has failed in its objective, which India might believe or not believe (Remember that deterrence is a state of mind). Another option for India would be to launch a conventional pre-emptive strike, with Israeli assistance, to teach Pakistan a lesson without taking out the latter’s nuclear weapons.
In either eventuality, whether preceded by a pre-emptive strike at our nuclear assets or not, a conventional attack is a foregone conclusion. Once again, there are no guarantees that this attack would succeed. I have already stated my opinion that it is not likely to succeed in the immediate future.
If this assessment is accurate, what will happen next? Will India withdraw thinking that it could make another attempt some other day or will both sides pull back, claiming victory as they did after the 1965 war? Or will one of the two use the ultimate weapon?
Any future war will be initiated by India to teach Pakistan a lesson and stop the alleged cross-border-terrorism, despite its avowed no first use policy. India cannot risk losing face by being unsuccessful in such a venture. Consequently, it is my considered opinion that in the immediate future, India is more likely than Pakistan to resort to the ultimate weapon, since for Pakistan it is a “zero option”.
On the other hand, if my assessment of our relative conventional capabilities is inaccurate and, if Pakistan does not lose all its weapons in a pre-emptive strike at its nuclear assets, or if such a strike is not attempted and Pakistan faces certain defeat, will Pakistan feel compelled to use the zero option? I do not have the answers to these questions. But I think one can predict that we face troubled times ahead.
The author, an independent analyst, is a retired brigadier. He is also the ex-founder Vice President of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)