Pakistan’s nuclear compulsions
MUCH alarm has been raised in the West about Pakistan’s enhancement of its nuclear capability and the position it has taken at negotiations in Geneva on a treaty banning the production of bomb making fissile material. Western analysts have often depicted this as a mindless, irrational drive motivated by the unbridled ambitions of the nuclear scientific-military lobby.
This is far from true. To understand the strategic rationale for Pakistan’s fissile material needs – achieving credible nuclear deterrence at the lowest possible cost and level – the issue must be placed in a proper, broader perspective. It means taking into account the chain of rapid developments that have undermined the region’s strategic equilibrium and affected Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. They include the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, exemption for India by the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, India’s conventional military and strategic build-up, enunciation of offensive doctrines involving ‘Proactive Operations’ and efforts to develop a missile defence capability.
Many of these developments were aided and abetted by the international community in pursuit of their strategic and commercial interests. Pakistan’s warnings were repeatedly ignored that discriminatory nuclear actions would be consequential for the region and oblige Islamabad to act to preserve the credibility of nuclear deterrence and ensure strategic stability.
The interplay between a changing strategic environment – Pakistan’s perception of increasing regional asymmetry in both nuclear and conventional capabilities – global non-proliferation efforts and technical compulsions help to explain why Pakistan has been building fissile stocks.
The historical context is important. The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998 helped to establish strategic balance and provided Pakistan the reassurance of possessing a strategic equaliser to India’s conventional military preponderance.
The nuclear relationship between them of course needed to be clarified and remains a work in progress. Towards that goal, Pakistan proposed a Strategic Restraint Regime to India in 1999 to stabilise the strategic equation. This had three elements – measures for nuclear restraint and risk reduction, conventional military balance and resolution of disputes. The interlocking concept did not find acceptance even though some elements remained the subject of sporadic bilateral dialogue at Pakistan’s insistence.
Soon after, the Kargil conflict inter-
Pakistan then went on a fast track to build its fissile stocks. In ten years it constructed four plutonium reactors and three reprocessing plants
vened, bringing the dialogue to a halt. This was followed by the 2001-02 military standoff, triggered by a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament. These developments led to dangerous thinking among India’s strategic community about how to neutralise the strategic balance and engage in limited conventional war below the nuclear threshold. This was to produce a doctrinal transformation and culminate in the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine (the name may have been dropped but not the notion) and plans for its operationalisation.
This doctrinal shift and consequent military posture had significant security implications for Pakistan. The notion of a war-fighting option in a nuclear environment was questioned by Pakistan, which insisted that however ‘limited,’ war between two nuclear states would heighten the risk of nuclear escalation, whether intentional or not. As Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was to later warn, proponents of the “use of conventional force in a nuclear overhang” were charting a dangerous course whose consequences could be both “unintended and uncontrollable”.
Meanwhile, other developments unfolded at the global level to transform great power relations and strategies. These shifts saw the emergence of an implicit ‘contain China’ strategy by the US. Although this never became declared policy and Sino-US relations were marked by cooperation and competition, Pakistan’s security planners perceived the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal of 2005 and NSG waiver as evidence of this contain China strategy.
These actions significantly enhanced India’s ability to expand its strategic arsenal and capabilities and accelerated its quest for ways to overcome the strategic deterrence established after 1998. India was enabled to increase its fissile material stocks qualitatively and quantitatively with Pakistan left to fend for itself. This reshaped Pakistan’s threat perceptions and determined its position on Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty negotiations in the Geneva based Conference on Disarmament.
Meanwhile Pakistan’s nuclear thinking was evolving independently along another track. This was the need to pursue the plutonium route because of the evident limitations of highly enriched uranium in miniaturising nuclear weapons. This led to plans to establish four reactors to produce plutonium, and reprocessing facilities to master the whole nuclear fuel cycle. These plans were however speeded up and plutonium production expanded (with three additional reactors) by the nuclear exceptionalism accorded to India as well as by US diplomatic efforts to conclude an FMCT. Until 2009, Washington had itself blocked negotiations for over a decade. The Obama administration changed this position, opening prospects for serious negotiations.
Pakistan then went on a fast track to build its fissile stocks. In ten years it constructed four plutonium reactors and three reprocessing plants. The plutonium route was thus completed in the decade that Pakistan held up negotiations at Geneva on the grounds that a treaty banning future production and not covering existing stocks would freeze the prevailing asymmetry between Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s nuclear diplomacy, effectively conducted by Ambassador Zamir Akram at Geneva, evolved in tandem with the strategic rationale and technical developments to address an evolving threat.
Meanwhile, India’s proactive doctrine aimed at a rapid deployment warfighting strategy impelled Pakistan to look for a response. Seeking space for limited conventional military engagement on the assumption that India’s vast conventional asymmetry would prevent Pakistan from threatening to use its strategic capability obliged Pakistan to seek an appropriate ‘solution’ to fill the perceived gaps in the nuclear domain. While Pakistan’s capability for a tactical response was already under development, the emerging Indian military posture constrained Pakistan to take the decision to develop delivery systems for Full Spectrum Deterrence.