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Pakistan’s ‘First Use’ in Perspective

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 12, 2011

    Before and after Osama’s killing, the spotlight fell momentarily on Pakistan’s nuclear intentions. Prior to his death, the headlines dwelt on Pakistani tests of Hatf VIII and Hatf IX. Demonstrating plausible first use capability, these were intended to deter a conventional attack by India. After Osama’s death, in a verbal salvo, Pakistan’s foreign secretary warned of ‘catastrophic’ consequences in case any state (read India) chose to emulate the US. His reference was perhaps to escalation, with Pakistani nuclear first use as a grim possibility. What exactly are the chances of this?

    That ‘first use’ is inherent in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is less indicative of what the doctrine contains and more the general consensus with regard to its nature. Pakistan has not declared its nuclear doctrine as India has done. The fact that it does not subscribe to NFU does not by default imply a first use doctrine. Therefore, it cannot categorically be said that Pakistan’s operational nuclear doctrine is one of nuclear first use.

    Having acknowledged this, it has to be said that all indicators point to Pakistani ‘first use’. Firstly, Pakistan wishes not only to deter a nuclear attack but also a conventional attack by compensating for its conventional disadvantages through nuclear means. Second, it has not subscribed to NFU and as per Wikileaks revelations, General Kayani was not in sync with his president’s inclination towards NFU. Third, there are several statements from important personages on the Pakistani intention to escalate in case of conventional conflict. Fourth, since it is the military that has control over the nuclear button, the nuclear arsenal may be more attuned to developments in conventional warfare than would otherwise be the case. Lastly, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent is operated under military control through service specific strategic commands. This indicates a greater readiness to follow through.

    Pakistan is also ambiguous about the nature of its first use. One option is along the time dimension. For some, first use could be a Samson option - as a ‘last resort’. This may command greater legality in terms of extreme resort in self-defence. Alternatively, as the development of the ‘Nasr’ suggests, it may be taken early on when the conflict in a ‘low threshold mode’.

    The second ambiguity is over the type of nuclear strike. The first type is a ‘higher order’ strike, attempting to disarm and degrade India’s strike back capability. This is more likely a last resort. The targets could be a mix of counter military, counter force and counter city. The second type is more likely a ‘middle order’ use option in which multiple nuclear strikes are used to blunt India’s conventional offensive capabilities, such as when India’s strike corps are delivering a grievous blow. These could be on counter military targets, and include targets within India - such as supporting air fields. The third is ‘lower order’ first use, as part of nuclear signalling such as demonstration strikes or low opprobrium quotient strike(s). These could include a strike or two -in the oft-discussed scenario of a strike on an advancing Indian armoured column - in Pakistani territory in a defensive mode. In graduated first use scenarios, this is how nuclear weapons may be introduced into the conflict.

    Pakistan has demonstrated its tactical nuclear capability through the miniaturisation, low yield, short range and shoot and scoot capability of ‘Nasr’. This helps project a low threshold in the early use mode. This means it can attempt either demonstration strikes or employ these in greater numbers to derail India’s strike formations. This is not so much by physically stopping the pincers, as much as by slowing them down by the strategic, operational and logistics effects of transiting to the nuclear realm.

    These weapons have not been delegated to operational formations. Instead, they are controlled by service specific strategic commands, indicating centralisation. This means that any of the options discussed above is available to Pakistan for execution, and it is not necessarily restricted to a default war fighting first use option.

    Pakistan can be expected to reinforce its deterrent through an information campaign, surrounding a low threshold projection. This compensates for any weakness or lack of credibility relating to its deterrent, since the deterrent also covers the conventional level. Its projection of irrationality is in keeping with the ‘rationality of irrationality’ thesis - a part of nuclear deterrence theory. The idea is to keep India guessing and hopefully deterred.

    To attribute a first use doctrine to Pakistan is to admit that India’s nuclear weapons do not deter adequately. This may not be true since Pakistan too is subject to the psychological effects of deterrence. Deterrence is heightened since first use implies a break in the nuclear taboo. There would also be no guarantee of success and the only certainty would be of costs - known and known unknowns as well as unimagined and unimaginable.

    ‘First use’ would be dependent on appreciation of gains and costs. Gains from projection of a first use are self-evident. Firstly, the existence of a ‘threshold’ forecloses any expansive options that India’s conventional might may enable. Secondly, it refines the stability/instability paradox in injecting instability at the nuclear level. It indicates a rejection of India’s deterrence as it is currently defined, as a one-step escalatory ladder. This will force India to reconsider its nuclear response strategy, if not its declaratory doctrine. It stabilises the conventional level in reinforcing Indian prudence, thereby opening up the sub-conventional level for proxy war. The paradox can therefore be extended to read instability/stability/instability.

    The gain from executing first use is in attempting to escape paying a price that India may set out to exact by catalysing the international community’s intervention. It would also bring home to India grave dangers that it may have discounted in going in for a military showdown. But the costs are much starker.

    India’s promise of assured retaliation cannot be ignored, in the light of India’s growing second strike capability. Even if India’s declared intent of visiting ‘massive’ retribution is seemingly lacking in credibility, assured retaliation may yet inflict ‘unacceptable damage’. Secondly, there are risks in a first use intent inviting a pre-emptive strike. India is going down the BMD route. It has a multiple satellite launch capability, which over time can translate into an MIRV capability.

    The upshot of this discussion is: firstly that first use is useful only for projection. Secondly, strategic sense favours an operational nuclear doctrine that tends towards NFU. Equally, strategic sense, from Pakistan’s point of view, is in keeping this secret. It can therefore be inferred, that the greater the projection the less likely the intention.

    Projection of first use is safe for Pakistan since it rightly counts on India’s strategic maturity. India has no intention of being deflected from its economic trajectory. Pakistan’s nuclear nonchalance therefore owes much to its largely accurate appreciation of its nuclear posturing going untested.

    This is one assumption India will not challenge by departing from military prudence. Its recent distancing from Cold Start is not so much on account of the efficacy of Pakistani deterrence, but its own grand strategic economic imperative. Sensibly, even as India wishes to match step with Pakistan, it has no intention of accompanying Pakistan on its way downhill.