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What Does Pakistan Hope to Achieve with Nasr?

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 17, 2011

    A partisan debate has understandably followed the unveiling of Nasr in April 2011. While analysts in Pakistan have taken pains to underline its utility, those in India have expressed an informed scepticism. This debate notwithstanding, the assumption informing this commentary is that Nasr exists as a potent weapon system with capabilities as advertised.
    An answer for the question posed in the title can be hazarded along four levels: grand strategic, strategic, operational and tactical. There appears to be a contradiction in the implications of Nasr at these different levels. How Pakistan resolves these contradictions will determine how it will eventually employ the weapon system.

    At the grand strategic level, the idea seems to be to focus international attention on South Asia as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’. The possibility of use of nuclear weapons increases with the ‘use them lose them’ connotations of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). It is expected that this would energise the international community towards crisis de-escalation and conflict termination. The aim would be to have the pressure work on Indian decision makers, depriving them of autonomy of decision making.

    At the strategic level, it has been rightly pointed out by Indian nuclear analysts that Nasr is an attempt at lowering, or rather projecting, a low nuclear threshold. The idea is to restrict the scope for India’s conventional operations. In the limited war logic, India does not intend to flirt with Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. In any event, keeping these low would help Pakistan preserve its territory and military forces to the extent possible.

    At the operational level, the impact of Nasr is more psychological. The aim would be to slow down Indian offensive pincers by making them ‘button down’ for a battlefield that could potentially suddenly ‘go nuclear’. The precautions, logistics load and time cycle of standard operations procedures would slow down and complicate operations. This would translate into increased combat friction, resulting in an increased leadership burden. There will be higher levels of vulnerability of bottlenecks such as bridgeheads. Pakistan would be able to counter thrust lines that it cannot address due to the relative imbalance of forces or if it is surprised. Indian forces will not be able to exploit opportunities with a sense of impunity, even those of pursuit. In fact, the more successful they get, the more the nuclear shadow of Nasr will loom large. The element of fear, surprise and its disconcerting effect will be exploited fully by Pakistan. India may need additional forces to cater for various contingencies. This will have a corresponding affect on logistics, the pace of progress of operations, coordination, presenting potential targets, etc.

    At the tactical level, the physical and psychological pressures of operating in a potential nuclear battlefield will add to the strain of combat. In hot weather there would be increased physical attrition to troops, requiring earlier relief and time consuming rotation in subunit/unit roles. Wider dispersion that nuclear tactics necessitate will increase command and control problems and the fog of war. Wide frontages increase the vulnerability to counter attack, since the freedom to concentrate would be with the counter attacker.
    It would appear that the seeming advantages stated above are behind Pakistan’s development of Nasr. However, it is surely not an unmixed blessing. What are the cons?

    At the grand strategic level, attracting international attention to the region as a crisis point works both ways. As the Kargil conflict showed, India can profit from the situation and the onus on backing off could well be on Pakistan. Any propensity for first use may prompt the feared crackdown on its nuclear assets by the US-led international community, which would be to India’s advantage. This may convulse the Pakistan military into an internal battle over its assets, which would be especially untimely when faced with an Indian ‘threat’. Pakistan will finally end up a nuclear pariah with a dysfunctional military, a state it has managed to avoid so far.

    At the strategic level, by displaying its new found capability, Pakistan has partially attempted to go down the NATO route during the Cold War. The NATO planned to employ TNW to counter the overwhelming mechanised attacks which were expected to be carried out by the Warsaw Pact forces. Using TNW would destroy the very land being defended. The difference in Pakistan’s case would be in the limited numbers of such weapon systems and, secondly, on India’s self-restraint in pulling its conventional punches. Therefore, the employment of Nasr will not be so much as to effect the military situation as to signal the crossing of the nuclear threshold. Since this would trigger the Indian nuclear doctrine of assured retaliation, in uncertain ways, it is not self-evident what Pakistan could achieve by this. It could, however, attempt to escape paying the price by choosing a ‘green-field’ option of a demonstration strike on its own territory, for instance, in the Cholistan desert.

    The operational level fallout of the use of Nasr will be equally on Pakistani forces. Once nuclear weapons have had battlefield incidence, they will prove to be an equaliser. The advantages that Pakistan seeks as a defender would be nullified in a violent, possibly nuclear, Indian response. (The former Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Air Chief Marshal P. V. Naik let on as much in his meeting with the press prior to demitting office.) The psychological, physical and logistics load will be exponentially increased by the panic among civilian populations. This will be relatively greater in Pakistan since the theatre of operations, defined by proactive Indian offensives, will be inside Pakistan.
    At the tactical level, there are no empirical studies on the sociological impact of a nuclear battlefield. If combat cohesion breaks down, it will be as likely among Pakistani troops as Indian. The depth in terms of numbers available with India may help it compensate. This luxury is not available to Pakistan. The effect on the force multiplier that Pakistan intends using - irregulars – can only be expected to be negative. Since Pakistani civilians will be more affected, the ties of Pakistani soldiers to kith and kin may prove distracting. There is no evidence of either side having thought through the leadership, bonding and discipline issues on a nuclear battlefield. The emphasis has only been on personal protection at best, and that too is largely lip service for want of training equipment.

    As can be seen, there are some operational level dividends that would accrue to Pakistan by using Nasr though it will come at some strategic cost. Two possibilities emerge. The first is that the Pakistani military - true to its wont in being more sensitive to military as against political and strategic concerns - has perhaps focused overly on the operational gains as against strategic costs. Alternatively, given the inescapably obvious costs that it will incur, the military is sensitive to the contradictions. It is only milking Nasr as an information war opportunity.

    The judgment here is in favour of the latter. Nasr can at best likely increase India’s natural restraint and operational caution. There is no particular harm in this for there is little case for nuclear haste and any additional operational caution can only energise prior preparation. In its employment, the Nasr is unlikely to halt India in its tracks. Instead, it will likely be employed in nuclear signalling, the most likely manner of which could be in a demonstration strike.

    India can arrive at prudent answers, both at the conventional and nuclear levels, to deal with this issue. What might such an answer be? The suggestion here is that the employment of Nasr, even in a ‘green-field’ mode, must release India from NFU constraint. This does not imply default retaliation. Instead, it is for debate whether manipulating the threat of nuclear attack(s) will beget India more political and military dividends than indulging in them.