The renowned philosopher, George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Pakistan is repeating the US decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War and which has limited applicability in South Asian. NATO’s perceived military inferiority against the Soviet Union is often cited to justify Pakistan’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons against the conventionally superior India.
By deploying tactical nuclear weapons, the United States’ goal was to deter any conventional attack by the Soviet Union on Western Europe. The United States also wanted to prevent any European conflict from developing into a full fledge nuclear war between the two superpowers. These weapons proved to be useless militarily and most of them were withdrawn from Europe in 1991. The United States’ strategists learned that nuclear use at the tactical level would lead to a strategic response and an uncontrollable escalation. Pakistan, however, has embraced this discarded strategy by testing the short-range ballistic missile, the Nasr (Hatf IX) on April 19, 2011 and has repeated tests four times since then. India, on the other hand, has tested a short-range ballistic missile on July 21, 2011.
In response to cross-border terrorism, allegedly supported by Pakistan, the Indian army developed a “Cold Start Doctrine” in 2004. This doctrine is based on rapid, limited conventional military operations against terrorist organizations in Pakistan. It calls for quick penetration into Pakistan in response to cross-border terrorist strikes and the seizing of territory to negotiate the end of a terrorist attack on Indian soil. Empirical developments since 2004 show that India has not implemented this doctrine. Indian officials and policymakers have either denied the existence of this doctrine or have not endorsed this adventurous strategy. A classified document released by WikiLeaks dated February 16, 2010 revealed that Tim Roemer, then US Ambassador to India, described Cold Start as “a mixture of myth and reality.” He further argued, “While the army may remain committed to the goals of the doctrine, political support is less clear.” India did not apply Cold Start in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attack, which calls into question the political will for this doctrine.
Cold Start is designed to punish Pakistan in a limited military operation without triggering a nuclear response. However, one can never be sure whether Pakistan will refrain from using nuclear weapons. To counter the potential for limited Indian intrusions along the line of this doctrine, Pakistan has begun to develop Nasr under the rubric of “full spectrum deterrence.” In the 2008 Mumbai attack, however, India was deterred from initiating cross-border retaliation without the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on Pakistan’s side. Pakistan’s strategic weapons were enough to deter India. During the Cold War what deterred the Soviet Union from attacking NATO countries was not the possession of tactical nuclear weapons but the risk of escalation to the strategic level once tactical weapons were used.
Pakistan seems to imply that actions at the tactical or operational level have no strategic implications and a limited nuclear war will not escalate into a full fledge nuclear war. India threatens massive retaliation against the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and the current Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board said that if India is attacked with nuclear weapons “it will engage in nuclear retaliation which is massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical is irrelevant from Indian perspective.”
The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons may lead to loosening the highly centralized command and control mechanism. Battlefield nuclear weapons require local commanders to have authority and capability to arm and launch nuclear weapons. This raises the risk of unauthorized use during a crisis or inadvertent escalation during a conventional conflict by a local commander of a nuclear-armed unit who might feel it necessary to use the weapons in order to avoid defeat. A positive sign is that Pakistan has not deployed the weapons in forward positions yet and has not delegated the authority to local commanders.
The idea of using nuclear weapons at the operational level on Pakistani soil will cause significant civilian causalities due to the dense population along the Indian and Pakistan border. This will also have a damaging effect on Pakistan’s own military forces and render the land uninhabitable. In 1955 NATO conducted a military exercise to test its ability to defend West Germany by employing nuclear weapons. The results estimated that 1.3 millions Germans would have died, 3.5 millions would have been seriously injured and a large territory would have become uninhabitable.
More tactical nuclear weapons in Pakistan also increase safety and security problems. The safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program has been a major concern in the international community in the wake of terrorist organizations operating in the country. Political instability and terrorist attacks on the military installations, including army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a naval base in Karachi, and an air base in Kamra with inside support, have exacerbated these concerns.
Tactical nuclear weapons carry the risk of preemptive strikes. During the Cold War the Soviet Union monitored all the nuclear sites in West Germany. Any movements on those sites including preparations to launch nuclear weapons, mating of warheads to missiles and uploading would have prompted the Soviet Union to strike preemptively. There was a strong temptation to destroy the weapons before they were launched. In the case of India and Pakistan the short flight times of ballistic missiles exacerbate these tensions by sharply reducing decision-making time for leaders during a crisis.
The Indians and the Pakistanis have a practice of using their missiles for both conventional and nuclear weapons, which further increases the risk of misperception and unintended escalation. The real lessons to be learned from the Cold War experience is not to develop tactical nuclear weapons but to imitate the US and USSR’s experience about enhancing strategic stability by increasing transparency and using diplomacy to alleviate an arms race. The lesson of the Cold War is not to rely on nuclear weapons, but to find ways to reduce reliance on tactical nuclear weapons and place a crises stability mechanism and a confidence building mechanism in South Asia. Both Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif have a lot to learn from Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev about negotiating over their differences. But so far, each leader seems focused on placating their myopic bases.