Pakistan’s nuclear tests and deterrence stability in South Asia

By Asma Khalid

The month of May remains very important in history Pakistan for its defense. 28th of this month is a day when the defense of Pakistan was made invincible. On this day Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests in response to five nuclear tests conducted by India. It is important to note that it was the second time that India was conducting nuclear tests, the first test being so called Smiling Buddha in May 1974. Soon after nuclear tests, sanctions were imposed by the UNSC both on India and Pakistan. The country maintained logical position that Pakistan was not the first to conduct nuclear test. Pakistan despite having developed the capability for over a decade avoided conducting hot testing of nuclear devices. Pakistan was left with no option but to conduct a test of its nuclear devices to become overt nuclear power to send the message to regional bully India that had been sending highly threatening and destabilizing signals to Pakistan. At that time Indian political and military leadership after the tests was following aggressive posture towards Pakistan and was expecting surrender of Pakistan and the subservient role of Pakistan in South Asia in the wake of a nuclear test by India. Under these circumstances Pakistan was justified to conduct nuclear tests of its own. The conventional military imbalance that India had with Pakistan and its reflection in Indian policy towards Pakistan forced the Pakistani policy makers, both military and civilian, to consider the nuclear weapons option for security of Pakistan. The rationale of Pakistan’s military nuclear program remains countering the conventional military superiority of India. In the past India under different pretexts mobilized its military to exert pressure on Pakistan. It was Indian short-sighted behavior that made Indian conventional military superiority vis-a-vis Pakistan irrelevant after Pakistan became overt nuclear power.

In following decade after the nuclear tests, Pakistan developed different delivery systems and nuclear doctrine for defining the role of nuclear weapons in overall external security of the country. All weapons are means of extending the national interest of the country. The role of nuclear weapons in Pakistan is making unbearable the cost of any military option that India may consider against Pakistan. Hence the concept of strategic stability comes into play. Pakistan has degraded the military options for India to the point where they become irrational.  Since the rationale of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is countering Indian conventional military force, adopting first use doctrine is logical. It’s the balance of terror between India and Pakistan that discourages India from using conventional military force in any misadventure against Pakistan.

If Pakistan were to adopt “no first use” policy, such a doctrinal position might encourage India to believe that it can utilize its conventional military force against Pakistan in short war before nuclear weapons become relevant.  Indian Cold Start doctrine is specifically structured under this false assumption that shift, swift and decisive victory over Pakistan was possible by rapid deployment of conventional military force in theatre of its own choosing.  Though India initially denied the existence of any such doctrine, later statements from security elite of India have revealed that such doctrine does exist for all practical purposes. An Indian security elite mindset that conventional war with Pakistan was possible under nuclear overhang is highly destabilizing. By adopting the first use nuclear doctrinal posture, Pakistan has made it explicit that any conventional military attack on Pakistan will not remain restricted to this domain only. In such a scenario, the responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan will rest with India.

There is a lot of negative propaganda associated with the development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by Pakistan. It was aggressive behavior of India manifested in Cold Start doctrine that forced Pakistan to develop TNWs. As theatre level nuclear weapons, TNWs are for self-defense. The stability effect that TNWs have in South Asia is highly underrecognized.

Pakistan has developed robust command and control system for nuclear weapons. This structure is formalized in the form of National Command Authority (NCA) with the Prime Minister as its head. Like all other nuclear weapons states, the composition of NCA is reflective of consensus between civil and military leadership in this regard. Critics of military’s representation in the NCA are oblivious to the fact civil-military leadership work in tandem with the purpose of securing the country. The control over nuclear devices remains with the civilian leadership.

The utility of nuclear weapons can be checked from the fact that despite multiple escalations after overt nuclearization of South Asia, India has not dared to attack Pakistan from eastern border. Pakistan achieved major milestone in January 2017 and gained credible second strike capability, which has ensured durable peace and protection of any attack from India. Therefore, the development of credible second strike capability by Pakistan has enhanced the deterrence relationship and strategic stability in South Asia.

Asma Khalid is a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.

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