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NASR (HATF IX): What Does It Mean For Deterrence And Strategic Stability? – OpEd

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By Sadia Tasleem

The successful test of NASR (HATF IX) is being hailed in many circles as a major technological breakthrough. It is said that the short-range missile with the ability to carry conventional as well as nuclear warheads would ensure Pakistan’s ability to halt India’s quick advance and therefore discourage India to operationalize or even contemplate limited war (under the infamous “Cold Start doctrine”).

Tactical use of nuclear weapons was also a high point of debate during the early decades of Cold War when some of the strategic thinkers suggested that the United States’ extended deterrence in Europe would only be credible and effective when the dis-proportionality between means and ends would reduce. And despite the fact that there were many others who vehemently opposed the idea on equally logical grounds, the United States not only developed but also deployed them.

Knowing the fact that the Cold war realities and requirements were different, and that the policy choices made at that time were also not all so ideal, passing a value judgement on such questions remains a rather difficult task.

Mostly the debates centered on nuclear weapons are developed in the realm of uncertainty and conjecture, so, these very attributes often come to the rescue of “policy decisions” and consequently policy makers. “Uncertainty” opens up many possibilities and thereby even a policy decision that fails the test of theory might appear to withstand the test of time.

Having said that; it is still significant to undertake a dispassionate analysis of each policy decision so that the window of opportunity to improve upon critical issues remains open and an error of judgement could be avoided on questions that could have fatalist outcomes.

Personal opinion on tactical use of nuclear weapons aside, there are few basic questions that need to be raised and addressed, for instance;

Would the ability to use nuclear weapons in a battlefield add to the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence?  And would it increase or decrease strategic stability in the region?

An answer to these questions would be partly determined by our expectations and our adversary’s reactions to the idea of using nukes in battlefield and partly by the doctrine in which operational plans regarding the use of short-range delivery means would be envisaged?

Pakistan India Relations
Pakistan India Relations

The proponents of battlefield use of nuclear weapons argue that since the possibility of battlefield use of nuclear weapons against limited strikes reduces the dis-proportionality of means and ends as oppose to a threat of all-out nuclear war, it therefore enhances the credibility of deterrence. On the issue of strategic stability, they argue that the presence of such means raises the nuclear threshold by providing sufficient time to the leadership during war to explore all possible options – and thereby increases stability.

Both arguments are debatable. As far as the question of credibility of deterrence is concerned, reverse logic might also work equally effectively. Presence of tactical missiles might encourage the adversary to seriously contemplate what the “threat of all out war” had made unthinkable. It would then become purely a matter of judgement for the adversary. If the adversary gets prepared to take the initial cost, compels us to use nuclear weapons first, even at a low scale, puts the onus of responsibility on this side and then responds either with tactical or long range weapons with a greater destructive potential; how would deterrence work then?

On credibility question, which is of course more complicated than it appears; the problem depends on the adversary’s perception of these developments. The question therefore is: What if the adversary looks at these developments as our commitment to keep the threshold high and our unwillingness to go for an all-out-war in response to a conventional strike? What if the enemy reads it as an assurance from our side that we are ready to play and therefore an enemy already frustrated with the stalemate, begins to more seriously explore the available opportunities to exploit. That would push us in to a precarious situation.

We have to make some hard choices; Choice between signaling that “we won’t let u fight” i.e. “its do and die” or that “it’s doable, so let’s play”? Choice between an option of “No war or all-out war” vs. limited war with high probability of escalation again into an all-out-war!

In addition, even keeping international reaction to these developments aside; there would be many other critical questions like; what would be operational military plan regarding the use of these weapons? What about Command and Control and how would that affect the mood and mode of war?

These questions need to be addressed before we finally incorporate the new delivery means into our operational war plans. One thing we need not forget is that one of the purposes of the advocates of tactical use of nuclear weapons in the US was to break the stalemate that shrank American policy choices and put restrictions even on its limited objectives. We have to carefully decide; does a stalemate suit us better or an active engagement of hostilities?

The debate on above questions need to be carefully weighed, nonetheless there is a silver lining to this development, too; no matter how would it affect the strategic scenario of the region in the future to come, one could at least hope that it would help quell Pakistan’s anxieties sprouting out of sometimes rightly calculated and sometimes exaggerated threat perception from India’s military modernization and operational military plans. If nothing else, it should at least improve upon the level of confidence and sense of security within the Pakistani strategic elite.

Sadia Tasleem
PhD Candidate
Department of Defense & Strategic Studies
Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
[email protected]

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