Trump’s New Nuke Stance Could Open a Pandora’s Box in South Asia

Trump announced he is seeking to re-introduce tactical nukes in a new posture. What message will this send Pakistan?

4 min read
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The revised US nuclear posture announced by President Donald Trump on Friday, 2 February, seeks to re-introduce Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) to ostensibly enhance the American deterrence profile against major nuclear weapon powers (read: Russia and China).

However, this US policy shift can have adverse implications for other parts of the world – particularly with regard to the prickly South Asian nuclear dyad, and the elliptical message of endorsement it conveys to Pakistan.

Re-Ordering of Global Nuclear Powers

The Trump administration plans to lower the yield of some SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) warheads to a low-yield, akin to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombs. They also plan bring back the submarine-launched cruise missile – the nuclear-tipped Tomahawk – to operational deployment.

The nuclear cruise missile was part of the arsenal of the US and the erstwhile USSR during the early Cold War decades, but was later withdrawn as such capability degraded the stability-index of classical deterrence, that was predicated on the MAD doctrine – Mutually Assured Destruction. The acronym with its connotation of insanity was unintentionally apt.

Since the end of the Cold War in December 1991, when the Soviet Union became ‘former’ and imploded, the global nuclear framework has undergone a significant change from the original five (USA, USSR, UK, France and China). New nuclear powers have emerged, both overt and covert, and the current nuclear order includes India, Pakistan, North Korea and an opaque Israel.


Pak Army Has its Finger on the Nuclear Button

Pakistan is a distinctive case study in the global nuclear order and has used the apocalyptic capability to further its investment in terror. In other words, Pakistan may be credited with introducing the concept of NWET – Nuclear Weapon-Enabled Terror.

Pakistan has several distinctive traits associated with its nuclear status. It acquired nuclear weapon capability in the late 1980s through a mix of ‘deception and covert effort’ with the disgraced Dr AQ Khan at the hub.

China played a major part in enabling Pakistan’s nuclear weapon and missile program, and at the time, North Korea was part of this clandestine transfer of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) technology and material.

The second major feature about Pakistan is that it is the only nuclear weapon state globally, wherein the military controls the ‘button’, and the civilian leadership is totally out of the nuclear loop. Even in North Korea, it is the civilian Supreme Leader in the ‘driver’s seat’.

Roots of Averted 1990 Indo-Pak Nuke Crisis

Consequently, Rawalpindi, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army, is the operative player in the management and use of the nuclear weapon. An elaborate ‘charade’ has been created to suggest that the nuclear command and control vests with the elected civilian political leadership, but as former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif learnt to their dismay, this was make-believe for the benefit of the US-led Western interlocutors.

The use of nuclear weapon capability by Rawalpindi in an indirect manner was first evidenced in May 1990, when Pakistan sent out some very opaque but disturbing signals to India. The Pakistan intelligence agencies were enhancing their capacity to heighten terror attacks against India at the time in Jammu and Kashmir and used their nascent WMD capability in the NWET mode.

These signals and movement of assets were detected by the US and the May 1990 Indo-Pak nuclear crisis was deemed to have been averted by the visit of a special US emissary, Robert Gates, who later became US Defence Secretary.


Pakistan’s ‘Enhanced’ Nuclear Profile

In the intervening quarter-century, Pakistan has added another strand to its distinctive nuclear profile – it is the only country to pursue both the uranium and plutonium path to acquire fissile material.

As a result, most estimates aver that at this pace of production (again enabled by Chinese assistance), the Pakistani nuclear arsenal will grow to 350-400 nuclear warheads by 2022 . This will make Rawalpindi the dubious custodian of the world’s fourth-largest arsenal, after the US, Russia and China.

In the Kargil War of 1999, the Pakistan Army led by General Musharraf tried to intimidate India with a threat to use the nuclear card, but this became the embarrassing last chapter for Rawalpindi.

Indian resolve and restraint prevailed and the then-US president Bill Clinton chastised Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Army for trying to ‘use nuclear weapons’ to change borders.

The global signal was clear – nuclear weapons had to be husbanded with responsibility and restraint and were not to be brandished as battle-field options.

Cross-Border Terror Behind Pak’s Nuke Veil

Yet Pakistan has created a perception that India’s conventional military superiority can only be met by Rawalpindi’s investment in tactical nuclear weapons, and this formulation alas, has not been as firmly rejected by the major powers as being invalid and dangerous for regional and global stability.

In mid-January, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif referred to a potential ‘nuclear encounter’ in the subcontinent if India decided to call Rawalpindi’s nuclear bluff – meaning that cross-border terrorism would continue behind the Pakistani nuclear shield – and India would not be able to take any counter-measures.

The TNW has become the centrepiece of this untenable but assiduously pursued strategy of Rawalpindi, and Trump’s decision to bring back this sub-strategic capability in its arsenal could have a very damaging impact on the South Asian nuclear scenario.


South Asia Likely to be ‘Collateral Damage’

The nuclear weapon must be quarantined in the silo of its originally envisaged ‘core’ mission – to deter a similar capacity of the current/potential adversary.

Any other rationalisation would be extremely irresponsible, and any untoward exigency that occurs would be a scale-up of the destruction and damage that befell Hiroshima-Nagasaki and Fukushima.

President Trump has flicked the latch of the Pandora’s box, and the negative fallout may well be in South Asia.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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