Pakistan has Unknowingly Hurt its Non-Proliferation Record Again

Pakistan has shot itself in foot by its nuke comment and hurt its non-proliferation record, writes Gautam Mukherjee

4 min read
File picture of Pakistan test firing a newly developed short range surface-to-surface ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. (Photo: Reuters)

Among the first tier of nuclear powers, the NPT ones – namely US, Russia, UK, France and China, all possess tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Therefore, it is not surprising that Pakistan should want them too.

Pakistan may have only joined the club in 1998, alongside India, Israel and North Korea – all non-NPT nuclear weapons’ powers – but quite rightly, wants the ‘nukes one can use’.

Throughout the Cold War, it was hotly debated whether TNWs could be used in battle: ‘little’ ones of 300 tons (0.3 kiloton), for example, on ‘choke points’ and the like, without escalating the conflict to a full-blown strategic nuclear war.

The classified answer was probably yes. But only as long as the TNWs were disguised as conventional, if powerful weapons, and passed off as such.

File picture of Pakistan’s medium-range Shaheen-1 ballistic missile taking off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan. (Photo: Reuters)
File picture of Pakistan’s medium-range Shaheen-1 ballistic missile taking off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan. (Photo: Reuters)

Use of Nuclear Weapons in the Past

Nuclear weapons have never overtly been used in war or armed conflict since the Americans used them in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, both bombs being TNWs by today’s reckoning. But since then, and fairly recently, they have allegedly been used covertly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.

TNWs do not apparently cause Chernobyl-style ruinous nuclear fallout, radioactive land and stream pollution, and the like. But, the jury is out on how big a TNW is too big to pass muster.

Of course, so far, TNWs have been used only against non-nuclear states. But this notwithstanding, TNWs have evidently graduated to become the only nukes you can use. This, even as the bristling masses of strategic nuclear weapons continue to sit sentinel as ‘deterrents’, only to be replaced with more up-to-date versions.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Weapon of ‘Controlled’ Mass Destruction

NATO is now working on new generation tactical nukes of varying explosive and radiation potential and ones that can be more accurately targeted.

The argument that suggested that TNWs in the field, because of their limited range, called for decentralisation of the command structure, and could theoretically be authorised for use by relatively junior fighting men, is now dated. Modern communications and activation processes make unintended nuclear weapons’ escalation difficult.

TNWs need not be deployed from the field at all. They can be started from stealth bombers in the stratosphere, from nuclear submarines deep in the ocean, from aircraft carriers on the high seas, and so forth. Reduced nuclear pay-load in TNWs remains the attractive point, not portability.

It is seen as a weapon of controlled mass destruction. TNWs can now also be rendered to become variable weapons, calibrated from afar in seconds, and deployed to achieve the precise and desired objective.

Diabolical Strategy

In the Pakistani context today – of many non-state actors working in coordination with the ISI as well as the Pakistan Army – plausible deniability can be a diabolical nuclear weapons strategy. Presumed proliferation of mini-nukes has long been a terrifying prospect in jihadi hands, but it does provide Pakistan a nuclear knuckle duster to threaten India with.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

The idea appeals to the Pakistani establishment, because it has pointedly declared just before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to see President Obama, that it was going to build its range of TNWs.

And it said that the TNWs would be used against conventional Indian troops if they tried to invade Pakistan territory.

Of course, in the process of heeding the counter argument, that too many low yield nukes scattered around would be difficult to control, a large number of probably obsolete TNWs have indeed been destroyed by the big five. But the US has, for example, at least 500 TNWs even today.

Is India Ahead of Pakistan?

TNWs of course come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, up to 100 kilotons or more in potency, and do not conform to any accurate definition.

They include gravity bombs, short-range missiles but also the ground or ship launched surface to air variety (SAMs) plus the air-to-air types. Then there are artillery shells, land mines, bunker and cave penetrating bombs, depth charges and torpedoes against submarines and so on.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

India enjoys the confidence of the US and the NPT powers because of its impeccable non-proliferation record. But now, it is clear, it must get some state-of-the-art TNWs into its weapons arsenal alongside its strategic ‘triad’ capability, under construction.

But, because of the secrecy that surrounds each country’s nuclear weaponisation programme, and the covert defence cooperation matrix, there is no actual knowing whether India is really ahead of Pakistan on this one or not. But if not, it had better put on its skates!

(Gautam Mukherjee is a plugged-in commentator and instant analyser.)

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