Proactive Operations and Massive Retaliation: Whither Deterrence Stability?

Ever since India’s 1974 nuclear test, South Asia has witnessed nuclear signaling on various occasions, often couched in nationalist rhetoric and sabre rattling, especially during crises. The April 24, 2013 speech delivered by India’s former Foreign Secretary and Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board seems to be yet another form of signaling to Pakistan and the world, and is designed to re-affirm India’s official nuclear doctrine. It shows that even after a decade of overt nuclearization, India wants Pakistan to play the nuclear game by its rules wherein its doctrine of massive retaliation aims at neutralizing Pakistan’s deterrent and denying it the right to employ nuclear weapons in self-defense.

The lessons learnt during the 1999 Kargil conflict and Operations Parakram (2001-2002 mobilization) and the 2008 Mumbai crisis apparently steered Indian strategic planners towards options for waging limited conventional war below Pakistan’s perceived nuclear thresholds. Call it Cold Start or Proactive Military Operations, it generated the impression that the Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent had gaps that India was seeking to exploit, thus calling for remedial measures.  In the face of the changed strategic imperatives, Pakistan’s strategic planners felt the need for a shift in the country’s force posture that would provide “an all aspect and full-spectrum deterrence capability” designed to offer a mix of counter-value and counter-force options.

Facing a looming prospect of limited war under the nuclear overhang, the choices before Pakistani planners in times of a potential conflict would be clear yet limited—either uphold the opaque nuclear thresholds (territorial, military, economic and population)—and in the case of proactive operations, accept shallow Indian penetrations in case of a breakdown in conventional defenses or deter and defeat such attacks by all means at its disposal. In such an eventuality, Pakistan would also have to grapple with the option of carrying out a counter-value strike against an Indian population center in the face of losing territory in some strategically critical area along the border, and rapidly triggering and risking mutual annihilation.

Indian strategists are likely to justify waging limited war against Pakistan due to domestic public opinion generated in event of a terrorist incident on Indian soil by non-state actors without actually determining the authenticity of such claims. This thinking appears both flawed and misplaced since the Pakistani state, its armed forces and its people are left to confront a Mumbai-type terrorist attack on a daily basis. In case of initiation of limited war against Pakistan, its defense planners and the people alike would question the very existence of the nuclear deterrent and its utility if it fails to prevent any such attack, should the conventional deterrence fail in the first place.

A shallow maneuver by India, close to ten to fifteen miles of Lahore would be tantamount to triggering Pakistan’s spatial thresholds and thus also impinging upon the country’s military thresholds. A loss of territory in the desert areas might not be seen as a threat to the country’s survival or at least that of its conventional forces, but acceptability even for limited territorial losses would be very low.

Nevertheless, Pakistan is unlikely to employ battlefield nuclear weapons early in a conflict.  These weapons would supplement conventional forces along vulnerable or weak defense lines deemed critical to the overall defense of the country. Over the past five years, Pakistan has also devised its own conventional defense strategy designed to checkmate proactive or limited offensive operations from across its eastern border, both at the conceptual and operational levels through Azm-e-Nau exercises. Pakistan has factored in likely responses in event of a possible employment of Nasr or other counter-force strikes by short-range ballistic or cruise missiles against intruding Indian forces.

If India carries out its threat of massive retaliation in event of Pakistan using even one low-yield battlefield nuclear weapon in self-defense, it will inevitably lead to decapitating retaliatory response by Pakistan by a triad-based nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, the development of second-strike capabilities in South Asia will render threats of massive retaliation ineffective and counter-productive.

Pakistan’s decision to build such systems was deliberately intended to generate risk and instability at the tactical level to deter limited proactive operations by India. Nonetheless, for Pakistani strategic planners, the perceived deterrence value of battlefield nuclear weapons seem to outweigh the risks (pre-emptive attack by the enemy; delegation and potential loss of control; accidental use and inadvertent escalation) flagged by critics since the country cannot afford to match India’s conventional buildup unless it chooses to enter into a prohibitive arms race.

This then leads to the question whether the development of Nasr is a reflection of a change in doctrinal thinking from deterrence to nuclear war fighting. While Pakistan’s doctrine of first-use has not changed since overt nuclearization, the introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons indicates a shift in the role of nuclear weapons in the country’s overall strategic defense planning. Pakistan’s pursuit of these weapon systems, like that of its nuclear deterrent itself, is essentially for deterrence (both against conventional and nuclear threats) and not for war fighting. If Pakistan would ever be forced to employ them in any future conflict, it would be only in self-defense as a weapon of last resort in event of deterrence failure.

Nuclear war fighting is not an option for Pakistan since exercising it would require allocation of large stocks of fissile material which it lacks (unlike India) and because nuclear war is unwinnable for both sides. If Cold Start is launched and gets out of hand, Pakistan’s Prime Minister as Chairman of the National Command Authority is likely to recognize it as deterrence failure and authorize the employment of all means (conventional and strategic) at the country’s disposal to defend itself for national survival. Mutually assured destruction is something that rational decision-makers on both sides must seek to avoid. Deterrence stability in the region is jeopardized by limited war doctrines. Talk of massive retaliation against a nuclear weapon state exercising its sovereign right of self-defense is irresponsible, in credible and betrays hubris and nuclear un-learning.

Posted in , Deterrence, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Pakistan

Mansoor Ahmed

Dr. Mansoor Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow (2015-16) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2016-18) with the Managing the Atom Project/International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He was also an MTA Associate for 2018-2019. Previously, he was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., USA in 2013. He has also served as a Lecturer in the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad from 2011 to 2015, and as Visiting Faculty in the Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad from 2009-2011. Before joining the academia, he worked in the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service from July 2003 to January 2011. Dr. Ahmed holds a PhD in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include various aspects of Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs and policies; fissile materials, non-proliferation, arms control and strategic stability issues with special reference to South Asia. His research work has been published by the Belfer Center, the Stimson Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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6 thoughts on “Proactive Operations and Massive Retaliation: Whither Deterrence Stability?

  1. Pakistan is always denoting that India is stretching her muscle to become a hegemonic power. Now her capability to acquire intercontinental missile is a genuine proof of that. India always claims that her nuclear capability is only against Sino-nuclear capability. Indian strategic theorist’s always proclaimed that china is primary strategic threat to India. Now why India is going for inter ICBMs option? Answer is simple India wants to show the world she is ready to join the global nuclear club and is legitimate for the permanent seat of United Nation Security Council. The unbiased analysis of the Indian nuclear capability displays that India is not even matching Pakistan in terms of quality of nuclear weapons. India is far away from that position to match P5 states.
    Now P5 states have to become cautious about India’s nuclear weapons. Because after acquiring the ICBM they are under direct threat of India. And India has to reconsider her policy on such options because it will initiate fresh arms race between India and China.

  2. Agreed indeed. It seems that both countries intend traversing same 60 years old path of arms race that needs to be unlearnt prior pursuing any workable option favourable to either of the two.

  3. This is a very long article full of posturing and inanities. For a country to sponsor terrorists and threaten Nuclear attack when retaliated against can be called Nuclear blackmail. Nuclear Weapons cannot give cover to terrorists sponsored from somewhere or holed up anywhere. The use of Nuclear weapons big or small, tactical or strategic, makes no difference whatsoever. For any country to believe that Nuclear Weapons are a tool for intimidation or threat and use of terrorism is a legitimate form of State craft, the mindset has to be very very warped. Whosoever makes use of Nuclear Weapons on any grounds whatsoever, will realize its calculations went awry. Blackmail bluff will be called sooner or later.

  4. “Indian strategists are likely to justify waging limited war against Pakistan”
    Author is very much of the right view that India is dragging Pakistan by arms race and military doctrines. Besides this India’s conflict resolution progress is nil, only thing India wants is to create the hegemony leaving aside the stability of the region.

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