Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Race against India: Implications

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary made some extraordinary disclosures yesterday. He confirmed for the first time in public that Pakistan has low-yield nuclear weapons and that they are intended to be used against India.

Speaking on national TV, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhury said Pakistan was ready for a nuclear weapons race with its South Asian rival and ruled out any deal or compromise on the country’s nuclear program. Chaudhury said Pakistan knew how to show India the “right path”, as it has developed small tactical nukes to convert any “adventure into misadventure.”                                                          

He also said Pakistan’s development and deployment of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons was only aimed at deterring any conventional Indian attack through New Delhi’s so-called ”Cold Start” doctrine. He said that India had moved military cantonments to the Pakistan border and created a gap in conventional military capabilities between the two counties through its Cold Start doctrine which forced Pakistan to develop short-range nuclear weapons.

”Pakistan has built an infrastructure near border areas to launch a quickest response to Indian aggression… usage of such low-yield nuclear weapons would make it difficult for India to launch a war against Pakistan,” Chaudhury said.

Indian reaction. No official reaction was reported during the time of writing, but Indian press repeated Chaudhury’s statements and called them a bold rationalization of Pakistan’s offensive nuclear posture. It also refuted some of his claims. For example, one press outlet said the Indian Army has not adopted a Cold Start as doctrine.

(India has been studying a cold start for conventional war for more than a decade. In a cold start scenario, the Indian Army would be ready to begin a general conventional war against Pakistan after a week’s preparations. By comparison, in the crisis of December 2001 and January 2002, after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, the Indian Army was ready to fight after 21 days of preparations.)

Chaudhury’s disclosures are multiple and extraordinary for many reasons. Nuclear armed powers, except North Korea, almost never divulge in public specific details about the nature and targets of their nuclear weapons. Second, a disclosures made to manage perceptions are made anonymously, not by someone identified by name as senior as Chaudhury.

The timing of the disclosures directly affects Pakistani-US relations. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is visiting Washington DC and is scheduled to meet the US President this week. Press speculation was that the US intended to offer Pakistan civilian nuclear cooperation in return for limits on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Chaudhury essentially blocked the Prime Minister from having substantive discussions on this issue. Chaudhury also was the man who scuttled talks between the national security advisors of India and Pakistan last summer.

Chaudhury’s disclosure carries the message of the Pakistan Army that nuclear weapons are not negotiable. One of the more astonishing items in the statement is the admission that India has conventional superiority which Pakistan cannot match. That admission means that every threat of general conventional war between India and Pakistan must escalate to a threat of a Pakistani nuclear attack in order to prevent the destruction of the Pakistan Army. No Pakistani leader has ever made that admission.

The focus on low yield nuclear weapons is important because it exposes Pakistani military thinking about nuclear weapons in general. Pakistani generals consider them big artillery shells, not weapons of mass destruction in the US sense. Their use is not unthinkable. They are not a weapon of last resort. They are a weapon of first resort. The mindset is tha of an artillery man firing a powerful gun.

The disclosure that India is to blame is risible. The disclosure that the weapons are targeted against India is horrific. It guarantees there will never be a final peace between India and Pakistan. It makes the border between India and Pakistan fundamentally as dangerous as the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

A final consideration is technology transfer. The Pakistani Ghauri missile is a variant of North Korea’s NoDong ballistic missile. A. Q. Khan provided North Korea its first centrifuges for enriching uranium. Until now there was little reason to believe North Korea had tactical nuclear weapons, despite North Korea’s claims to have had success in miniaturizing nuclear warheads.

It is reasonable to re-examine the North Korean claims. It also is prudent for South Korea to assume as a matter of national security that if Pakistan has short-range weapons with nuclear warheads, then so does North Korea.