When Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 in a tit for tat response to the Indian nuclear explosions a few weeks earlier, strategic stability was said to have been restored in the South Asian subcontinent. Twenty years down the line,this tenuous balance has become vulnerable due to a number of reasons i.e. India has initiated a nuclear arms race by launching a nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear weapons. It is in the process of erecting a Ballistic Missile Defence Shield (BMDS); it has developed multiple nuclear warheads and it has tested Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It has got a civil nuclear deal from the US in 2005 and a special waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 courtesy the active support of its new strategic ally, the US. It now wants to become a member of this group. It has also launched an aggressive campaign to malign Pakistan for its alleged poor non-proliferation record and has combined it with a vicious propaganda to blame Pakistan for state sponsored terrorism.
Pakistan is doing its best to keep the strategic stability intact. It has been successful in finding solutions to possible Indian BMDS by developing cruise missiles that can fly along the nape of the earth and has been successful in MIRVing its nuclear warheads. It is actively pursuing a program to develop a submarine that can carry nuclear missiles. It has invested heavily in nuclear safety and security and has taken all possible measures to present itself as a responsible nuclear state. On the NSG front it has also applied for membership demanding a treatment on the basis of equality for all non-NPT states. It has elaborated its policy of minimum credible nuclear deterrence to full spectrum deterrence to address all eventualities.
The possibility of strategic stability unraveling anytime soon is not on the cards but it can be disturbed in the long run, if a proper plan is not prepared to address the looming challenges. This paper posits that Pakistani policy of maintaining a favorable strategic balance should be based on its legitimate security interests without compromising on its principled stand of demanding equal rights on all nuclear forums.
Keywords: Strategic Stability, Nuclear Arms Race.
Nuclear weapons have brought about a paradigm shift in warfare. They have been great levelers. The introduction of nuclear weapons has created deterrence – a concept that uses the fear of the worst to stop an adversary from employing offensive means to destroy or disable a country’s armed forces and/or its population centers and industrial base. The concept of deterrence has been used by nations that possess nuclear weapons openly or covertly to buttress their conventional forces. Nuclear deterrence has stabilized the situation in case, where both countries possess these weapons.
Of course the bigger countries with more nuclear weapons particularly the US do not want every other country to possess these weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). An elaborate arms control regime has been constructed to restrict and control the proliferation of nuclear weapon technology but this has not prevented countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to acquire these weapons. Israel, Pakistan and India are three countries that have been acquired nuclear weapons by refusing to be admitted to the NPT. North Korea has opted out of the NPT and built weapons that can now actually threaten the US. Iran was in the process of developing nuclear weapons but through an elaborate net of sanctions was forced not to follow that path.
The aim of this paper is to discuss the concept of strategic stability in general and the application of this concept in South Asia in particular. During the course of this paper it will be discussed how the strategic stability held during the Cold War, why has it held out so far in South Asia and what threatens it in the existing milieu. At the end of the paper a menu of options for Pakistan will be outlined. Some of these or a combination of some could be studied by the policy makers to prepare a strategy for the future.
Strategic Stability during the Cold War
During the Cold War, strategic stability epitomized the fundamental strategy to circumscribe nuclear exchange between the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The term strategic stability was an amalgamation of concepts such as mutually assured destruction (MAD), theories like nuclear deterrence, policies focusing on no-first-use (NFU) and massive retaliation and encompassed treaties such as Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT). Therefore, the relationship between the US and the USSR during the Cold War was aimed at stabilizing the existing situation in order to prevent a nuclear confrontation. From this angle, the state of Cold War accentuated strategic stability based on nuclear deterrence. The possibility of use of nuclear weapons and the possible destruction caused in case deterrence broke down was perceived, debated and practiced during national debates and military drills and exercises. This was done notwithstanding the stark realization that the use of nuclear weapons could have disastrous effects on the entire mankind.
The term strategic stability had different meanings in the strategic circles of the two superpowers. The US planners worked to maintain the strategic stability within a set of theoretical considerations and mathematical calculations to highlight defense planning. For instance, Robert McNamara, US President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense’s calculus relied on assured societal vulnerability and deterrent ability based on quantifiable levels of damage. He outlined specific levels of destruction to Soviet industry and population; 50 per cent destruction of the former and 25 per cent of the latter. The calculations expanded to accept the notion that stability existed if each side could muster a retaliatory attack and destroy 30-50 per cent of the opponent’s population and 50-70 per cent of the enemy’s industrial establishments.
There was a certain paradox in the way strategic stability was considered during Cold War i.e. whereas, it was felt that the strategic forces responsible for the second strike had to be invulnerable to sudden destruction but there had to be a certain amount of vulnerability on both sides to prevent one from attacking the other. Therefore, it was emphasized that the appearance of vulnerability had to be averted in order to score political advantage hinged on invulnerability. Essentially, strategic stability during the Cold War existed in terms of balance between US and USSR in the physical parameters influencing relative vulnerability and relative retaliatory capacity of both sides. These parameters included; the number of strategic launchers, the number of independently targetable warheads the launchers could carry; the accuracy of the delivery systems, the yield associated with the warheads, the specificity of target locations and the resistance of such targets from the perilous consequences of the nuclear explosions. Therefore, it can be contended that Cold War politics was engrossed with concepts of deterrence and stability, outlining the unimpeded ability to pose a specified level of damage to the adversary, regardless of initiating the attack. In this backdrop, the leading nuclear optimist Kenneth Waltz highlighted existential deterrence and suggested that nuclear proliferation should be encouraged as the threat of the use of nuclear weapons would avert war more predictably and reliably.
According to the Soviets, in a broader sense, strategic stability referred to as an aggregate of political, economic, military and other measures available to the states to render any kind of military aggression obsolete for both parties to the conflict. However, in a narrower sense, strategic stability characterized equality in military potential, where neither side tilted the military balance to gain superiority over the other. However, the US experts on strategic stability outlined two fundamental concepts associated with the expression, i.e. crisis stability and arms race stability. Crisis stability was labeled as the quality of strategic relations that holds even during times of crisis. This form stability was thought to prevail if neither party to the conflict was desirous to carry out the first nuclear strike. The arms race stability was defined in the context of arms competition and highlighted the resolve of both parties to the conflict to renounce incentives to develop and deploy arms to attain some advantage over the adversary, regardless of the desirability of such measures. Strategic stability was explicitly defined in 1990 in the Joint US-Soviet Statement focusing on negotiations related to nuclear and space arms as, “balance of strategic forces of USSR and the US (or such state of the two powers’ strategic relations) where there is no incentive for a first strike”.
It is imperative to highlight the complexities associated with defining the term strategic stability, as it persistently impacted the strategic relations between the two superpowers during the Cold War. Firstly, in defining the term strategic stability, the elements of strategic capability were explicitly excluded or widely ignored. Strategic capability denotes physical and organizational arrangements for exercising deliberate command and control of strategic forces. The detailing of the elements of strategic capability is surrounded by uncertainties and the organizational and political aspects become vulnerable if analyzed for approximation. Moreover, strategic stability becomes paradoxical in view of exhibiting transparency regarding one’s strategic nuclear forces. Stability is considered to exist by drawing certain conclusions about the strategic nuclear forces of the adversary in order to carry out a retaliatory attack diminishing the strategic potential of the opponent. However, it is due to the ambiguity surrounding the strategic potential of the opponent that holds back the resolve to carry out a first strike. This ambiguous and unclear threat resulted into an arms race during the Cold War.
The beginning of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War became apparent as soon as USSR conducted it first nuclear explosion in 1949 and acquired nuclear capability, rendering the US atomic monopoly obsolete. As a response, US conducted its first hydrogen or thermo-nuclear bomb in 1952, which was 1000 greater in power than the previous bombing on Japan and as a result it surpassed USSR in creating the super bomb. Not to be outdone, the Soviets followed suit in 1953. In the initial years of the Cold War, the US adopted the policy of containment to staunch the spread of communist threat. The US military planners advocated massive retaliation on the nuclear front. The retaliation was to be carried out by large bomber and missile forces. The Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) became the most significant byproduct of the Cold War. ICBMs symbolized nuclear arsenals of both superpowers throughout the Cold War. The nuclear parity between US and USSR uptil the 1980s was best established by fixed missile systems with MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), as they possessed high retaliatory strike capabilities. High concentration of reentry vehicles on ICBMs contained the potential to destroy 10 warheads with only one or two warheads.
The Cold War also saw the advent of the tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Both the US and the USSR considered battlefield nuclear weapons as essential to deter offensives launched into their territories or areas under their influence. Accordingly, both the countries invested considerable resources in developing TNWs during the Cold War. USA and Russia still have significant stocks of these weapons (US: 2300, Russia: 2700). The USSR also believed that TNWs had the potential to counter US strategic offensive weapons deployed all over Asia and Europe. The TNW were to be used during the initial phases of the battle, when technically speaking the war still in the conventional phase, however, their role in strategic stability was never explicitly outlined. In 1961, USSR tested RDS 220 hydrogen bomb. This was the largest nuclear explosion conducted by the Soviets. The bomb was given the nickname Tsar Bomba by the West. The test signified an escalation in the Cold War nuclear arms race. The unhindered expansion of nuclear arsenals and growing nuclear arms race culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where both superpowers came dangerously close to a nuclear confrontation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the turning point in the Cold War and signaled restraint on nuclear power development and deployment. The realization about arms control as a security confidence building measure became indisputably essential as the Cold War moved towards its demise. Treaties like the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963, Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and the ABMT of 1972 under the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were attempts by both the superpowers to deescalate and defuse nuclear tension by open lines of communication and stepping back from the nuclear precipice. In 1987 Washington and Moscow signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) arms agreement, eliminating an entire class of weapons; the intermediate range missiles. In 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Act was signed between the superpowers, cutting their strategic warheads by 25-35 percent. The process of strategic arms reduction continued beyond the Cold War. The New START was signed in April 2010 by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in Prague and came into force in February 2011. President Trump has denounced the treaty as a bad deal concluded by his predecessors.
The expression of strategic stability developed during the Cold War encompassed the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which was the bedrock of security and stability policy for both superpowers during the East- West conflict.
Strategic Stability in South Asia
Threats to Strategic Stability
It is quite obvious from the foregoing discussion that although strategic stability in South Asia is also based on the principles of nuclear deterrence but the threats to it are different from those that buffeted the Cold War model. To begin with whereas the Soviet Union and the US were equally balanced superpowers Pakistan and India are unequal foes with disproportionate resources. It is Pakistan that is forever grappling with the issue of keeping the strategic balance balanced. The reasons for this worry stem from the fact that India is indulging in an unbridled nuclear and conventional arms race fueled by Indian desire to counter not only Pakistan but also China. Towards that end it is busy developing the Ballistic Missile Defense Shield (BMDS), the development of nuclear submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, MIRVing of the warheads, the pressure on Pakistan in the CD to accede to the FMCT in its present form and an intense propaganda that Pakistani nuclear weapons are not safe and that these may fall into the hands of the terrorists.
Options for Pakistan
Pakistan can adopt a number of strategies to counter the threat to strategic stability in a number of ways.
a. It can try and match India weapon for weapon.
b. It can incrementally increase the number of weapons that it possesses and cover the shortfall by improving its C4I systems
c. It can limit its nuclear arsenals to a certain limit that is considered essential for the country’s legitimate interests.
d. It can decrease the number of nuclear weapons and delivery means and increase its conventional forces.
The first option is a non-starter because for Pakistan it does not make economic sense to match India bomb for bomb. It would be useless exercise, lacking imagination and innovation.
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