Pakistan’s new generation of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons

Shashank Joshi writes: October of last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Many Asian policymakers will read the lessons of that harrowing episode with some self-satisfaction.

When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear weapon tests in 1998, foreign analysts repeatedly told them that, as poor countries with weak institutions, they could not be entrusted with such awesome weaponry. Nascent nuclear powers were simply less reliable stewards than their Cold War counterparts. Over a decade on, and multiple crises later — Kargil in 1999, a military standoff in 2001-2, and the Mumbai attacks of 2008 — India and Pakistan have experienced nothing quite as perilous as the Cuban scare.

U.S. officials claim that Pakistan readied nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict without the knowledge of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But, even at the height of their crises neither India nor Pakistan have attempted, as the U.S. did in 1962, anything quite as foolish as depth-charging nuclear-armed submarines or scrambling aircraft equipped with nuclear air-to-air missiles towards hostile airspace. The dawn of Asia’s nuclear age has been calmer than that of Europe, and far calmer than the nuclear alarmists predicted.

But, as Paul Bracken and others have warned, we should not get complacent. When India tested its Agni-V missile in April, I and others raised a number of potential issues: Indian scientists were making cavalier statements of nuclear posture best left to political leaders, and the development of multiple warheads for each missile (known as MIRVs) and missile defense technology could all be destabilizing if not handled extremely carefully. India has legitimate deterrence requirements vis-a-vis China, but it would be counterproductive for this to become an open-ended expansion.

Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory is, however, altogether more worrying.

This issue is usually framed in terms of numbers. Pakistan possesses what is thought to be the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world and if present trends continue, could equal or surpass Britain’s stockpile within a decade. So far, the Western world has viewed this expansion as a nonproliferation issue, not a security one. But, over the longer-term, that could change. As a recent report from the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium noted, “EU members might have military facilities within reach of Pakistani longer-range missiles … or temporary bases and personnel” and, “in the case of a deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with the West, this could be a subject of concern.” Pakistan is free to dismiss European and American anxieties, but this will only reinforce the country’s longer-term isolation.

There is also a second, more serious concern. Pakistan is developing a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) that target not Indian cities, but Indian military formations on the battlefield. The purpose of these, as former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi explained in November, is “to counterbalance India’s move to bring conventional military offensives to a tactical level.” The idea is that smaller nuclear weapons, used on Pakistani soil, would stop invading Indian forces in their tracks. [Continue reading...]

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