An April 19 press release from the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) tells us that Pakistan has “successfully conducted the 1st flight test of the newly developed Short Range Surface to Surface Multi Tube Ballistic Missile Hatf IX (NASR)” which is supposed “to add deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges”.
For good measure, we are also informed that “NASR, with a range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes [sic]. This quick response system addresses the need to deter evolving threats.”
I wish I could rejoice in this “achievement”. Let’s consider some aspects of nuclear strategy, avoiding, as far as possible, technicalities to analyse this system’s test.
Deterrence works best through denial. Its stability springs from a combination of the catastrophic deadliness of nuclear weapons and the mutual vulnerability of the adversaries — each is deterred by the certainty of the other’s response and the inevitable destruction it would cause. If either of these two conditions changes, deterrence runs the risk of dilution.
This is why, all else being equal, a counter-value strategy, targeting cities, offers the best deterrence, because it threatens maximum collateral damage in terms of enormous destruction of infrastructure and the deaths of millions of people. The logic of this is that greater sophistication of nuclear devices and delivery systems, while allowing for precision targeting, risks diluting deterrence by decreasing collateral damage. In a counter-force strike, which aims at taking out the adversary’s military assets, the damage will definitely not be as extensive as a counter-value strike against a hugely populated city.
This is as far as the strategic, long-range nuclear arsenal goes. The problem increases in the case of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs), which are generally low-yield, area weapons meant for battlefield use (I eschew the issue of employment which can even render a higher yield weapon tactical). This is where our latest “success” comes in. The NASR test is a signal that we have TNW capability, that this capability is plutonium-based, and that, marvel of marvels, we can miniaturise at this level and, because the ISPR press release refers to NASR as a ballistic missile, that we can achieve sub-orbital flight of a 60 km rocket (this last one has me totally stumped, by the way).
But let’s leave NASR here for a while and go back in time to see what the United States achieved with TNWs.
Remember that the learning curve in the case of the US and the USSR constituted one flawed question: How to fight a nuclear war and win? The various strategies to this end, all of which are luckily RIP, brought the calculus of conventional war to bear on a weapon whose destructive potential was simply intolerable. This is why the debate on the development, deployment and possible uses of TNWs by the 1960s had run out of life. This is how it went and here I quote from an article I wrote for The Friday Times as far back as January 21-25, 2005.
“The concept of TNWs was based on a policy that sought to reduce the conventional imbalance between Nato and Warsaw Pact forces. Proponents suggested that small-yield short-range battlefield weapons would increase the strategic nuclear threshold by lessening the salience of strategic nuclear weapons, although TNWs were not strictly perceived as an alternative to strategic bombing but as a supplement to it.
“The logic to develop and deploy TNWs was pegged on three main propositions: it would be difficult for the other side (Warsaw Pact) to develop them any time soon and therefore the option would afford Nato an advantage for some time; they could be used without too much collateral damage; finally, their use would favour defence (note that for a long time the tendency was to look at nuclear weapons in the classic defence-offence equation).
“The first of these propositions became invalid in short order because the USSR developed TNWs by the mid-fifties, blunting any advantage Nato might have enjoyed. Also, it became clear that TNWs could not only be used by the defending forces against invading columns but equally effectively employed by an attacking force – just like it would conventional artillery to soften up the defences. And once the USSR deployed these weapons it became certain that there was no inherent advantage to be had by the defenders of possessing TNWs. Finally, since the most likely battleground for a direct hot conflict between Nato and Warsaw Pact forces would have been central Europe, the proposition that low-yield weapons would have less collateral damage was proved erroneous by military exercises.”
In our case, will we be using this weapon system for war fighting against an attacking Indian force on our soil? There can be no other use for such a weapon. If it does come to that, our deterrence would already have failed and I cannot see how use of TNWs will constitute a climb on the escalatory ladder to resurrect it. We are, of course, not even considering how our own troops and population would be exposed to the fallout from a TNW. Neither am I even touching upon the hair-raising issue of command and control of this system dispersed right down to the units and sub-units by the very logic of its deployment and employment.
Meanwhile, why would an adversary not raise the bar after its force is struck with a TNW? This was precisely the folly of strategies that led to the development of sophisticated and more accurate missiles. It was thought that striking and degrading only the enemy’s hard targets would prevent him from an all-out nuclear strike. Someone realised that it was stupid to determine the enemy’s response for him!
Moreover, our deterrence is pegged on NOT fighting a war, i.e., ensuring prevention of war by denying India its conventional advantage. This weapon system is about fighting a war, or supposed employment in case hostilities break out. That makes a mockery of our basic strategic requirement. Are we now going to frame and put the old deterrence on a wall in a drawing room? At the minimum, going for this kind of system reflects a mindset, one of paranoia, which ends up signalling to the adversary the exact opposite of what needs to be signalled — ie we are confident of our deterrent. Instead, we are happily embarked on diluting our deterrent and consider it an outstanding achievement.
But this is not all. There are other troubling questions related to the civil-military imbalance and flawed decision-making to which I shall return in the follow-up.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2011.