Nuclear pre-emption after Geronimo

Published: May 13, 2011
The writer is a master’s student at the Strategic and Nuclear Studies Department of the National Defence University, Islamabad

The writer is a master’s student at the Strategic and Nuclear Studies Department of the National Defence University, Islamabad

In 2008, five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato) top military officers and strategists presented a radical manifesto to the Pentagon. They urged the West to be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to halt the ‘imminent’ spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Guardian reported on January 22, 2008. These officers stressed that the first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of WMD. Owing to the sensitivity of the doctrine, nothing credible appeared on the issue afterwards.

Can Operation Geronimo serve as an ominous example and as a precedent for a scenario suggested at the Pentagon in 2008? How plausible are the recent Indian army and air chiefs’ assertions that they could replicate the American raid deep inside Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden? In the extreme event of a pre-emptive strike, can Pakistan defend itself? These questions may sound paranoid but do arise if the implications of Operation Geronimo are stretched to the limit. The success of the raid may, mistakenly, embolden others to think that they could get away with something similar. That said, Pakistan’s foreign office and the GHQ have warned India of catastrophic consequences if it takes American action as a rule and ‘miscalculates’ Pakistan’s response. America was cautioned not to repeat such unilateralism. Let’s try to unfold the possibility of nuclear first-use and Pakistan’s capability.

We have one historic example which shows that nuclear installations are only destroyed in raids once the targeted country’s programme is in infancy and the aggressor is 100 per cent sure that there will be no credible retaliation. Let’s take the US first. If it had any wish to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear capability, it would have done so in the early 1980s. But Washington could not afford to attack for two reasons. One, it needed Pakistan in the so-called jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union. Two, it wasn’t sure how many bombs Pakistan had.

America won’t pre-empt for three reasons. First, its relations with Pakistan are on the rocks but have not nose-dived. Second, Pakistan doesn’t constitute a proliferation concern and finally, it remains their major non-Nato ‘ally’.

Let’s assume, against conventional wisdom, that America decides to take advantage of Pakistan’s misperceived vulnerability. In the confusion following a hypothetical American strike on Pakistan’s nuclear assets or command infrastructure, Islamabad may wittingly, or unwittingly, retaliate thus, sparking a nuclear war beyond anyone’s control.

Let’s understand the possibility of Indian pre-emption. Pakistan has not formally declared its nuclear doctrine so we don’t know if it will use the nukes first. Though the nuclear facilities on both sides can generally be pinpointed, locations of actual nuclear weapons are not public. Since nuclear facilities of both India and Pakistan are vulnerable, they have a bilateral agreement not to attack these and Indians don’t bat an eyelid in exchanging the list of installations with Pakistan on January 1 every year.

Some fixed launch-sites of weapons on land can be targeted, but neither can guess the location of mobile delivery systems, which include air launched weapons and sea-based assets. Targeting the decision-makers is problematic too. We know where the nuclear decision-makers live in peacetime but it is anybody’s guess as to where they will reside in times of crisis or war. India is fast moving towards difficult-to-target submarine-based nuclear arsenal and will have assured second strike capability. After the test of slim Hatf-IX (Nasr), Pakistan may soon mutate it to develop a submarine platform. Hence, the threat of destruction will assuredly become mutual.

The history of Pakistan-India crises shows that India engages in chest-beating in moments of Pakistan’s weakness. Its air and army chiefs did so by suggesting that New Delhi retains the capability to copy the American raid in Abbottabad. Even if the capability is possible, can they be sure of starting a war without the risk of it escalating to a nuclear one?

Deterrence, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the aggressor and hubris on nuclear power is the last thing a nuclear state must exercise. No matter how many impregnable lines of defence any technology can break, the risk of a single weapon landing on the aggressors’ soil is too big to be taken. That’s probably why the radical pre-emptive strikes manifesto of Nato’s wizards fell out of favour and no one heard of it again.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • faraz
    May 13, 2011 - 1:23AM

    Commando raid to snatch atom bombs is total non-sense. Denuclearization can occur through severe economic sanctions leading to mass starvation and death. Or if state fragments and doubts over the safety of nuclear weapons force world powers including China to demand the handover of bombs. But these scenarios are too far-fetched.Recommend

  • junaid
    May 13, 2011 - 2:48AM

    good article,,!!!but the point is even this debate as it is??why nuclear arsenal of ind is not subjected to lengthy conclusions of analysts??is it also a part of subduing the concept of the immortality of our proliferation..!!???Recommend

  • Shuja Bashir
    May 13, 2011 - 4:18AM

    I would have much preferred that these 2 powers to create some decent jobs for their people in their own respective countries then to send them to work as near slave labour for less than $ 4 a day in Arabian Countries,

    I do not know how helpful is the nuke for a poor almost starving person in Calcutta who may be sleeping on side walks or somewhat poor or pretend middle class person in Lahore who has to worry about shortages of Electricity,Natural Gas and at times water.

    I would say let us try to invent peace and try to generate prosperity for all and let us be fair to each other.

    Ordinary citizens have the same right to life and liberty like some of the VIP’s or V VIPs with bloated sense of self grandeur.Recommend

  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    May 13, 2011 - 5:30AM

    Few years back India shot down a Pakistani Navy plane close to its border on the pretext that it entered Indian airspace. Pakistan did not retaliate then. The US Navy SEALs raided a house early this month without giving conclusive details if the captured/killed person was bin Laden. It is still an open question. Pakistan did not practically reacted on this, in fact the military was found sleeping together with its Airforce and intelligence branches. I am of the view that in case of an Indian strike, Pakistan will also remain silent. Why, becasue, it is heavily dependent on Western aid and Saudi oil. It will be a strategic mistake to jeopardise all these relations. Secondly, a war will within days become out of control and Pakistan will have no money to run it. Extremist Islamic groups within Pakistan will have a free-for-all in this case and will not abide by Army commands. The military and political leaders will, as always, be unable to take decisions to use of Nuclear weapons and thus, giving India option to end the war on its own terms. India will have all the money and means to start and end the war as it may wish with the US, Russia and Western world on its side. This has happened before, and is demonstrated in the current situation by manifest inaction of miltary and political leaders. This is food for thought for all our miliatry and political leaders. There is no substitute for progress, which can be achieved through education and development. Pakistan has indeed become a failed state, which is now ungovernable, threat to the rest of the world, and brewing up the virulent extremist philosophies to its own detriment. We have lost the law and order in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi, which should otherwise be defining the value we claim to hold. Our government servants, police and politicians are considered most corrupt and yet we have the audacity to deny this in front of the world. We are just waiting for a nuclear cloud to cast a deathly shadow on us with our behaviour. The simple solution to get out of this mess is to ditch the Islamic parties running a suicidal agenda for the nation and promote the rational minded middle Pakistan people.Recommend

  • kailash
    May 13, 2011 - 5:38AM

    I think writer must understand that India generals talk about Abottabad type actions because they clearly know they can never do this. If they had any real intention of doing that, they will never talk about this like US policies. We morons r just quarreling on issues which are of little importance. so South Asia is not developing to its potential and probably will remain like this for ever..Recommend

  • neel123
    May 13, 2011 - 5:47AM

    The Pakistani nukes are giving sleepless nights to the Americans and their allies. Pakistan is on record to have passed on the nukes tech. to N Korea, Iran and Libya, and it is no brainer that in the event of a collapse of the Pakistani state, Pakistani establishment would not go down without sharing its nukes with the terrorist outfits it has nurtured for such a long time. The Western powers are alive to this credible threat.

    Pakistan has so far exploited this dilemma of the Western powers to its full advantage translating into tens of billions of dollars of economic and military aid. However this Pakistani game is nearing its logical end as this can not go on for ever, and the western powers are running out of patience as well as the dollars they pay as ransom to Pakistan.

    Therefore it is logical to believe that an all destructive nuclear war between Pakistan and India is a very dear wish harbored by a lot of Western and Chinese strategists. This will bring to an end of a serious headache with no cost to them what so ever ….. !

    What we are seeing now this is a game of Poker between Pakistan and its Western allies. Pakistan is being squeezed slowly but surely and there are dark days ahead of Pakistan. Whether Pakistan can stand its ground for a prolonged period of time risking terrible economic and security hardships, or it would relent and reshape its foreign policies would be interesting to watch in the years ahead. Recommend

  • Sonam Shyam
    May 13, 2011 - 7:36AM

    The statements made by the Indian army and air chiefs regarding replication of Operation Geronimo, has been totally misunderstood. What the Indian service chiefs were articulating was the “Capability” which they possess to undertake surgical strikes and the only way that can ever be implemented is when there is another 26/11 type attack on India. If you ask the Pakistani chiefs about conducting surgical strikes in India, I am sure they will not deny their capability to do so. Remember that after 26/11 attack when India was contemplating surgical strikes, it was Gen.Parvez Musharraf, who asserted that Pakistan should do the same on India, thus clearly hinting that Pakistan military believes it has the capability. Pakistan actually has launched Special Forces Operation in Indian territory on 7th,September,1965, when SSG commandos were airdropped on Indian air fields to sabotage Indian air operations. But its a different matter that the whole operation was an absolute disaster when around 100 of those SSG commandos were arrested and another 20 were killed.. The same disaster can happen if India undertakes such a mission but both sides still practice such missions in their war games. But there is no doubt in anyones mind in India, that another war with Pakistan will surely be triggered by 26/11 type attack emanating from Pakistan. There is no way India is going to attack Pakistan otherwise. Therefore as Mr.Parvez Hoodbhoy famously said that Pakistani nuclear weapons are actually protecting the terrorists from Indian attacks. Recommend

  • sumeet
    May 13, 2011 - 8:24AM

    why many of the pakistani society are so obessed with nuke and war calculation with india.this writer is a full grown adult but talking like a 5 year kid.india will do the chest thumping as usual whether you like it or not.and why are u so afraid of words of army,it is not pakistan that army will do whatever it want.indian army will never do misadeventure like kargil and regret later.pakistani like nuke lollypop and india war rather than roti and sabzi.Recommend

  • mind control
    May 13, 2011 - 10:26AM

    @Zahir Kazmi

    The history of Pakistan-India crises shows that India engages in chest-beating in moments of Pakistan’s weakness.

    I guess, ‘history’ as the rest of the world knows it must be very different from what you understand. Allow me to revisit history,

    Let us go back to 1965. India has just received a drubbing at the hands of the Chinese. Nehru is dead and there is an unsettled look in the leadership. Who does the chest thumping?

    Move a little ahead in time. It is 1972. East Pakistan has become an independent country. India is holding 90,000 Pak Army ranks and officers as prisoners of war. One view favours handing over these POWs to Bangladesh to stand trial for heinous war crimes. The other view favours extracting concessions from Pakistan in exchange of the soldiers. India does neither and in a magnanimous gesture lets the POWs go home. Is that chest thumping in your book?

    Fast forward to 1999. The Central Government has just been voted out in Parliament. No other political formation is in sight. India is facing a crisis of leadership. And Kargil happens. Was India doing the chest thumping.

    Move on to 2010. Pakistan is reeling under floods. India makes a neighbourly gesture of aid, financial and material. While financial aid is blocked, Foreign Office of Pakistan announces that no visas will be granted to Indian aid workers.Chest Thumping anyone?

    Ah, the joys of ‘History Pakistani Style’.Recommend

  • Arijit Sharma
    May 13, 2011 - 10:53AM

    @author: “Let’s understand the possibility of Indian pre-emption”

    Now that 70 are dead, will you shed some light on how you plan to deal with TTP’s pre-emptive strikes ? In case of a conflict with India, are you really sure your home grown jihadis will not create more trouble for you ?Recommend

  • narayana murthy
    May 13, 2011 - 11:14AM

    “The history of Pakistan-India crises shows that India engages in chest-beating in moments of Pakistan’s weakness.”

    I don’t agree with this. Only because, throughout the history of Paksitan’s existence, it has never been really strong. There were only illusions of strength. India never has attacked Pakistan. Not even in 1971, where a blitzkrieg was the first strike planned by Pakistan.

    Pakistanis (including the author) need to understand, that India has no intention of attacking Pakistan. A strong Pakistan is in India’s interest. However, that is not possible unless…you know how that line goes.Recommend

  • Imran
    May 13, 2011 - 12:55PM

    Owing to his military background, it’s no wonder the writer fails to present a dispassionate analysis. Recommend

  • amoghavarsha.ii
    May 13, 2011 - 2:09PM

    Good and Balance Article,
    Ofcourse your biodata is matching it.

    Yes, India will always think of nuclear weapons of not only Pakistan for that matter, also of others who may get in future.
    Every country will make that analysis.

    The key thing for every war specialist is ” what if one of the weapons evade all defences “?
    This is the ONE BIG QUESTION which has made all nuke powers not to go to war with other nuke capable country.
    This is the ONE BIG QUESTION which has prevented another nuke catastrophe on earth.

    Hope sincerely nobody will know the answer for this.Recommend

  • harkol
    May 13, 2011 - 6:59PM


    You miss the point entirely. Indian Army generals speak of ‘capability’ – not intent. Unlike in Pakistan, the intention/approval for an attack will be ultimately that of the Indian union cabinet. And that’s typically packed with sane heads and pacifists. They’d need extreme provocation to go to war (like loss of some territory).

    If India really wanted to destroy Pakistan nuclear weapons, it could’ve done so in 1980s, when Pakistan was yet to recover from 1972 war, and India was already a nuclear nation. It didn’t because Indian civilians have accepted Pakistan as a neighbor that can’t be wished away. But, that doesn’t mean India is happy with Pakistan.

    In reality Pakistan won’t be ruined by India. It’ll be ruined by its own bankruptcy, if it doesn’t move away from militarism to welfare of its citizens. Remember USSR – US didn’t take it apart, it did it all by itself.

    Pakistan today has a choice. It can continue to support religious militancy, and religious identity (Kashmir etc). Or it can focus on development, economic and social security for its citizens.

    If it chooses militaristic policy, India will live with it with occasional Jaw-Jaw, but it will ruin Pakistan within a decade and perhaps will lead to breakup of Pakistan in to 3-4 entities.Recommend

  • Mahmood
    May 13, 2011 - 7:32PM

    Neither Pakistan or India has benefited from having these expensive and useless weapons – it hasn’t brought prosperity, peace or stability to either nation. In Pakistan’s case it demonstrated that America’s concerns about nuclear proliferation was well warranted as you turned around and sold that technology to N. Korea, Libya, and Iran – an act which any other nation would consider shameful.Recommend

  • qasim butt
    May 14, 2011 - 12:19AM

    I agree with what writer has mentioned. Writer thoroughly understands the tactical and strategic implications of nuclear weapons systems. And have in depth knowledge of pakistan indo relationship. Its a well done thorough thought put in few words by the writer.

    Well done!!Recommend

    May 21, 2011 - 1:48PM

    I guess witht he testing of ANSAR Hatf VI, THE VERY MUCH ESSENCE OF THE INDIAN COLD STRAT DOCTIRNE IN COMPLETE WENT INTO DEEP distress. the evolution of pakistan nuclear deterrence wha it its own effects on the offensive strategies of west and india. insallah with the passage of time the strenght of the military muscles of Pakistan , as whayt army chief said “no country can strike Pakistan because it have to consider it decision ten time before going to any thing else”Recommend

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