Thursday June 20, 2024

The bomb

Countries possess nuclear weapons for all sort of different reasons. For the US, China and Russia the bomb is a military and technological manifestation of their great power status. And while Britain and France have the bomb because of their past, India has it with an eye to the future.

By Owen Bennett-Jones
March 17, 2015
Countries possess nuclear weapons for all sort of different reasons. For the US, China and Russia the bomb is a military and technological manifestation of their great power status. And while Britain and France have the bomb because of their past, India has it with an eye to the future. Delhi hopes its nuclear capability can propel it to a UN Security Council veto.
Which leaves the club of three: North Korea, Israel and Pakistan. No doubt there is much that divides this unlikely grouping but when it comes to the nuclear issue they are all in the same place. These are weapons born not of great power pretentions but out of a fear of being overrun.
And in all three cases the military has a big say in nuclear decision-making. Politicians run big powers’ nuclear arsenals. In insecure states military officers are in charge.
With an annual budget of an estimated $2.5bn and ever more warheads, Pakistan has ground-launched as well as air-launched cruise missiles. It can engage targets anywhere in India. But the most significant development since the 1998 tests has been the decision to produce smaller, tactical weapons or as Pakistan calls them, “short range, low yield” weapons.
Some of the new weapons can be delivered by missile systems with ranges of just 60 km. The question is whether these weapons make Pakistan more secure.
Some of the arguments are economic. No doubt the cost of the nuclear weapons represents missed opportunities to do others things such as, for example, providing more Pakistanis with an education. When budgets are limited choices have to be made. Against that, however, the weapons can be seen as generating a source of revenue.
The west’s fear of the weapons falling into the hands of violent jihadis is so acute that the IMF and World Bank feel they have little alternative but to continue providing Pakistan with emergency funding whenever it needs it. Pakistan’s nuclear status means governments in Islamabad can be confident the world will keep them afloat.
The nuclear devices also help raise Saudi funds. Even though it’s got no reason to think Pakistan would use its weapons to defend Saudi, the powers that be in Riyadh want to keep open the possibility that in the event of an existential struggle with Iran, the Pakistani bomb might come into play.
It is not clear, however, that the new tactical weapons are needed to keep this money flowing. After all, the funds have been on tap ever since 1998 when Pakistan had no short-range missile. And perhaps more importantly dependence on such external funds is hardly a way for Pakistan to thrive. Rather it is a way to ensure the country is permanently in the emergency ward, drip-fed enough just enough cash to avoid total ruin.
But what of the military aspects of short range nuclear weapons?
Recent history, all the way from Kargil to Mumbai, suggests that the first shots are fired by Pakistanis. Many doubt that, by instinct, Modi would be minded to show as much restraint as his predecessors. The question is whether he would, in the event of another provocation, be deterred from responding for fear of triggering a low yield nuclear exchange.
The precise point at which Pakistan would use a nuclear weapon is unclear. That’s deliberate. Ambiguity helps achieve deterrence. Indeed Pakistan’s nuclear authorities have not even confirmed the existence of the tactical weapons although western governments and experts alike are convinced they do exist.
Senior figures in the nuclear establishment such as Lt General Khalid Kidwai have from time to time given some details of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine. He once described, for example, various scenarios for possible use including: “India pushed (sic) Pakistan into political destabilisation or created a large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan.” Since internal subversion in Pakistan is now not only chronic but also often blamed on India, it’s a troubling statement.
The deployment, as distinct from the possession, of tactical weapons raises different issues. Generally speaking, the smaller the nuclear weapon the more susceptible it is to loss of central control. Fear of the central command function being incapacitated by an Indian first strike leads strategists to devolve authority so that ground level commanders can decide to deploy nuclear weapons.
And there is something else. If a warhead is to be put on a missile with a range of only 60 km then it has to be deployed very near the border. That in turn raises the risk that if there were a ground war the weapons could be overrun. And faced with that prospect commanders, at either local or national level, might decide that it is better to use a weapon rather face the security implications or personal humiliation of allowing it to be captured.
Whilst Pakistani strategists hope the short-range weapons will deter Indian attack, they also increase the chance of something going wrong. And the more weapons there are, and the more widely dispersed, the greater the chance that violent jihadist will capture one.
At the time of the 1998 tests Pakistan spoke about having a “credible minimum deterrence” or as Gen Musharraf described it: a “minimum defensive deterrence”. A few bombs, the argument, went were sufficient to ensure Pakistan’s continued national survival.
But the thinking has changed. Pakistan is well on the way to becoming a bigger nuclear power than the UK and possibly France too. The question is whether the extra deterrence gained by the tactical nuclear weapons is worth the risks that come with them.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone