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Saleem Akhtar Malik |

On 28th May 1998, Pakistan carried out nuclear tests under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, apparently as a response to India’s second round of nuclear tests. Why did India need these tests when it was already a de-facto nuclear power? We can speculate that the Indian leadership had one or more of the following motives for these tests:-

  1. India considered Pakistan’s nuclear program a bluff.
  2. Nuclear explosions were a trap to make Pakistan show its hand, face international sanctions, and, as a consequence, go bankrupt.
  3. Indian Prime Minister Vajpai, like his Pakistani counterpart, wanted the tests to gain political mileage and reinforce his position at home.
  4. Vajpai wanted to play it tough by carrying out nuclear explosions and prompting Pakistan to respond in kind. This would enhance Nawaz Sharif’s self-confidence and facilitate in bringing him to the conference table where he would be cajoled to put Jammu & Kashmir on the back burner and make the Line of Control a porous, de-facto border.
  5. India required more nuclear tests to re-confirm performance parameters and miniaturize nuclear warheads.

Read more: A glimpse of the past: Was Pakistan ready to respond to India’s overt nuclearization?

Implications on Pakistan

Pakistan is the only country where fiberglass monuments have been erected to celebrate the nuclear explosions, and where dummy missiles adorn the major road intersections.

As the events unrolled, Indians did come to know that Pakistan’s nuclear program was not a bluff. They also tricked Nawaz Sharif into carrying out nuclear explosions as a result of which international sanctions were slapped on it.

Effect on India after the Nuclear Tests

India was also subjected to such sanctions, but its economy was resilient enough to face the music. We cannot say it with certainty about Vajpai, but Pakistan’s nuclear explosions did give Nawaz Sharif a new sense of identity and enhanced his self-confidence. Unlike Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Zia ul Haq, and Benazir Bhutto, who had contributed significantly towards the advancement of the nuclear program, Nawaz had done nothing. It can be said that he stumbled upon the bomb and made political mileage out of it. Like a sword wielded by a child, he wobbled while brandishing it before India and the rest of the world (more so to awe-struck his own people). Pakistan is the only country where fiberglass monuments have been erected to celebrate the nuclear explosions, and where dummy missiles adorn the major road intersections.

Soon after the explosions, Vajpai visited Lahore where he and Nawaz Sharif vowed to find a respectable solution to the problem of Jammu & Kashmir. Lastly, India had a valid reason to carry more nuclear tests to re-confirm the performance parameters and miniaturize its nuclear warheads. Though, since France stopped carrying out nuclear tests in the Pacific, technology has come a long way and perhaps these requirements can be met through laboratory and computer aided tests. There were rumors that, under cover of Indian tests, Israel had also got its nuclear warheads tested. These rumors gained credence when India claimed that, besides fission devices, it had also tested fusion (neutron) devices.

Consequences of these Tests

The immediate consequence of the nuclear explosions was that the political leadership on both the sides became cockier. After the Indian explosions, a stalwart of India’s ruling party demanded that Pakistan should vacate Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas. Nawaz Sharif crowed that he had bested Vajpai by exploding five devices in response to India’s four. On the sidelines, he ordered confiscation of the foreign currency deposits to meet the sanctions. Reportedly, his own family members and political friends remained untouched. He also declared going ahead with the construction of Kalabagh dam, a politicized and controversial project. His last pronouncement backfired.

Read more: Indo-Pak nuclear race: Will things continue the same forever?

Akin to the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, India-Pakistan rivalry has shifted to a lower dimension where proxy operations against each other have replaced conventional warfare.

Pakistan could have regularized its position as a nuclear weapons state by asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to send a team of nuclear scientists to Pakistan and showing them a few kilograms of enriched uranium, reprocessed plutonium, or depleted uranium which comes as a by-product during uranium enrichment. This would have conveyed to India, and to rest of the world, that Pakistan possessed the capability to fabricate a nuclear device. Or, like Israel, information showing a knocked down nuclear bomb could have been leaked to the press.

That nuclear deterrence did not prevent Pakistan from attacking the Kargil heights, nor did it deter India from counter attacking these heights, which is ample proof that a conventional war under a nuclear overhang cannot be won unless the attacker possesses sufficient conventional punch. Akin to the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, India-Pakistan rivalry has shifted to a lower dimension where proxy operations against each other have replaced conventional warfare. In this scenario, nuclear deterrence acts as a stabilizer which prevents the events from getting escalated beyond a certain level. How reliable is this mechanism? We will try to find an answer to this by analyzing the respective nuclear doctrines of the two countries.

The flawed Nuclear tactical doctrines

If Pakistan retaliates against a conventional Indian onslaught with “tactical” nuclear weapons, India may counter with a strategic response.

Pakistan does not have a declared nuclear doctrine except what we cull and presume by the pronouncements of various Pakistani mandarins and defense analysts. We are also helped in this regard by the developments on the ground. By putting the fragmented information together, we form a picture where Pakistan will respond to a conventional Indian onslaught, say an armored breakthrough in the Sialkot sector, by employing tactical nuclear weapons inside its own territory. According to Kidwai, Pakistan will also retaliate with nuclear weapons to an Indian attempt at a naval blockade. India has a comprehensive and published nuclear doctrine which professes “no first use”, but claims a massive nuclear response in case of a nuclear attack by Pakistan. This doctrine panders more to the inhibitions of Indian political and military leadership and their fancy for status symbols by calling for hardened command posts and bunkers, and the like.

Read more: Can Americans seize Pakistan’s nuclear bomb?

Both doctrines are flawed. There is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. This is because a nuclear attack at the tactical level may have strategic implications, prompting the adversary to raise the level of response. If Pakistan retaliates against a conventional Indian onslaught with “tactical” nuclear weapons, India may counter with a strategic response. Now, according to international estimates, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is larger than India’s, which means that Pakistan will launch a second strike with an even greater force. Pakistan is experimenting with firing cruise missiles from its existing nuclear-capable submarines. It is also acquiring new submarines for this purpose from China. Where will it lead to?

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power.

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