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#982, 7 March 2003
Preparing for ‘Limited Nuclear War’ Firdaus AhmedFreelance writer on security affairs
Competitive rhetoric that currently substitutes for Indo-Pak dialogue heralded the turn of the year. In the dying moments of the previous year, President Musharraf let on that he had contemplated “unconventional” war had India made good on its oft repeated intent of waging a “limited war.” India responded within a week by movements in both the doctrinal and structural planes of its nuclear deterrent. The foremost implication of these developments of early January is that while India would still prefer a “limited war,” it is not averse to contemplating a “limited nuclear war.”
India has preserved the option of “limited” conventional war in order to undercut the subconventional space that Pakistan has been exploiting since 1987 for sustaining its proxy war. However, the mobilization of over ten months last year indicates that India has had to contend with an ambiguous threshold of the Pakistani nuclear deterrent. If Pakistan were to choose nuclear “first use” in the form of a tactical nuclear weapon (as against a “first strike” in either counter-city or counter-force mode) against Indian forces on its territory, India would be self deterred from a disproportionate infliction of “unacceptable damage.”
A conventional response, even though Indian forces are reputedly trained for it, would erode the psychological edge of the Indian deterrent. Having tested two sub-kilo ton devices during Pokhran II, it has given itself alternatives for response to a theatre level initiative, albeit a nuclear one, by Pakistan. Therefore the need for evolution of Indian nuclear doctrine to “flexible response” is self-evident. The latter of necessity presumes a structural ability for controlled release of nuclear weapons. This explains recent Indian movement in terms of adoption of nuclear doctrine and the natural corollary of the formation of a Nuclear Command Authority and a Strategic Forces Command. It is also an indicator that Indian nuclear assets – weapons and delivery systems – have attained a level of sophistication necessitating an end to the hitherto detached and non-formal mechanism that had overseen their deployment.
The Director of the Strategic Plans Division of Pakistan’s National Command Authority has given out that Pakistani use of nuclear weapons will be prompted by a threat to territorial integrity, military power, economic security and internal stability. Even limited objectives of Indian mechanized forces in the plains and desert theatres, in conjunction with naval presence off Karachi, could be interpreted willfully by Pakistani decision makers as amounting to a threat to the first three points. A need for quick and positive war termination would energize the Indian attack. The resulting violence of the attack will make it liable to be misperceived as one having a more pervasive aim. In light of the Clausewitzian insight on the tendency of war to move towards the ideal of “Absolute War,” and religion-based passions and related internal political dynamics in both countries, nuclear use rather than the hoped for mutual restraint is the more likely.
Given this, in-conflict limitation will assume primary importance. With the nuclear taboo having been transgressed, the aim would be to prevent strategic nuclear war. Therefore, “limited nuclear war” appears thinkable, rational and without alternative. The Indian emulation in early 2003 of the February 2000 evolution of Pakistani nuclear structures indicates that both India and Pakistan appear to be seized of the understanding that preparing to fight a nuclear war strengthens respective nuclear deterrents.
It would appear that the mandate of the Strategic Employment Division of Pakistan and the Executive Council of India, and both Strategic Forces Commands are similar. These institutions are to ensure planned and authorized use of nuclear assets to further the political aims of any putative conflict. Therefore, while worst case scenarios of en masse counter value targeting will be envisaged, the effort will be towards in-conflict nuclear use for favorable war termination at best or nuclear signaling at worst. The logic is that such preparation subserves deterrence in explicitly communicating internal consistency between capabilities, intent and resolve.
Should deterrence fail, a limited nuclear engagement would be deemed more desirable than “wargasm.” The creation by India of a Disaster Management Authority, it’s raising of four companies of the CISF for nuclear damage control and acquisition of missile defences from Israel and Russia serve to reinforce the linkage between preparation and willingness to engage in nuclear war and the deterring of it. The message India is sending Pakistan is that military use of nuclear weapons is not a sensible means to further political aims. In countenancing “limited nuclear war” it aims to increase the conventional space for “limited war” and make the conventional asymmetry in its favor relevant again. Preparing for “limited nuclear war” appears to be India’s answer to the “stability-instability” paradox.

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