Sunday, May 15, 2011


Following up this post, here's a really interesting piece in Dawn on the Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance and the implications of the COLD START doctrine. It's an especially good point that if India really wanted to punish Pakistan after a "Mumbai II" terrorist attack, they could do so very effectively and much less dangerously through economic sanctions, given how much fuel Pakistan imports and that most of it passes through one port.

In the light of this, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Indian military preparations are simply unwise - in a classic post at Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses why Pakistan is continuing to build more nuclear weapons and concludes that the factors at work are as follows. First of all, Indian leaders' public statements are threatening - to use cold-war terminology, although their military planning is moving towards "flexible response", their declaratory policy contains a lot of "massive retaliation". The combination is toxic. Trying to make the conventional forces more usable is potentially provocative. Statements about nuclear strategy like this one, combined with faster response times, begin to look a lot like an offensive doctrine:

The Indian Chief of Army Staff, S. Padmanabhan, sang the same tune – that if Pakistan resorted to first use, “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form will be doubtful.”

Secondly, although nuclear weapons cost a lot to acquire in the first place, they get much cheaper once the programme has been capitalised and the process industrialised. This was a major theme in the high cold war - the original Manhattan Project was designed to scale up to five bombs a month, achieved that ahead of schedule, and in fact scaled even further. Also, they are often considered cheap in terms of their strategic value. Nukes scare people; Pakistan will never be an industrial power like India, but now it has the production line going, it certainly can add more bombs and more target packages faster than the Indian economy can grow. Krepon makes the interesting point that the limiting factor isn't the nukes so much as the delivery systems - a country like North Korea can build a nuclear device of sorts, and Pakistan can run a bomb factory, but only a fully diversified industrial economy can make the aeroplane or the missile to carry them.

This has certain consequences for the Pakistani strategic targeting plan. In comments at ACW, someone asks whether they might be thinking of making use of man- or at least vehicle-portable weapons, the famous suitcase nukes. Another, slightly less terror-licious point about this is how the Pakistan Air Force is operating. If they have plenty of bombs but relatively few aircraft, they have to preserve the strike-force (the P-Force, perhaps, by analogy with the 1960s RAF V-Force) at all costs. This implies putting as many planes as possible on quick-reaction alert, dispersing them early in a crisis with the weapons, and keeping open the option of dispersing them in Afghanistan. (We may now begin to see why they care so much.) It also suggests that it would be very difficult to target anything in the Pakistan Air Force without threatening the nuclear assets, and that they might be keen to use tactical nuclear weapons - it's a relatively cheap substitute for a much bigger army, and (as NATO found out in the high cold war) if you have more and more atom bombs hanging about, pure bureaucratic logic tends to get them assigned to targets.

This is a special case of the principle that mayhem is easy and order is difficult, of course.

The good news, such as there is, is contained in this wikileak, a 2008 cable from the US Ambassador to India. Interestingly, he points out, there are good reasons to think that COLD START is likely to be well named. It takes longer than you think, and when you turn the key there's a lot of grinding and coughing and fuss before anything happens. So you might be tempted to go for a nice cup of tea and come back later, or perhaps have some biscuits and another cup of tea and turn to page 3, or just do something else.

Although the doctrine is explicitly designed to avoid threatening the existence of Pakistan as a state, and therefore to permit Indian military retaliation without triggering anything nuclear, it is seen as threatening both because it is intended to permit military action - to sneak under the wires of deterrence - and also because it is intended to reduce the relevance of Pakistani nuclear forces. The Indians, if the ambassador's analysis is sound, are aware of this and are actually quite unlikely to implement it. One way of looking at the complex administrative machinery and politics he outlines is as a deliberate brake on doing anything hasty. Alternatively, it may not have been created deliberately as a check on the military, but if that is the case, it is interesting that it is tolerated. A state that really did intend to carry out a partial mobilisation and a 72-hour blitz from a standing start would have made sure that the code-word would be given. To some extent, the Indians may be experiencing self-deterrence.

The cable also points out that the terrain has changed since 1971 and that some of the ground is now much more urban and more defensible, and also that there are logistical problems that have yet to be solved. Taking an interpretative view, you might say that the real purpose of COLD START is to reject the idea that the international community has any veto on Indian action and to signal non-deterrence to the Pakistanis, while not actually doing anything dangerous. However, the problem is that the signalling succeeds all too well. In fact, the point that all arguments based on "credibility" are crap strongly applies. Either they are taken at face value, in which case they are dangerous, or they are seen through, in which case they are useless.

So, the D-word. What should anyone do about it? This is traditionally the moment at which it becomes obvious why the abbreviation for the discipline of international relations is pronounced "Errr". But I think the answer is that Kashmir is still the issue. Only real concessions affect perception. Further, it would be very good news if the Indians disavowed COLD START and looked at an alternative reaction plan, perhaps concentrating on the economic side as mentioned in the Dawn link. But you try getting them to do that. Finally, and again spinning off that Dawn piece, the real role of the Pakistani nukes is to secure the special place of the military. Errr, indeed.

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