RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Defense officials here say they are confident that if conflict once again breaks out with India, Pakistan’s longtime rival to the east, the two nuclear-armed powers could prevent a catastrophic acceleration in violence.
To effectively control a wartime escalation, a nation must believe that its adversary is willing to use nuclear weapons, a senior official with the Pakistani army Strategic Plans Division, which oversees the atomic arsenal, told U.S. reporters last month.
Pakistan's strategy for its estimated 100-warhead stockpile is based on "credible minimum deterrence," said the official, who requested anonymity in addressing sensitive military topics. Realists, the senior figure noted, see Pakistan’s weapons as intended for staving off aggression, not for actual warfighting.
India has a nuclear arsenal similarly believed to number roughly 100 warheads.
Pakistan and India have fought four wars since British partition in 1947, including one -- the 1999 Kargil conflict -- after the two nations acquired nuclear arsenals. Concerns linger that hostilities could flare anew as a result of unresolved issues between them, such as disputes over the Kashmir region or the use of proxies to advance each state’s interests abroad.
“It’s a crisis-prone relationship,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and now a political commentator. “Sometimes crisis breaks out between the two countries even if the two countries don’t want the crisis to happen.”
Regional experts worry that a future war could go nuclear. Moreover, any exchange of “limited” atomic blasts might quickly escalate out of control, as each nation becomes confronted with a possible existential crisis, the thinking goes.
Drawing from nuclear strategies devised decades ago by Cold War superpowers the United States and Soviet Union, any conflict should offer opportunities for “deliberate pauses, permitting time for adversaries to de-escalate by going to the table,” the Pakistani official said in comments sent subsequently by e-mail to a reporter.
Others have taken different lessons from the Cold War.
Nuclear strategy scholar Robert Jervis has described the danger of “undesired escalation” as “always present” in a crisis between two nuclear-armed states.
“The room for misunderstanding, the pressure to act before the other side has seized the initiative, the role of unexpected defeats or unanticipated opportunities, all are sufficiently great -- and interacting -- so that it is rare that decision-makers can confidently predict the end point of the trajectory which an initial resort to violence starts,” the Columbia University professor said in a 1984 book, “The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy.”
The Pakistani nuclear official noted that Islamabad’s arsenal is under a multifaceted set of controls that reduce the risk of hasty or unauthorized launch.
Safety and security measures include monitoring scientific personnel; periodic intelligence reports; material accounting and control; special vehicles and security for sensitive materials transport; a requirement for two or more persons for carrying out key functions; the use of “permissive action links” or codes to help prevent unauthorized detonations; physical security; and the creation of personnel reliability programs and nuclear emergency security teams, the official said in a prepared briefing.
Pakistani control initiatives are also believed to include storing warheads separately from delivery platforms during peacetime, according to issue experts.
The defense official did not address that particular aspect, but did say the nation does not keep its nuclear arms in a “launch-on-warning” readiness status. This suggests Pakistan would not necessarily respond precipitously to any indications that India had fired an atomic weapon.
“When tensions escalate, one expects a rational-actor behavior from all parties,” the senior Pakistani nuclear official said.
Outsiders, though, have said either or both nations could unwittingly get caught up in the dynamics of competing battlefield strategies and lose rational control.
After Pakistan first tested nuclear weapons in 1998, India is widely believed to have formulated a so-called “Cold Start” strategy in which it would be prepared to dash across the border and seize key assets -- perhaps even cities, such as Lahore -- within reach. Under the strategy, which Indian officials have at times denied preparing, New Delhi would hope to prevent any use of Pakistani nuclear weapons.
In counter-reaction, Pakistan has expanded its atomic arsenal and devised plans to disperse these arms at the outset of any major war so they could not be captured, according to issue experts.
This dispersal might also make the use of nuclear arms more likely, some observers say.
Specifically, the worry is that spreading nuclear arms throughout Pakistani army units on a chaotic battlefield could make warheads more vulnerable to terrorist theft, unauthorized detonation or approved use based on misunderstanding.
“With dispersal, the loss of control is quite easy and that is one great fear,” said Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a retired scholar at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
The Pakistani military has developed “tactical” or shorter-range nuclear arms for possible battlefield use. It has also planned for a “shoot-and-scoot” tactic in its plans for war against India, which would involve moving atomic-tipped missiles on mobile launchers to help evade enemy targeting, Nayyar said.
In such an approach, “you are actually delegating responsibility” to commanders at “very, very low” echelons, he said. “And delegating authority [over] nuclear weapons at that low level is very dangerous and I think that is something we all are very afraid of.”
“Use of tactical weapons is not an element of stability in the whole Indo-Pakistan strategic equation,” agreed retired Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “There are dangers in delegation of authority as far as use of nuclear weapons are concerned.”
The Pakistani military has said that launch authority would remain at high levels, though some reports suggest otherwise, he told reporters visiting Islamabad.
“But the only problem is if the conditions are unstable, and if you are that close to the border, then you can’t really exercise physical control,” Masood said.
Even if strict high-level control over nuclear use were retained, “we are not going to detonate [once] and remain limited to that,” Nayyar said, calling the use of theater nuclear weapons by Pakistan “an escalatory step” in response to India’s military doctrine.
“Deterrence is an abstract notion that sometimes fails real-world tests,” South Asia expert Michael Krepon observed in a 2011 blog post.
“Every crisis that results in the increased readiness to use nuclear weapons also increases the likelihood of accidents and loss of control over nuclear assets,” he wrote more recently in a December analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear posture. “The probability of first use as a result of accidents and unauthorized use … appears greater than a deliberate command decision to cross the nuclear threshold.”
After a conflict breaks out, “crisis management and escalation control then become paramount,” but “there is no reliable playbook for escalation control once a crisis transitions to hostilities between nuclear-armed states,” Krepon said.
“India and Pakistan still lack the means to manage a crisis, frankly,” said Lodhi, the former ambassador. She added that the United States in the past has acted as a “fire brigade,” returning to the region repeatedly to “put out the fires.”
The United States helped calm tensions between the two antagonists in the course of four crises between 1990 and 2008, according to Krepon, a co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. Whether that role could be repeated into the future to successfully prevent a nuclear war is far from certain.
Nayyar attributed the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into South Asia to “the Pakistani urge to match India in all possible ways.” India’s Cold Start doctrine and the Pakistani response of nuclear force expansion and dispersal during conflict has become “a recipe for an all-out nuclear war,” he said.
Though Pakistani leaders could seek to temper their own responses to India’s use of its superior conventional capabilities, New Delhi has threatened outsized retaliation to any atomic attack.
Even “a very limited first use on Pakistani soil” could not necessarily “provide insurance against uncontrolled escalation, since Indian doctrine asserts that the use of nuclear weapons against Indian forces, wherever they may be situated, would prompt massive retaliation,” Krepon said in his recent analysis.
“Pakistani decision-makers understand that escalation control, even in the event of a single use of a tactical nuclear weapon, would be immensely problematic and could well have profoundly tragic consequences,” he said. “Nonetheless, they appear to view this option as being less problematic than relying solely on large-scale, long-range nuclear strikes, especially as the conventional military balance with India grows more adverse.”