NSP: Too many ideas too little clarity especially on nuclear deterrence

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NSP: Too many ideas too little clarity especially on nuclear deterrence
NSP: Too many ideas too little clarity especially on nuclear deterrence

By Rhapari

Last month Pakistan announced a National Security Policy (NSP) that broadened the concept of security beyond military security to encompass “human security” centered on “economic security” – moving away from what was assumed to be too narrow a focus on geo-strategic security. That this comes at a time when the US and other major powers are building up their military arsenals and focusing on military alliances like AUKUS and the Quad, and a new military stand-off is lining up NATO forces against Russia over Ukraine, is an interesting shift in security focus which needs a more extensive debate. 

Leaving aside the fact that the NSP has significant gaps in outlining how to achieve “comprehensive national security”, the policy instead of providing clarity on national defence policy and nuclear policy has introduced an element of confusion and ambiguity.

Nuclear deterrence policy needs to be communicated clearly such that an adversary is convinced that any attack will be responded to forcefully including if necessary with overwhelming force. The lack of such clarity can provide incentives to an adversary, especially one that has a significant advantage numerically of forces, to probe the credibility of deterrence policy and pursue “salami tactics” to secure militarily significant gains without triggering a nuclear response.      

The NSP describes “strategic stability”, inter alia, as “Pakistan’s nuclear capability deters war through full spectrum deterrence within the precincts of credible minimum nuclear deterrence in concert with our conventional military capabilities and all elements of national power”. In this regard, the NSP describes “Policy Objectives: Defend Pakistan’s territorial integrity at all costs. Deter any aggression by maintaining a cost-effective and adaptive military focused on modernisation and optimisation of force structures to ensure adequate conventional capability and maintain full spectrum deterrence within the precincts of credible minimum nuclear deterrence, without getting involved in an arms race”.

In this regard, the NSP describes “Policy Objectives: Defend Pakistan’s territorial integrity at all costs. Deter any aggression by maintaining a cost-effective and adaptive military focused on modernisation and optimisation of force structures to ensure adequate conventional capability and maintain full spectrum deterrence within the precincts of credible minimum nuclear deterrence, without getting involved in an arms race”.

This is causing confusion on the military-strategic side as the NSP is trying to link Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD) with Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) when the two imply very different policy options. Seems the NSA team has gorged on multiple western concepts without understanding them!

So, what is meant by “full spectrum deterrence within the precincts of credible minimum nuclear deterrence”?

Full spectrum deterrence (FSD) was formulated by the National Command Authority (in 2013) to imply a nuclear response to any Indian nuclear attack. In other words, Pakistan had adopted a doctrine of “massive retaliation” to respond to a nuclear attack by India.  With the development by India of a blitzkrieg type of lightning massive conventional attack, a strategy dubbed “Cold Start” and of national missile defence; Pakistan feared that this could open up a security gap whereby India could launch a surprise or quick major conventional attack and also degrade Pakistan’s retaliatory nuclear forces without risking a nuclear response by Pakistan.

Thus, Pakistan identified the requirement to deploy short-range low yield, or tactical/ battlefield nuclear weapons, to put in place “flexible response” options. This meant having the capability to respond effectively in a conflict situation by using first conventional weapons and then if necessary nuclear weapons. This led to the deployment of the short-range “Nasr” ballistic missile system armed with low yield nuclear warheads to complement Pakistan’s intermediate- and longer-range ballistic missile systems. The rationale being to have not only the capability to destroy India’s “Cold Start” massed armoured forces both in situ before they could launch an attack as well as when such forces were on the move; but also to destroy any target in the territory of the adversary and to deny it sanctuaries in far flung Nicobar and Andaman islands with longer-range systems. Thus, strengthening Pakistan’s deterrence capability against India and communicating credibility of both capability and intent to the adversary to deter and defeat any attack from any adversarial source. 

FSD, therefore, provided response options against any level of military attack by India, conventional or nuclear, and thereby strengthened deterrence and avoidance of war. Learning from the mistakes of the USA and the USSR that built up nuclear arsenals of up to 30,000 nuclear warheads each; Pakistan astutely defined FSD to be implemented without getting into a ruinous arms race with India trying to match warhead with warhead. Rather, Pakistan sought to put in place a credible deterrent capability, as described above, at the lowest possible number of weapons. 

“Credible minimum deterrence” is an unfortunate and inexact concept that may be considered an oxymoron. To begin with, either deterrence exists or it does not. Deterrence is not maximum, moderate or minimum. Force levels can be minimum, maximum or somewhere in between. What Pakistan’s policy makers seem to want to communicate is that Pakistan maintains a credible deterrence posture at minimum possible force levels – in this case, nuclear forces. And that such a deterrence force posture has the priority capability to hold at risk and be able to destroy “counter force targets” – that is the military forces of the adversary, both in the battlefield and at bases and deployment areas. In contrast, the capability to destroy “counter value targets”, implies holding at risk cities as well as industrial and critical infrastructure targets. In practice, any nuclear exchange whether between Pakistan or India, or between any other nuclear armed States, inevitably will lead to large scale civilian casualties and damage – in fact, catastrophic humanitarian, infrastructure and environmental damage. 

Now, all nuclear deterrence postures inherently imply a nuclear war-fighting capability. Without such a nuclear war-fighting capability deterrence lacks credibility and will fail, leading to a catastrophic outcome. Therefore, despite the risks in nuclear deterrence postures, whether at minimum force levels or not, of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation; it is essential that deterrent nuclear forces are maintained at the highest levels of safety and security which are under constant improvement, and that deterrence policy is clearly formulated and enunciated avoiding any confusion or lack of clarity, as the best means to avoid war whether conventional or nuclear.  

Sadly, the NSP has introduced confusion and lack of clarity that must be addressed. The National Command Authority, as a matter of priority, must enunciate a clearly formulated deterrence posture that leaves no doubt about the credibility of capability and credibility of intent of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent forces to ensure the nation’s territorial defence and its sovereignty. Confusion and ambiguity do not contribute to deterrence or impress the adversary who may then be tempted to take risks.