As India distances itself from its ‘no-first use’ policy, Pakistan’s military and air force may not have to rely on a nuclear first-use policy to deter attacks,
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan caused an uproar with comments that were reported by Reuters India as a promise by Islamabad to not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict with India.
The headline read: “Pakistan would not use nuclear weapons first, amid tensions with India: PM Imran Khan.”
If true, it would represent a major shift away from a standing Pakistani nuclear weapons policy that has been around for more than two decades.
The strategic rationale behind Pakistan’s first-use policy is deterrence. Paradoxically, by not ruling out the use of disproportionate force, India would offer less provocation.
Nuclear strategy is often built around the core tenet of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD), which develops second-strike capacities. Even in the case that a country’s leadership is wiped out by a ‘first-strike’, missile silos would automatically fire on predetermined targets in retaliation, ensuring no clear victor.
Beyond this, the first-use policy is the keystone to Pakistan’s nuclear strategy.
Mark Jefferson, an analyst for Stratton Consulting Group, spoke to TRT World about why it makes all the difference.
“MAD is usually enough deterrence for nuclear opponents. More often than not, countries that want to make a further statement go about developing their warhead further to deliver more nuclear bombs to the same area, or by increasing missile range and so on. But the first-use policy essentially puts a hair-trigger on it all, and tells the other side: watch yourself. You can’t predict us, so err on the side of caution and don’t make any sudden moves,” he says.
“With a large nuclear stockpile, and particularly low-yield nuclear bombs, deterrence is that much more effective because a hostile neighbour realises the other government could detonate a smaller nuke on a battlefield without direct risk to its population, while stopping their invasion entirely,” he adds.
By keeping all cards on the table, Pakistan had a clear path to pushing for nuclear proliferation, and even lowering the nuclear-use threshold since the 2000s. But that’s not all that changed.
There was the policy, but deterrence needed delivery.
Pakistan has since developed a significant arsenal of low-yield tactical nuclear bombs, on top of an already considerable nuclear warhead stockpile which acts as a deterrent in and of itself.
Tactical nukes are portable, lightweight nuclear bombs that are small enough to be transported discreetly, and can be detonated against a numerically-advanced conventional enemy with devastating explosive and radiological effects. Their ready deployment ensures that Pakistan’s military is quickly able to negate overwhelming numerical disadvantages, or at least deny a conventional army access in the case of a full-scale invasion.
Perhaps most critically, Pakistan’s Air Force has tested and perhaps overturned the notion that India’s Air Force held technological superiority since the February 27 skirmish that saw an Indian fighter jet shot down.
A report by the Indian Air Force describes that Pakistan has been developing its beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles since the 1999 Kargil war, citing the technological edge as a potential threat.
BVR missiles don’t need a pilot to track and lock onto targets, giving the Pakistani Air Force a critical stand-off capacity that lets it pack more punch with less risk of loss. Taken together with sea-launched nuclear missiles, Pakistan’s offering represents a marked push for full-spectrum deterrence.
Between a rock and a hard place
But why the ‘first-use’ policy? For many, Pakistan has little choice. India has long maintained that it does not adhere to a first-use policy. But Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh threw this into doubt recently when he stated that the ‘no first-use policy’ is still in effect, but that “what happens in the future depends on the circumstances”.
Many accuse India of only paying lip-service to the no-first use policy, given that both neighbouring Pakistan and China have adopted first-use policies. In it’s 2003 official policy, it still provided exemptions to the no-use policy. Taken with the Indian defence minister’s recent comments, many believe that India’s ‘no first-use’ policy is meaningless.
Fire and Fury
Where does Pakistan actually stand in terms of its nuclear policy, and what’s changed since Pakistan’s most recent skirmish with India, when it shot down an Indian fighter jet?
To get to the bottom of it, Abdullah Saad, a Pakistani defence expert, spoke to TRT World to give us his thoughts on the matter.
“In brief, nothing has changed. Its nuclear statute remains as it was. What has changed since the early 2000s is an increased conventional warfare capacity by both Pakistan’s Air Force and Army,” he says.
According to Saad, this means Pakistan’s ability to keep a conflict conventional is much higher today than it was in the early 2000s.
What actually happened?
Contrary to reports, Prime Minister Khan didn’t revise Pakistan’s long standing nuclear policy. So what did he actually say?
A video of Khan’s statement to the International Sikh Convention in Lahore shows that the widespread news headline is based on a mistranslation.
Four minutes into the video, he addresses the ongoing India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir, saying something to the following effect: “We are two nuclear-armed neighbours. If going ahead, tensions rise, then the whole world is threatened. So this is why I’m telling you that our side will never be the one to start things.”
Only recently, Khan also published an op-ed in the New York Times, where he critiqued the Indian government’s ideological sources.
Taken into context, his reference to nuclear weapons did not have much to do with Pakistan’s first-use policy.
Instead, he suggested that Pakistan would not be the party to start a war over Kashmir, but that India had in effect done so.
A month ago, Khan tweeted: “The World must also seriously consider the safety & security of India’s nuclear arsenal in the control of the fascist, racist Hindu Supremacist Modi Govt.”
“This is an issue that impacts not just the region but the world.”