Although US policymakers have long been concerned about the possibility that Pakistan's nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists such as the Taliban or Al Qa'eda, a related question has not gotten quite as much attention: What is Pakistan's doctrine for using these weapons in any possible future war with India?
An article by Commander Muhammad Azam Khan (ret.) of the Pakistani Navy, in the March issue of the US Naval Institute's magazine,Proceeding, gives us a small, but frightening, look at the way Pakistan's military thinks about using its nuclear force. Entitled "India's Cold Start is Too Hot," the piece is ostensibly a critique of the Indian "Cold Start" strategic concept, which would allow India's armored units to launch a limited offensive into Pakistan with little or no preparation.
Commander Khan's article includes a glimpse of when and why the Pakistani military could initiate a nuclear war, as in his comment: "The country's (Pakistan's) military planners must think beyond using tactical nuclear weapons," -- indicating that he is uncomfortable with Pakistan's plans to use nuclear weapons in the early stage of any future conflict with India.
At first glance, the logic behind Pakistan's nuclear policy is not too far removed from NATO's so-called "tactical" nuclear doctrine, which, beginning in the early 1950s, was designed to compensate for the West's lack of conventional military "mass" by using Pakistan's nuclear firepower.
Traditionally, tactical nuclear weapons are those designed to attack military targets on the battlefield and strategic ones are designed to hit cities, industrial targets and military bases deep inside the enemies homeland. When discussing the battlefield or tactical use of nuclear weapons, however, it is worth keeping in mind that from the point of view of people close to the action, any use of nuclear weapons in their vicinity is strategic.
To put it bluntly, for Americans, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons going off in Europe might be "tactical," but nuclear weapons going off on US soil would have been "strategic."
The concept was revised several times, but when the Soviets achieved nuclear equality -- and later nuclear superiority in all classes of nuclear weapons -- the NATO "tactical" nuclear doctrine became essentially irrelevant. By the late 1970s, the USSR had both nuclear and conventional superiority over the Western allies.
As a result, NATO not only spent hundreds of billions of dollars building up its conventional force, but also made a modest effort to modernize its nuclear force, so that by the late 1980s, NATO's military power was roughly a match for that of the Soviet armed forces and their allies.
Pakistan's strategy is motivated by forces other than simple self defense. Its defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, which the Bangladeshis refer to as their War of Independence, is fiercely resented by Islamabad's elite. This resentment, when combined with persistent politically and religiously motivated terrorism as well as nuclear capability, has created what is possibly the single most unstable state on Earth.
This instability may very well mean that the usual fears and restraints that leaders have when considering actually using nuclear weapons are not as present as they might be elsewhere.
For India, this has meant that Pakistan has been the base for launching three major assaults: the first in 1999, when the Pakistani Army launched a covert offensive in the Kargil region of the disputed Kashmir province; the second in 2001, when terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi; and the third in 2008, when there was a major terrorist strike on Bombay (Mumbai). Commander Azam Khan claims, with some satisfaction, that, in 2001, when India deployed forces near it's Northwest border, "India lost face because of its failure to elicit any strategic gains from Pakistan."
Azam Khan further explains that he believes India has revised its plans and now has embraced a "Cold Start" operational concept that would allow India to launch an offensive with virtually no notice -- an apprehension not entirely credible, as not even the best trained and best prepared military is able effectively to mount an attack without at least a few days' preparation.
Pakistan's perception of the "Cold Start" concept enunciated by Commander Khan is "that Indian offensive operations would not give Pakistan time to bring diplomacy into play and that such offensive operations would not cross the nuclear threshold nor prompt Pakistan into crossing it." This means he perceives that India believes that the Indian Army assumes it could launch a limited a ttack on Pakistani territory without fear of a Pakistani nuclear strike. The commander claims that this is a dangerous assumption. the fact that Pakistan would threaten to use nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces on its own territory may seem normal, or at least as normal as anything to do with the use of nuclear weapons is "normal," but in the context of Pakistan's internal politics and its belief that India is obsessively out to attack it, this idea could lead to what Commander Khan calls "Armageddon."
Other sources indicate that "Cold Start" is an Indian Army concept that has not been accepted as official doctrine by either the Indian high command or by India's political leadership. This difference is significant as, unlike Pakistan, the Indian Armed Forces have always respected ultimate civil authority.
As Pakistan can never hope to match Indian conventional or nuclear strength, it might therefore attempt to make up for this weakness by appearing to be "a little crazy." That method of masking weakness with bluster has been seen before, most notably by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Iraq after its defeat by the US-led coalition in 1991. For Saddam, the results were unhappy; for Pakistan, a strategy based on looking ferocious while actually being weak could lead to results that are even more unhappy.
As a naval officer, Commander Khan makes a good case that both his nation and India depend for their economic survival on access to the world's oceans. He claims that a naval offensive aimed at India's Western Coast could do enough damage to its economy that this might substitute for the tactical use of nuclear weapons. However this strategy would take months to be effective, and in any future Indo-Pakistani war both sides would seek to end it on their own terms, as soon as possible.
India's ability to blockade Pakistan's ports and Pakistan's ability to harass, but not to destroy, India's shipping, adds to the strategic imbalance on the subcontinent. It would take a huge increase in the size and effectiveness of Pakistan's Navy to change this imbalance; such an increase is well beyond the ability of Pakistan's economy to sustain.
The Indian Navy's increasing cooperation with the US disturbs Commander Khan; he claims that Pakistan has the option of offering China's Navy bases and support to counter Indian-US seapower. Just how attractive this option is to China may be questionable. If Pakistan were to turn its back on the United States, China might hesitate to entangle itself with a second unstable, impoverished, nuclear-armed state. One North Korea might be all China prefers to tolerate.