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Learning to Start Worrying About the Bomb

by Ejaz Haider
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Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

A new book about Pakistan’s nuclear program offers some answers but also raises some uncomfortable questions

In March 2001, I was in New Delhi for a Pugwash Workshop on Moving Towards the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. One of the participants, a Pugwash fixture, was former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. The Indian participants, as also myself, the only Pakistani, were opposed to the idea of abolition without a major change in the super-structure, the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For good measure, we were also throwing back at the Americans and the British their own nuclear literature, an exercise in gloating, perverse pleasure at having beaten them at their own game and making a hash of their non-proliferation agenda. We were brimming like the teenager who had just achieved the age of majority.

I was sitting diagonally across from McNamara and while holding forth saw him silently chuckle a few times. The morning session over, we broke for tea for 15 minutes. As I was pouring a cup for myself, McNamara walked up to me and said that he was impressed that I knew my nuclear strategy and all the razzmatazz about deterrence and payoffs but that I remained an idiot for not realizing that all of it was bullshit.

He then paused, looked at me pointedly, and said: “I don’t entirely blame you. It has taken me a long time to figure that out myself.”

That was my introduction to the famous Robert S. McNamara, the man at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Flexible Response Theory, Vietnam and many other decisions and strategies that defined the Cold War and our nuclear world. I met him often after that on Pugwash workshops, roundtables and conferences and imbibed his deep insights. That sporadic association was useful when, some years ago, I watched Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert Strange McNamara.

That initial conversation has stayed with me to wit. Every time I read anything related to nuclear weapons and strategy, I am reminded of his words. I remain a deterrence-optimist still but with a far healthier dose of skepticism than before that moment. Between McNamara’s wise words and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, I now worry more than I used to.

As always, I had a flashback to that conversation when Oxford University Press sent me Brigadier Dr. Naeem Salik’s book Learning to Live with the Bomb: Pakistan 1998-2016.

Learning is what that conversation was about. Doubt, as opposed to the certainty of deterrence. In Morris’ documentary, McNamara’s first lesson is to empathize with your enemy. He recounts the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to illustrate how close the world had come to a nuclear war. Kennedy received two messages from Khrushchev during the crisis. One was the ‘hard message,’ the other the ‘soft message.’ The first, soft message, said the Soviet Union will remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. promises not to invade. The second, hard message, declared that the Soviet Union will respond with massive force if the U.S. invades Cuba.

During deliberations over how to respond, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Tommy Thompson, recommended that Kennedy should respond to the soft message. Kennedy scoffed at the idea at first but then Thompson prevailed and anticipated that Khrushchev needed a face-saver by being able to tell the Soviet people that he had saved Cuba from a U.S. invasion. McNamara believed this to be empathizing with your enemy. It is important to look at the world through the eyes of the enemy to understand his threat perception and thought processes. In the end, as he says, we weren’t saved by rationality but by pure chance.

Salik also writes about ‘learning’ in a “study [that] explores Pakistan’s experience as a nuclear weapons-capable state since the demonstration of its nuclear capability.” Experience implies learning, though what we can learn can be both positive and negative. Salik divides the trajectory into three phases. I would, for the purpose of this review, divide it into two phases: pre-tests and post-tests.

The pre-tests phase was crucial because Pakistan, in the teeth of opposition, managed to seek, build and develop the bomb and its related technologies. Salik’s book recaps that phase, or, as per his division those two phases. We already have those accounts, most notably from Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan’s book, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2012). But it was important for Salik to set down some basic landmarks and pointers to position the thrust of his book—i.e., learning. Learning while Pakistan was seeking the bomb and even more crucially, learning after it put the bomb on the shelf.

This learning, as the book informs us and as learning is generally understood, has not been either linear or single-dimensional. It has been non-linear and multi-dimensional: development of weapons and delivery systems; safety and security of weapons and delivery systems; creating command, control and communications system or as I will put it, like Rajesh Basrur does, control, command and communications system; recruitment, training and reliability of personnel; legislation regarding nuclear-related materials; export control mechanisms and rules and regulations et cetera.

The best part of Salik’s book is his ability to hold the reader’s finger and walk them through a technical field by making it easy and lucid. This is a book not only for those who write about and analyze these issues but also for the curious informed generalist. That, to me, is a commendable achievement.

The fact that Salik, then as a serving officer, was part of the Evaluation Analysis and Research Cell set up by General Jehangir Karamat, and later with the Strategic Plans Division, finishing his tenure as Director ACDA (Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), is great help because he witnessed and participated in the evolving thinking in the run-up to the tests and later when the National Command Authority and SPD were set up. He, therefore, brings the practitioner’s experience and learning and weds it now to an academic analysis. That is generally a rare and valuable combination.

Salik has raised multiple issues in this book. But given the fact that the book essentially is about learning and Salik, at the outset gives us not only the difference between simple and complex learning but also a broad typology of it, I’d like to focus on the evolution of the nuclear doctrine and the command and control dilemmas. This is not to say that other issues, legislation and export-control mechanisms, for instance, are any less important. In fact, those chapters of the book are important to dispel many misgivings and apprehensions about Pakistan’s program, its direction and its role as a responsible nuclear weapons-capable state.

But the essential point remains: we have the bomb. Great! What do we want to do with it?

Salik is aware of this and expends a lot of time on the policy dilemmas in these areas. Among other aspects of learning—experiential, inferential, imitative etc—he has one listed as ‘unlearning.’ The word reminds me of Aldous Huxley who famously said that in order to learn, one must first unlearn. For Huxley, unlearning was a positive exercise, implying breaking away from rote and indoctrination and beginning with a critical eye. In Salik’s typology: “In some cases, useful and correctly learnt lessons are unlearnt.” And he goes on to talk about the SPD learning the destabilizing potential of battlefield nuclear weapons but then going down that route in 2011. Yes, he is talking about the Nasr missile. Later in the book, he uses the word ‘inexorably’: Pakistan has inexorably embarked upon the development of a battlefield-usable nuclear weapons capability. The dictionary defines ‘inexorable’ as “not to be persuaded, moved, or affected by anything, whether arguments or entreaties. Perfect word I’d say, but also very disconcerting apropos of this development.

So, the learning curve is not just about learning but also unlearning. Right across from where Salik mentions Nasr, he also quotes Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary of India and chairman of National Security Advisory Board as saying that “for India the label on the weapon, tactical or strategic, is irrelevant since the use of either would constitute a nuclear attack against India…” Dr. Salik calls it ‘strident rhetoric’ and says it vitiates the atmosphere.

I disagree: I consider this as the adversary responding and showing intent, just like Pakistan would. Also, it is through such statements, made overtly or whispered into each other’s ear, that we can get to a better understanding of what to expect from each other. That, to me, is very important learning and leads us from simple learning to complex learning, the two terms Dr. Salik uses, correctly, when he says: “…whereas it is quite common to see readjustment in the means, it is rare to see any effort to substantially modify national goals and objectives.”

The book also discusses the problem of hazardous technologies. Salik talks about the high reliability theory and juxtaposes it with the normal accidents theory, the latter first propounded by Charles Perrow when he was asked to study the Three Mile Island incident.

Personally, I am part of the pessimistic crowd, to use Salik’s term. But here’s the thing: by Salik’s own account, even the high reliability theorists talk about anticipation and mitigation, a clear reference to the possibility of incidents and accidents and black swan events. You cannot anticipate every eventuality and you cannot always mitigate what you had failed to anticipate. The issue also acquires great salience because among other reasons, many incidents and accidents are related to how organizations function or, more aptly, fail to respond to contingencies.

However, despite incidents in the US related to nuclear weapons, safety and security has been mostly impressive. That said, the problem does not relate only to the safety and physical security of weapons and their sites but also to reactors. Salik seems to brush aside the issue somewhat lightly. That to me is problematic. Also, the crux of the problem is not so much about physical reliability and robustness of the systems but that of human decision making. That’s what is crucial and while Salik has talked about it indirectly, he hasn’t gone into it directly with reference to where he debates high reliability versus normal accidents.

The book has an important discussion about the tension between assertive and delegative controls and its allied always/never dilemma, as also the fail-impotent/fail-deadly tension. He has also talked about how these dilemmas impact force configurations. All of this is standard Nuclear 101. But it gives us an insight into what we might be getting into once we actually have deployed forces, as opposed to the current situation where we have, among other safeguards, spatial and temporal distance between delivery vehicles and warheads. There’s the additional issue of cost if we go by the Atomic Audit the Brookings Institution did for U.S. strategic forces and weapons. Nearly 54 percent of the cost comes under the head of deployment. The rest are downstream costs from the point of deployment. We are unlikely to accrue that kind of overall cost but the percentages will still work the same way—or, more or less the same way.

One other point with reference to normal accidents and decision-making. Salik argues that Perrow is focusing narrowly on U.S. democratic culture and seems to have overlooked the possibility that in many other societies people would show greater readiness to accept such military-like restrictions for the sake of ensuring safe operations of hazardous technologies. He lists countries like China, North Korea, Iran and Pakistan.

I find this comparison and its implications problematic. One, it implies that open, democratic societies are less prone to discipline and perhaps it’s better to have a large, unquestioning population. Two, as formulated, it appears to suggest that open societies cannot run complex systems. All evidence suggests to the contrary. Every incident and accident in an open society is investigated and lessons learnt. One could not say that about the Soviet Union where Chernobyl happened, or North Korea that, deeply ironically, calls itself the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. If anything, as Salik argues, working out safety and security procedures was a “challenging task given the general lack of security con-sciousness [here] compared with more advanced countries.”

The application of Perrow’s ‘normal accidents’ theory must be linked to organization theory and the processes of decision-making. Salik has a good discussion of it but personally I would have liked him to take a clearer position in regard to problems of organiza-tional cultures that have been highlighted by a number of scholars, including those that Dr. Salik mentions in his book. Let me here add the fact that he could have linked it with an-other issue that he mentions in passing, twice, in the book: the Strategic Plans Division moving away from accepting a more open discussion of issues and decisions to becoming a closed club. This, to me, is a crucial point and Salik is absolutely right about it. The nuclear establishment has indeed put up walls. But this is precisely what the literature tells us about organizations and their problems. How do you prevent organizations from ‘satisficing,’ to use Graham Allison’s term, or reifying their worldview and force them into optimizing unless there is external scrutiny?

Allison was drawing on an earlier work, Organizations, by James March and Herbert Simon. Their findings are similar: Organizations factor problems into different parts. This means they deal with them not holistically but non-simultaneously; they deal with problems using known, standard processes. This limits choices; they deal with uncertainty by making decisions rather than resorting to finding alternatives; these multiple processes are generally not in harmony, and therefore, may not add up to a strategic picture.

Another issue of learning refers to the trajectory of how our strategy has been evolving—i.e., now that we have the bomb, what are we going to do about it? How does it fit into a national security strategy? Or, since we do not have a national security strategy doc-ument, despite a national security division, is our nuclear thinking evolving without any reference to other inputs: foreign, economic, commercial policies and conventional military strategy?

These are crucial questions for two reasons. One, just like conventional war-fighting has to take into consideration the nuclear overhang, nuclear strategy cannot be formulated without the full spectrum of other policies and elements of national power, a term more bandied about than understood. Two, precisely for the reason of unlearning, as defined by Salik, no organization must be allowed to run its affairs in isolation from the rest or without oversight. The very literature that Salik quotes is clear that organizations have a tendency of running away with and broadening their mandates.

Salik is right in arguing that strategies have to follow technological developments and also the evolving threat dynamics. But, as he knows and has written about in relation to U.S. nuclear strategies, this evolution tends to become too narrow, slithering in its own grooves rather than becoming a part of a much-broader policy that must be a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic strategies. The problem with the U.S., as also with Soviet thought, was that the nature of the weapon was never really understood. In fact, this is what McNamara meant through his avuncular snub to me. The underlying desire was to somehow figure out a way where a war could be fought and won, even if nuclear weapons were used. That somehow there could be a strategy that would force the enemy to follow the same rational logic. If I use counter-force (i.e., targeting specific military infrastructure and command and control centers), the enemy will not go for counter-value (attacking cities) strikes. If I take out one-third of the enemy’s military infrastructure, the enemy will stick to that calculation. The history of war belies that. As Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until he receives the first punch.

In reality, both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces had figured out that they couldn’t take on each other directly and Central Europe was too important for both to lay waste. They fought through proxies after that, far away from their mainlands. The stability in Europe became a function of instability in the periphery. Pakistan and India do not have that luxury. This is precisely why this evolution has become a problem and why battlefield weapons further add to the instability. Nuclear wars are not winnable. Period.

This is, of course, a bird’s-eye view of Salik’s effort. He has raised very important concerns and given his insights into what we have done post-1998, which forms the core of the book. By doing that, he has filled major gaps in our understanding of the post-tests phase. The book details the formation of SPD and the work that has been done so far to create a robust legislative, legal, import and export, enforcement and technical regime for the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal and nuclear-related materials. The chapters that deal with these aspects put information together for writers and researchers. Much of this information is in the open only now while the rest was scattered. The book brings it together and authentically.

I do believe that Salik needs to add another chapter to a subsequent edition that deals with war-gaming the nuclear doctrine as it has evolved and whose evolution in terms of developing and possessing tactical nuclear weapons has deviated from the learning curve Salik mentions in the book. This is important because in the end we have to be clear about what kind of deterrence and payoffs we are talking about.

For now, this book will become a bedrock on which others can build. I believe this book should be widely read and disseminated because it offers answers and raises further questions, some more troubling than others. Questions that we need to discuss not just in the inner sanctum of SPD but on other fora too.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV.

From our May 13 – 20, 2017, issue

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4 comments

Aazar Kund May 16, 2017 - 8:01 pm

I think, recently published book on Pakistan’s nuclear weapon is one of the most authentic books that provide a detailed assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear quest. This book provides a comprehensive but authentic account of Pakistan’s nuclear command structure and policy making. I think author of the book knows more about nuclear weapons and their efficacy than the op-ed writer.

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Venkatesh May 25, 2017 - 10:47 pm

In its nearly 80 years of existence, the bomb has been used in just one theater and that too in its very infancy.
Well, coveting and then having it has been an achievement of sorts to Pakistan and in the same breath to the Democratic Republic of Korea.
What really adds to the kick in the heady mixture of rhetoric, capability, political discourse and geospatial location is none of any one of these components in the mixture!
What gives the kick is nervousness the mixture brings on to all involved; the possessor and the presumed parties of the mixture’s application and onlookers of the Tamasha. The enablers have been to the bank multiple times and laughing.
Now, the nervousness is not because of the bomb per se. It is actually unpredictable natures or pretentious to being so by both IRP and DPRK that give punch. Israel, DPRK and India and Iran have predictable pasts and the trajectory projects towards some more of the same thing.
What sets IPR apart is IPR is unpredictable to itself and everyone making it the most potent of all nuclear powers on the planet!
But, such a status isn’t going to last for ever. The nuclear cow milching phase comes only once in its lifetime and with an expiry date. Later on the cow is only a cost or liability.
Before the bus is gone, and it may not be too late yet for Pakistan to decide to be a family, decide who heads the family into a reasonably foreseeable future and bargain around the bazar and get some dividend out this never maturing investment turns into a tortuous liability.
The author of the book certainly is expected to know his subject wider or deeper or occasionally better than it’s reviewer! When was knowing and wisdom the same things?

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Arvind Baba May 30, 2017 - 4:08 pm

Ultimately, in the long-term, the future direction of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy is going to be a function of the state of Indian-Pakistan relations on the subcontinent. In the short-term, however, India’s rapid growth of its nuclear arsenal and its deployment of ballistic missile defence adds one more factor of instability to the regions international politics and further raises the risk that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of either rogue elements in India (NAXALS) or international smuggling groups.

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Krishna Bhagawan June 27, 2017 - 8:05 pm

Pakistan’s real strategic advantage with India on nuclear warfare is same as the conventional advantage. Its call DENIABILITY.

What prevents ISI from giving the terrorist a NW to blow up Delhi and deny everything. The political class as as before will express condolences and chuckle under the NW umbrella. The pretence of investigation and co-operation will be there, asking for solid evidence will be there … India will be impotent to fight back under global pressure.

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